NASA scientists have uncovered a massive geothermal heat source beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet and it could possibly explain the rapid melting of ice that occurred in the region some 11,000 years ago.
It is a believed fact that the stability of the ice sheets depends on the amount of water beneath it. The plume is far older than the recent period of atmospheric warming; indeed, at 50 million to 110 million years old, it's older than our species and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet itself.
Researchers say that understanding the heat source beneath Antarctica could help them estimate how long it may take for the ice to melt in the future. Some of these lakes are large and many are small.
About 30 years ago, researchers first began to suspect that a magma plume might be the cause, given the domed shape of the crust in that area.
Adding up to the odd behavior of Antarctica, a new study conducted by NASA has found powerful geothermal activities under the surface of the icy continent.
To confirm that the results were accurate, researchers utilized the observations of changes in the altitude of the ice sheet surface made by NASA's IceSat satellite and airborne Operation IceBridge campaign.
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The results of the model show that the mantle plume generates energy that is no more than 150 milliwatts per square meter. Since the location and size of the possible mantle plume were unknown, they tested a full range of what was physically possible for multiple parameters, producing dozens of different simulations.
Seroussi and Ivins' simulations using a heat flow higher than 150 milliwatts per square meter showed too much melting to be compatible with the space-based data, except in one location: an area inland of the Ross Sea known for intense flows of water. The buoyancy of the material in the streams causes the Earth's crust to bulge upward. (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.
Illustration of flowing water under the Antarctic ice sheet.
The research could help scientists better estimate future ice loss in the area.
That heat offered scientists the first clues that the Antarctic plume exists. Seroussi and Ivins suggest the mantle plume could facilitate this kind of rapid loss.