A study of ice and fire

Scientists believe they have found the largest volcanic region on earth – under the ice of Antarctica.

A remote survey discovered 91 volcanoes ranging in height from 100m to 3850m in a massive region known as the West Antarctic Rift System.

Geologists and ice experts say the range has similarities to east Africa’s volcanic ridge, acknowledged to be the densest concentration of volcanoes in the world.

University of Edinburgh researchers remotely surveyed the underside of the ice sheet for hidden peaks of basalt rock, like those of other volcanoes in the region whose tips push above the ice.

They analysed the shape of the land beneath using measurements from ice-penetrating radar and compared the findings with satellite and database records, as well as geological information from aerial surveys.

Scientists hope it will help them understand how volcanoes can influence long-term fluctuations in the ice sheet and how the continent has changed in past climates.

The study’s authors said Antarctic ice melt could have “profound impacts” for volcanic activity in the region.

“Research in Iceland has shown that with thinning ice cover, magma production has increased at depth,” they wrote.

“Moreover, there is evidence that, worldwide, volcanism is most frequent in deglaciating regions as the overburden pressure of the ice is first reduced and then removed.”

That meant “significant potential to increase partial melting and eruption rates throughout the rifted [Antarctic] terrain”, the authors said.

The study, which is the first of its kind, was proposed by Max van Wyk de Vries, a third-year student at the University of Edinburgh.

It has been published in the Geological Society Special Publications series.