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Scientists find Volcano Simmering beneath Western Antarctica

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Nov 18, 2013 09:11 AM EST
Mount Sidley
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.A latest study shows that magma is flowing beneath the ice. (Photo : DOUG WIENS/ Washington University in St. Louis)

For the first time, researchers have found an active volcano seething beneath a large ice-sheet in West Antarctica.

Scientists say that the yet-to-be-named volcano will definitely erupt in the future, accelerating ice-loss in the region and increasing sea-levels around the world.

There are many volcanoes in the Antarctica such as the famous Mount Erebus. According to Amanda Lough of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, this is the first time that researchers have found an active sub-glacial volcano in Western Antarctica, New Scientist reports.

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"This is really the golden age of discovery of the Antarctic continent," Richard Aster, a co-author of the study and a seismologist at Colorado State University, told Livescience. "I think there's no question that there are more volcanic surprises beneath the ice."

The volcano was accidently discovered by a group of seismologists working in Marie Byrd Land in western Antarctica.

In January 2010, researchers set up seismographs across a vast region in the continent. Their goal was to re-construct the climatic history of Antarctica. The seismographs threw up some interesting data about volcanic activity; between January 2010 and March 2011, the region was rattled by two bursts of seismic events.

The tremors were of low frequency- about 2 and 4 Hertz- showing that they were a result of magma moving beneath the ice rather than tectonic activity. Also, the tremors occurred at a depth of 25 to 40 kilometers (15-24 miles), eliminating the possibility of movement caused by ice.

Researchers found that the seismic events matched with those found in volcanic areas of Alaska's Aleutian Islands, the Pacific Northest and Hawaii, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Researchers also talked to Duncan Young, PhD, and Don Blankenship, PhD, of the University of Texas, who carry out airborne radar mapping of the ice-sheet. The maps, too, showed a layer of volcanic ash buried beneath the ice.

"At first I had no idea it was something volcanic, and then, as I started putting together all the pieces, it started looking more and more like I'd found a volcano," Lough told the LA Times.

According to the researchers, it will take a massive eruption- roughly 1,000 times more powerful than an average eruption- to shift the ice above the volcano.

The study is published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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