Skip to content

Previously unsuspected volcanic activity confirmed under West Antarctic Ice Sheet at Pine Island Glacier

June 29, 2018

By Paul Homewood

From National Science Foundation:


June 27, 2018

Tracing a chemical signature of helium in seawater, an international team of scientists funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the United Kingdom’s (U.K.) Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has discovered a previously unknown volcanic hotspot beneath the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS).

Researchers say the newly discovered heat source could contribute in ways yet unknown to the potential collapse of the ice sheet.

The scientific consensus is that the rapidly melting Pine Island Glacier, the focal point of the study, would be a significant source of global sea level rise should the melting there continue or accelerate. Glaciers such as Pine Island act as plugs that regulate the speed at which the ice sheet flows into the sea.

The new research was published by an international team, led by Brice Loose of the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. His research was supported by an award from NSF’s Office of Polar Programs, which manages the U.S. Antarctic Program.

Researchers from East Anglia and Southampton universities in the U.K., Arizona State University, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the British Antarctic Survey contributed to the study.

Their findings were published in the June 22 edition of the journal Nature Communications.

Peter Milne, program director for ocean and atmospheric science in NSF’s Division of Polar Programs, noted that the discovery adds significant information about what controls the stability of the Antarctic ice sheets.

"To model the complex processes of how the ice sheets move is a difficult, but essential thing to do if we are to understand their role in the global climate and their potential for contributing to sea level rise," he said. "This research may add a critical piece of information as we try to assemble that ‘big picture.’"

The researchers first noted the volcanic activity in 2007 and verified its existence again in 2014.

It remains unclear how the newly discovered activity affects knowledge about the glacier, because researchers don’t yet know how volcanic heat is distributed along the bottom of the ice sheet. However, researchers do know that the heat from the volcano is producing melting beneath the ice sheet. This meltwater is leaking across the grounding line where the ice shelf meets the ocean.

The heat source, Loose and team note, is about half that of the active volcano Grímsvötn, in Iceland.

While the effects of volcanic heat on the Antarctic ice sheets is an active topic of research, this study provides the first geochemical evidence of a contemporary volcanic heat source, emphasizing the need to detect and understand volcanism, including in models of ice-sheet behavior. The greater understanding of volcanism could alter scientists’ perception of the mechanics of ice-sheet loss, including in the areas where the glaciers meet the sea.

"Our finding of a substantial heat source beneath a major WAIS glacier highlights the need to understand subglacial volcanism, its interaction with the marine margins and its potential role in the future stability of the WAIS,” they write in the Nature Communications article.

They also note that volcanic activity could be increasing the rate of collapse of the Thwaites Glacier, which is adjacent to the Pine Island Glacier.

A complete collapse of the Thwaites Glacier could significantly affect global sea levels, according to scientists. The Thwaites already drains an area roughly the size of the state of Florida, accounting for about 4 percent of global sea level rise — an amount that has doubled since the mid-1990s.

NSF and NERC announced in April that they would jointly spend $25 million in grants to researchers, and a comparable amount in logistical support, to deploy teams of scientists from U.S. and U.K. institutions to Antarctica to gather the data needed to understand whether the Thwaites glacier could begin to collapse in the next few decades or centuries from now.

The research collaboration, called the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC), was announced at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) headquarters in Cambridge, England in April. The collaboration’s scientists will begin their first research season in Antarctica in October, establishing a logistical support structure for future work. The collaboration will continue until 2021.

  1. Bitter@twisted permalink
    June 29, 2018 6:14 pm

    CO2 is known to increase volcanic activity.
    It’s all our fault.

  2. spetzer86 permalink
    June 29, 2018 6:21 pm

    How do you “confirm previously unsuspected activity”? Maybe, “previously unsuspected activity observed”? Confirming something unsuspected seems wrong.

  3. Charles Wardrop permalink
    June 29, 2018 6:27 pm

    Assuming the worst might happen, a maximum predicted rise in sea level, what should/could we do to forestall the damage?
    We know that the dire, misleading predictions of global warming are not (yet) happening, but it would be prudent to save resources so as to counter the threats of sea level rises, but how?

  4. Malcolm permalink
    June 29, 2018 6:36 pm

    This good – does anyone remember I proposed increased subsea vulcanism near both poles maybe two years or so ago. Nice to have some evidence.

