Volcano discovered smoldering under a kilometer of ice in West Antarctica

From the Washington University in St. Louis

Its heat may increase the rate of ice loss from one of the continent’s major ice streams

Mount Sidley, at the leading edge of the Executive Committee Range in Marie Byrd Land is the last volcano in the chain that rises above the surface of the ice. But a group of seismologists has detected new volcanic activity under the ice about 30 miles ahead of Mount Sidley in the direction of the range’s migration. The new finding suggests that the source of magma is moving beyond the chain beneath the crust and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Credit: Doug Wiens

It wasn’t what they were looking for but that only made the discovery all the more exciting.

In January 2010 a team of scientists had set up two crossing lines of seismographs across Marie Byrd Land in West Antarctica. It was the first time the scientists had deployed many instruments in the interior of the continent that could operate year-round even in the coldest parts of Antarctica.

Like a giant CT machine, the seismograph array used disturbances created by distant earthquakes to make images of the ice and rock deep within West Antarctica.

There were big questions to be asked and answered. The goal, says Doug Wiens, professor of earth and planetary science at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the project’s principle investigators, was essentially to weigh the ice sheet to help reconstruct Antarctica’s climate history. But to do this accurately the scientists had to know how the earth’s mantle would respond to an ice burden, and that depended on whether it was hot and fluid or cool and viscous. The seismic data would allow them to map the mantle’s properties.

In the meantime, automated-event-detection software was put to work to comb the data for anything unusual.

When it found two bursts of seismic events between January 2010 and March 2011, Wiens’ PhD student Amanda Lough looked more closely to see what was rattling the continent’s bones.

Was it rock grinding on rock, ice groaning over ice, or, perhaps, hot gases and liquid rock forcing their way through cracks in a volcanic complex?

Uncertain at first, the more Lough and her colleagues looked, the more convinced they became that a new volcano was forming a kilometer beneath the ice.

The discovery of the new as yet unnamed volcano is announced in the Nov. 17 advanced online issue of Nature Geoscience.

Following the trail of clues

The teams that install seismographs in Antarctica are given first crack at the data. Lough had done her bit as part of the WUSTL team, traveling to East Antarctica three times to install or remove stations in East Antarctica.

In 2010 many of the instruments were moved to West Antarctica and Wiens asked Lough to look at the seismic data coming in, the first large-scale dataset from this part of the continent.

“I started seeing events that kept occurring at the same location, which was odd, “Lough said. “Then I realized they were close to some mountains–but not right on top of them.”

“My first thought was, ‘Okay, maybe its just coincidence.’ But then I looked more closely and realized that the mountains were actually volcanoes and there was an age progression to the range. The volcanoes closest to the seismic events were the youngest ones.”

The events were weak and very low frequency, which strongly suggested they weren’t tectonic in origin. While low-magnitude seismic events of tectonic origin typically have frequencies of 10 to 20 cycles per second, this shaking was dominated by frequencies of 2 to 4 cycles per second.

Ruling out ice

But glacial processes can generate low-frequency events. If the events weren’t tectonic could they be glacial?

To probe farther, Lough used a global computer model of seismic velocities to “relocate” the hypocenters of the events to account for the known seismic velocities along different paths through the Earth. This procedure collapsed the swarm clusters to a third their original size.

It also showed that almost all of the events had occurred at depths of 25 to 40 kilometers (15 to 25 miles below the surface). This is extraordinarily deep—deep enough to be near the boundary between the earth’s crust and mantle, called the Moho, and more or less rules out a glacial origin.

It also casts doubt on a tectonic one. “A tectonic event might have a hypocenter 10 to 15 kilometers (6 to 9 miles) deep, but at 25 to 40 kilometers, these were way too deep,” Lough says.

A colleague suggested that the event waveforms looked like Deep Long Period earthquakes, or DPLs, which occur in volcanic areas, have the same frequency characteristics and are as deep. “Everything matches up,” Lough says.

An ash layer encased in ice

The seismologists also talked to Duncan Young and Don Blankenship of the University of Texas who fly airborne radar over Antarctica to produce topographic maps of the bedrock. “In these maps, you can see that there’s elevation in the bed topography at the same location as the seismic events,” Lough says.

