Research

There is a heat source under Antarctica's melting ice sheet

There is a heat source under Antarctica's melting ice sheet

Understanding the sources of the meltwater under West Antarctica will help determine the rate at which ice may be lost to the ocean in the future.

The Marie Byrd Land mantle plume formed 50 to 110 million years ago, long before the West Antarctic ice sheet came into existence. This rise and fall motion of the ice surface also helps the scientists to estimate the quantity of water at certain places.

About three decades ago, a researcher at the University of Colorado Denver had suggested possible seismic activity in Mary Byrd Land, but there was not enough proof to substantiate it.

Hélène Seroussi of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said when she first heard the idea, she "thought it was insane". "However, the presence of the plume is important, as it suggests the ice is more vulnerable in this area: this additional heat warms the ice, which suggests greater weakness in the face of future and past changes in the environment", she added.

However, recent seismic imaging seems to confirm the hypothesis.

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The scientists note in the study published this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research that mantle plumes are not new phenomena. Instead, this heating source will enable the scientists to explain the reason behind the rapid collapse of ice sheets during climatic changes.

Researchers calculated that the rate of the transfer of energy from the mantle plume must be no more than 150 milliwatts per square meter. For comparison, in USA regions with no volcanic activity, the heat flux from Earth's mantle is 40 to 60 milliwatts. (A milliwatt is one-thousandth of a watt.) For comparison, a typical stretch of land in the United States gets about 40 to 60 milliwatts per square meter of geothermal heat, and Yellowstone gets about 200 milliwatts per square meter.

A heat flow higher than 150 milliwatts per square was detected nowhere, except in one location: an area inland of the Ross Sea known for intense flows of water. The buoyancy of the material, some of it molten, causes the crust to bulge upward.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory were able to crack the mystery by creating a data model of a mantle plume based on observations of the geothermal activity at Yellowstone, which hosts a supervolcano.

A mantle plume, which is an area where geothermal heat generated deep within the planet pushes closer to the surface through cracks other gaps, is thought to be responsible for huge subsurface lakes and water flow underneath the ice sheet.


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