Surprisingly High Activity Found
Antarctica is divided into two sections – the west and the east. The smaller, western side is made up of something called the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and for the first time ever, scientists have recorded “surprisingly high” geothermal activity underneath it.
In a study conducted by the University of California, Santa Cruz, a research team used a special probe to drill through 1/2 mile of ice and measure the temperatures underneath. Over the past decade, the ice sheet (which is part of the Antarctic ice cap) has undergone a rapid melting stage that many attributed to global warming, but the recent discovery may mean geothermal activity has also been a contribution.
In an article by Space Daily, professor Andrew Fisher, lead author of the study, says, “The ice sheet developed and evolved with the geothermal heat flux coming up from below–it’s part of the system. But this could help explain why the ice sheet is so unstable. When you add the effects of global warming, things can start to change quickly.”
The heat flux may also be the reason there are large sub-glacial lakes and glacial stream flows in the region (the latter of which may be responsible for increasing the rate that the ice melts). This discovery helps clear up the fact that the eastern side of the continent has actually been growing in sea ice rather than losing it; if the geothermal activity is isolated to just the western side, it could be why that side has been melting.
However, the western part of the continent is in an area of volcanic activity, so the heat reading may only be due to the local heat of the Earth’s crust. Overall, the study doesn’t answer immediate questions and in order to predict how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will act in the future, scientists will need to study the geothermal activity more closely and get a more accurate heat measurement.
*Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org