The radar images also showed a layer of ash buried under the ice. “They see this layer all around our group of earthquakes and only in this area,” Lough says.

“Their best guess is that it came from Mount Waesche, an existing volcano near Mt Sidley. But that is also interesting because scientists had no idea when Mount Waesche was last active, and the ash layer is sets the age of the eruption at 8,000 years ago. “

What’s up down there?

The case for volcanic origin has been made. But what exactly is causing the seismic activity?

“Most mountains in Antarctica are not volcanic,” Wiens says, “but most in this area are. Is it because East and West Antarctica are slowly rifting apart? We don’t know exactly. But we think there is probably a hot spot in the mantle here producing magma far beneath the surface.”

“People aren’t really sure what causes DPLs,” Lough says. “It seems to vary by volcanic complex, but most people think it’s the movement of magma and other fluids that leads to pressure-induced vibrations in cracks within volcanic and hydrothermal systems.”

Will the new volcano erupt?

“Definitely,” Lough says. “In fact because of the radar shows a mountain beneath the ice I think it has erupted in the past, before the rumblings we recorded.

Will the eruptions punch through a kilometer or more of ice above it?

The scientists calculated that an enormous eruption, one that released a thousand times more energy than the typical eruption, would be necessary to breach the ice above the volcano.

On the other hand a subglacial eruption and the accompanying heat flow will melt a lot of ice. “The volcano will create millions of gallons of water beneath the ice—many lakes full,” says Wiens. This water will rush beneath the ice towards the sea and feed into the hydrological catchment of the MacAyeal Ice Stream, one of several major ice streams draining ice from Marie Byrd Land into the Ross Ice Shelf.

By lubricating the bedrock, it will speed the flow of the overlying ice, perhaps increasing the rate of ice-mass loss in West Antarctica.

“We weren’t expecting to find anything like this,” Wiens says

###

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, Division of Polar Programs.

=======================================

Some imagery to help you locate it. Top view shows the “Executive Range” of volcanic mountains, including Mt. Sidley (with visible crater), bottom shows Mt. Sidley in relation to Antarctic continent.

executive_range_mtns MtSidley

Here is the paper:

Seismic detection of an active subglacial magmatic complex in Marie Byrd Land, Antarctica

Lough et al. November 17th, Nature Geoscience doi:10.1038/ngeo1992

Numerous volcanoes exist in Marie Byrd Land, a highland region of West Antarctica. High heat flow through the crust in this region may influence the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet1, 2, 3, 4. Volcanic activity progressed from north to south in the Executive Committee mountain range between the Miocene and Holocene epochs, but there has been no evidence for recent magmatic activity5, 6, 7. Here we use a recently deployed seismic network to show that in 2010 and 2011, two swarms of seismic activity occurred at 25–40 km depth beneath subglacial topographic and magnetic highs, located 55 km south of the youngest subaerial volcano in the Executive Committee Range. We interpret the swarm events as deep long-period earthquakes based on their unusual frequency content. Such earthquakes occur beneath active volcanoes, are caused by deep magmatic activity and, in some cases, precede eruptions8, 9, 10, 11. We also use radar profiles to identify a prominent ash layer in the ice overlying the seismic swarm. Located at 1,400 m depth, the ash layer is about 8,000 years old and was probably sourced from the nearby Mount Waesche volcano. Together, these observations provide strong evidence for ongoing magmatic activity and demonstrate that volcanism continues to migrate southwards along the Executive Committee Range. Eruptions at this site are unlikely to penetrate the 1.2 to 2-km-thick overlying ice, but would generate large volumes of melt water that could significantly affect ice stream flow.

==================================

The SI is here:

http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vaop/ncurrent/extref/ngeo1992-s1.pdf

And contains the calculations on heat generations of many volcanic events for comparison.

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52 thoughts on “Volcano discovered smoldering under a kilometer of ice in West Antarctica

  1. If newly discovered volcanoes are to be found, above sea level, just imagine the untold number yet to be discovered at the ocean floors, especially in the Pacific Ocean. Is there anyone still refusing to believe that the heat from within is not influencing the ocean temperatures, which rise and later transfer this heat energy to the atmosphere?

  2. John L says: November 17, 2013 at 6:32 pm
    “If newly discovered volcanoes are to be found, above sea level, just imagine the untold number yet to be discovered at the ocean floors, especially in the Pacific Ocean.”

    There are new discoveries. The quantities are still small. But anyway, there is no reason to suppose that volcanoes, newly spotted or not, are doing anything different now from what they have been doing for millions of years.

  3. I don’t doubt the existence of a smoldering volcano. What surprises me is that this seems to be the first detected under the ice. I figured that was old hat. It is said that we know more about the back side of the moon than we know of the deep ocean. In the age of 3D siesmic that might or might not be true anymore. But it seems we know less of the earth-deep-ice environment of Antarctica than we do of the deep ocean.

    This paragraph caught my eye:

    It also casts doubt on a tectonic one. “A tectonic event might have a hypocenter 10 to 15 kilometers (6 to 9 miles) deep, but at 25 to 40 kilometers, these were way too deep,” Lough says.

    Ahem… Tectonic events in subduction zones are in the hundreds of km. Sure,it is probably volcanic because it is part of a volcanic range. It might be part of a rifting ridge. But ‘ “way too deep” to be tectonic’ is a blunder by the researcher or the writer.

  4. The Mars Trilogoy by Kim Stanley Robinson, which gained a number of accolades as a literary work, hypothosised that the big cataclysm that would disrupt Earth’s society would be due to volcanoes erupting in Antartica.

    This quote is from Wikipedia summary of “Green Mars” the second in the trilogy …

    “The book ends on a major event which is a sudden, catastrophic rise in Earth’s global sea levels not caused primarily by any greenhouse effect but by the eruption of a chain of volcanoes underneath the ice of west Antarctica, disintegrating the ice sheet and displacing the fragments into the ocean.”

    Panic stations everyone!

  5. Dos this have any effect on the ‘warm spot’ in West Antarctica, I wonder? I suppose under kms of ice it would not.

  6. @Nick Stokes 6:42pm
    there is no reason to suppose that volcanoes, newly spotted or not, are doing anything different now from what they have been doing for millions of years.

    Which could include ending or starting interglacial periods and raising and lower sea level by melting ice or dropping temperatures. I’m not saying these Antarctic volcanos can start/stop ice ages. I’m not saying they cannot. I’m open to either possibility.

  7. Nick Stokes;
    But anyway, there is no reason to suppose that volcanoes, newly spotted or not, are doing anything different now from what they have been doing for millions of years.
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    No Nick, this is climate science on this site. You take the total number of volcanoes we knew about yesterday, add one today, draw a linear trend through two days of data, and conclude that in X years time the entire surface of earth will be covered with volcanoes.

  8. Man, I don’t know…
    Sounds a little like some of the techniques that those petroleum exploration seismologists use to find evil hydrocarbon deposits.

    /SARC

    The observations of long period, low frequency events reminded me of Bernard Chouet’s papers on harmonic tremors associated with volcanism.

    If only all those TFLOPs and PFLOPs spent running climate models had been spent on 3D seismic reconstruction of interesting areas we might more insight in to what effect temperatures at the poles.

    Would also be nice to tap the decades of acoustic data accumulated by the British, US and Russian navies.

  9. Stephen Rasey says: November 17, 2013 at 6:50 pm
    “I don’t doubt the existence of a smoldering volcano. What surprises me is that this seems to be the first detected under the ice. I figured that was old hat”

    It is. Here is a similar post from five years ago.

  10. How much Volcanic activity do we actually observe, let alone measure, under the icecaps?

    I remember a plethora of articles related to that subject in 2008, but not much since ?

    WUWT?

    What would a Pinatubu do under there anyhow?

    Do major volcanic eruptions happen at the poles?

    More importantly, do we have any way of knowing?

  11. “By lubricating the bedrock, it will speed the flow of the overlying ice, perhaps increasing the rate of ice-mass loss in West Antarctica.”
    ================
    That’s what I always tend to bet my future on…a “perhaps”.

  12. The Big Ben volcano on Heard Island, Antarctica is in the Australian Territorial governance. It is always erupting. There is another one too and of course in New Zealand. But the biggest is Yellow Stone National park, has the largest underground mass of molten magma, bubbling away looking for a weak point to explode into the atmosphere. I have mentioned before, there are more submarine volcanoes and vents in the world than terrestrial ones. There are parts of the deep ocean where there are volcanic vents and life is existing there using chemosynthesis instead of photosynthesis. Baby Krakatoa is rumbling too and poses a threat like its once parent caused in the 19th century. It is those that sit dormant for years like Vesuvius did in the first century AD and people thought it was a hill or mountain that create the most potential danger. But earthquakes often proceed an eruption. And there is little we can do about it, other than give adequate warnings to evacuate the area ASAP. If dust settles on the ice and snow, the heat no longer reflected will create an ice melt but not for long.

  13. Errrr how exactly is west Antarctica defined? It seems to me that since the centre of Antarctica is the pole if you keep going west you will end up in East Antactica.

    Anyhoo……….. that would probably explain why west Antarctica is melting and East Antarctica is not.

  14. “Antarctica is circumscribed with spreading ridges, yet it has no known trenches.”

    So is Africa. The amount of newly created crust must balance the amount subducted globally, but not for each tectonic plate. Some plates are growing, others are shrinking.

  15. And now somebody needs to do the same study in the Arctic..There is so much potential there for hot hydrothermal, mineral bearing, fluids pulsing out from deep ocean vents, accompanied by the occasional earthquake.

    This phenomenon has the potential to explain most/much/all of the recent decline (2013 excepted, of course) of the extent of the late summer Arctic ice cap.

    I was intrigued to recently find this map of global methane concentrations. The area over the Arctic shows the highest concentrations – is the cause: i) industrial activity in the northern hemisphere, and/or ii) the alarmist wet dream of methane hydrates evaporating off the ocean floor, and/or iii) methane venting out of hydrothermal vents on the Arctic ocean floor?

  16. Won’t happen in my lunchtime, but when WAP splits from rest of Antarctica the resulting changes to ocean circulation will have dramatic affect on global climate.

  17. “Discovered by the United States Antarctic Service expedition on a flight, December 15, 1940, and named for the Antarctic Service Executive Committee.” Thanks Wikipedia. If that had a been a UK expedition it would be clear that the ironic intention was to poke fun at the committee, and every Brit at least would understand that the name givers were indicating their poor opinion of it. But this was a US expedition; could they really have been straight up wanting to honour the members of that committee? Could someone from the US give us their take on this?

  18. “By lubricating the bedrock, it will speed the flow of the overlying ice, perhaps increasing the rate of ice-mass loss in West Antarctica.”

    Icebergs are not “flowing” over the bedrock, there is no lubrication process there: ice is not _flowing_ … the pressure is so great it will drag a granite boulder _through_ sandstone; to speed the iceflow you need more ice on top to increase the pressure

  19. Nick Stokes says:
    November 17, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    John L says: November 17, 2013 at 6:32 pm
    “If newly discovered volcanoes are to be found, above sea level, just imagine the untold number yet to be discovered at the ocean floors, especially in the Pacific Ocean.”

    There are new discoveries. The quantities are still small. But anyway, there is no reason to suppose that volcanoes, newly spotted or not, are doing anything different now from what they have been doing for millions of years.
    [my bold]

    But what about the newly forming? In the above press release it says:

    Uncertain at first, the more Lough and her colleagues looked, the more convinced they became that a new volcano was forming a kilometer beneath the ice.

    I also see this:

    Submarine Volcanoes
    Scientists estimate that at least 80% of the world’s volcanism occurs in the oceans!

    http://www.gns.cri.nz/Home/Learning/Science-Topics/Ocean-Floor/Undersea-New-Zealand/Submarine-Volcanoes

    —————
    Subduction volcanoes occur where one tectonic plate is thrust and consumed by another. This type is the most explosive and comprises approximately 80% of the worlds active volcanoes. Rift volcanoes occur where tectonic plates diverge, often on the ocean floor. These are generally less explosive. Hot spot volcanoes occur in the middle of plate boundaries where magma exits from weaknesses in the earth’s surface.

    http://www.n-d-a.org/volcano.php

  20. Nick Stokes says that the volcanoes are doing nothing new. And I say that the temperature of the atmosphere is doing nothing new – unless the termination of a recent short period of increase is the new something.

  21. “So is Africa. The amount of newly created crust must balance the amount subducted globally, but not for each tectonic plate.”

    This is true, but the isochrons, or more accurately the bands of reversed polarity, show the amount of ocean floor produced. If your “plate” is growing, the ridge must move, i.e.”smokerings”.

    Nobody wants to think about why there has almost always been a continent at the south pole and there never has been one at the north.

  22. Bear in mind that although volcanic eruptions are preceded by seismic swarms, there is no certainty that seismic swarms will result in eruptions. Thus, any assumptions about melting of subglacial ice are premature. Just prior to eruption, as lava approaches the surface, volcanoes generate continuous seismic activity known as harmonic motion. There is no mention of any such activity in this paper, so I assume all that is happening is very deep-seated seismic activity. This is NOT evidence of an impending eruption. Let’s not waste any time worrying about melting glacial ice until we see harmonic tremor–until then, it’s a nonevent.

  23. Goldie says:
    November 17, 2013 at 11:44 pm

    West Antarctica lies west of the Greenwich or Prime Meridian, so is in the Western Hemisphere; East Antarctica lies to the east, in the Eastern Hemisphere. The line just so happens roughly to correspond to geological differences.

  24. Bloke down the pub says:
    “November 18, 2013 at 3:46 am
    Won’t happen in my lunchtime, but when ……………………………..”
    BTW, Please verify that the British Government initiated legislation that will require all breweries to implement CCS, and serve only flat beer and ale, to reduce carbon emissions… ;^)

    sarc/

  25. Nick Stokes says:
    November 17, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    …anyway, there is no reason to suppose that volcanoes, newly spotted or not, are doing anything different now from what they have been doing for millions of years.
    ——–
    Don’t know much about history
    Don’t know much geology
    Don’t know much about a science book…

  26. Is there already water there? Some places alread have water underneath the from the high pressure.

    Likewise, the high pressure probably prevents steam from forming. Just a guess, I have no idea what the numbers are.

  27. Just when they’re, (‘they’ the mysterious warmists studying Antarctica ice cores that is), trying to convince us that they can interpret and form inscrutable mind melds with miniscule crushed layers of ice cores…

    Along comes news of a new volcano forming under a kilometer of ice; not only that, but they estimate it’s already erupted approximately 8,000 years ago. They estimate this from the layer of ash.

    So a non-dormant volcano melts amazing amounts of ice, spews ash and CO2, vents massive columns of steam. And now they figure this out?
    What happened to the 8,000 year old layer in Antarctica ice cores? No telltale ash particles?
    Is it possible to tell hoar frost layers from annual layers? Hoar frost that frost from a steaming eruption.

    If anything, any Antarctica ice cores under interrogation need new interrogations. After they, (again that mysterious they), account for local eruptions.

    Jade, a metamorphic rock often valued highly, is estimated to form at depths up to 15 miles deep on a subduction zone. Technically, jade is two different forms of metamorphosed minerals; nephrite jade forms at 5-7 miles deep (8 – 11km), jadeite forms 10 – 12 miles deep (16 – 19km). Blueschist (Wissahickon rocks for those near Philadelphia) rocks are formed at depths to 20 miles (32km). Tectonics are not ruled out at 25-30km deep.

  28. Are we looking at a new ozone hole? Seriously. The presence of the famous ozone hole over “the South Pole” tracks to follow activity of Mt Erebus.

    Time for another multi-billion (trillion?) dollar HVAC retrofit.

    Ecology (Warmening!!11eleventy) and Economic Stimulus in one swell foop!

  29. In this video from Greenland in the 1950s, US military base-builders dug a one-meter hole down into the ice until “a pool of water formed” that did not freeze.Then they used it to supply “10,000 gallons a day” to the base. Why would the water become/remain liquid at that depth?

    That discussion is at 16:30 in the film:

    I’ve seen previous discussions of geothermal activity in Greenland, especially in the south. This is in the north of Greenland, just a couple of hundred kilometers east of Thule.

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  30. “Its heat may increase the rate of ice loss from one of the continent’s major ice streams”

    What? So only now that we’ve found it, can it begin to melt Antarctica?
    Awesome. Babies learn very early on that things exist even if they can’t see them ( the hands over eyes game ), but a percentage of the CAGW relilgion will have a fit over this volcano and assert it’s now the final straw to tip Antarctica and the world into run away global warming.

    Volcanos somewhere under the vast polar ice sheets were always gonna be likely.

  31. Nick Stokes says:
    November 17, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    There are new discoveries. The quantities are still small. But anyway, there is no reason to suppose that volcanoes, newly spotted or not, are doing anything different now from what they have been doing for millions of years.

    Nick, the issue is the cumulative magnitude of the effect of the planet’s volcanoes, not whether it is there or not, or somehow has changed. That effect is proportionate to the number of active volcanos, and we are discovering that there are many more active volcanoes than we thought. The geological estimates of heat flow from the interior of the earth are dependent in part on the number of volcanoes active at the surface. Each new volcano changes that somewhat. At present, the vast majority of the ocean floor is very poorly mapped. It will stay that for the foreseeable future. Only a few weeks ago an enormous volcano was reported off Japan, one of the largest in the solar system. In the meantime, each volcano contributes its share to the secular variation in climate and – when under ice – to the behavior of the ice above it. If a climatologist persists in attempting to interpret that ice field behavior in terms of insolation and CO2 without considering the influence of the volcano(s) below, the accuracy of the interpretation (model) will continue to suffer.

  32. One problem emerge – how come that scientists (btw which type of scientists and what education did they really have) didn’t know that there was a vulcano under the ice sheet of Antarctica? That was written about in science articles after 1956…. but then again in 1990′s

    LeMasurier Wesley E. (editor) and Thomson Janet W. (editor); Volcanoes of the Antarctic plate and southern oceans, ISBN 0-87590-172-7
    Washington, D.C. : American Geophysical Union, 1990
    Serie: Antarctic research series, 0066-4634 ; 48

    There are at least three vulcanos under Antarctic plate I know of myself. Learn’t about them when in 7th grade back in early 1960′s. One of them is written about in 1990′s:
    Philip R. Kyle (editor), Volcanological and environmental studies of Mount Erebus, Antarctica ISBN 0-87590-875-6
    Washington, D.C. : American Geophysical Union, 1994
    Serie: Antarctic research series, 0066-4634 ; 66

    Can’t help wondering why so many so called scientists forgotten to go back to basics. In other words – why don’t they check up what’s available in early reasearch and/or science articles?

  33. Can anyone tell me the level of funding world wide for this sort of geological research compared to climate change based on the assumption of CO2 as the cause? Has anyone actually proved that the hot spots that are clearly visible in the NASA anomaly data are not more examples of other volcanoes by examining these locations? Normal engineering analysis puts the heat output as more significant than the tiny actual global warming can possibly explain.

    • First of all – Nature itself causes 90-92% of all CO2 ….. and one other large source 4-5% of all CO2 is caused by human and animal breathing :-) [glucose] and organic molecules in the air we breath out results in CO2 + water…..
      The other large source caused by human and animal is due to decay process when we have died.
      The fourth large source for CO2 in air is due to warm Sea streams upper levels ‘letting’ CO2 go out in air.

      If we look at the 90-92 % Nature itself causes the majority is caused by volcanos and earth quakes. On land and in water. There are more than 10.000 volcanos all in all around the world. Volcanos ‘spew’ out CO2 allways. More when erupting, but also before depending on the pressure within. Silent volcanos as well as long ‘dead’ ones continue to leave large quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere.

      Your question re. knowledge/studies etc. Well if you look around for Global volcano reports, you will find interesting information. Please look at
      Global Seismographic Network
      to start with. As for studies they were frequent reports not so long ago …. in Science as well.

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