    So, at least by me it was previously suspected!

    • HotScot permalink
      June 29, 2018 9:52 pm


      I don’t mean to cut across you, but undersea volcanic activity was a question I raised some years ago. Frankly, who cares about the activity under the Antarctic, what about all the activity elsewhere we are unaware of.

      The planet gushes CO2 from undersea volcano’s that are ‘dormant’. In other words, they haven’t erupted, but are quietly spewing CO2 into the atmosphere.

      Not that it makes a difference because mankind doesn’t know how clouds work, never mind CO2, or undersea volcano’s.

    • June 30, 2018 10:38 am

      Me too Malcolm.

      Also concur with Hotspot. Seems all these purported scientists have got their heads in the clouds oblivious of what is happening beneath their feet.

      I suspect El Niño has got a Hotspot lurking in there somewhere in the equations. Otherwise why does it ocurr in one of the most active regions of the “Ring of Fire”?

      Somewhere back in the past someone calculated that volcanic activity contributed about 0.078Watt/sq.m so could be ignored in climate change calculations. Need I say more?

      Also; but perhaps off thread: everybody seems to think that water covers about 70% of the Earth’s surface; but if you look at a tree, count the leaves and the area and multiply this up for the rest of plant life the area of the water/atmosphere interface is mind boggling huge.

  5. June 29, 2018 6:41 pm

    “Researchers say the newly discovered heat source could contribute in ways yet unknown to the potential collapse of the ice sheet.”

    Ya think?

    Science Daily article January 22, 2208: “First Evidence of Under-Ice Volcanic Eruption in Antarctica” A team from the British Antarctic Survey discovered a ‘subglacial’ volcanic eruption from beneath the Antarctic ice sheet. This is under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the article talks about the melt-water from the active volcanic heat lubricating the base of the ice sheet and the increase of the flow towards the sea. It also surmises the future sea-level rise

    The paper “A Recent Volcanic Eruption Beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet” by Hugh F. Corr and David G. Vaught was published in the February edition of “Nature Geosciences” (online). Wattsupwiththat,com also had a January 2008 piece: “Surprise! There’s an Active Volcano Under Antarctic Ice.”

    Just where, oh where as the NSF been? With their heads……oh, never mind.

  6. June 29, 2018 6:47 pm

    Isn’t this expected? It would appear to lie on the edge of the tectonic plate extending south from the Andes and forming the Antarctic plate. But I’m no geologist.

  7. Malcolm permalink
    June 29, 2018 7:05 pm

    Third try –

    Does any one remember about two years ago my suspecting that there is increased polar vulcanism causing the sea ice melt.

    Maybe I was right?

  8. John Scott permalink
    June 29, 2018 8:44 pm

    This could be a jackpot of funds for more research although I do not see what we can control as Hawaii proves – go with the flow.

  9. June 29, 2018 8:50 pm

    In 2014 Tamsin Edwards was asked, but didn’t answer properly

    The PR trick alarmists use is to start talking about the Antarctic then rush to talk about the decline in the West Antarctic shelf …leading most people to thinking that all the Antarctic is melting.

    • HotScot permalink
      June 29, 2018 9:54 pm


      Whist the east Antarctic ice sheet is growing. Coincidence? I think not.

  10. tom0mason permalink
    June 29, 2018 8:59 pm

    I have been regularly berated for pointing out that volcanic activity was the most probable cause the of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) instability. Others tell me I have no proof, no factual evidence. True I didn’t have any but I do have enough nouse (aka common sense) to understand that vigorous heating under an ice-sheet (on land or in the ocean) will destabilize it.
    With 91 volcanoes found (so far, there may be more!) around the Western Antarctic, with quite a few being active, is it any wonder that the ice is not stable there?
    Here’s a map …

  11. Broadlands permalink
    June 29, 2018 10:57 pm

    “…this study provides the first geochemical evidence of a contemporary volcanic heat source, emphasizing the need to detect and understand volcanism”….

    Translation… spend some more money?

    The 40,000 mile volcano

    “A main question is to what extent the volcanism changes over time. The old idea was that the eruptions of oozing lava and related activity occurred at fairly steady rates. Now, studies hint at the existence of outbursts large enough to influence not only the character of the global sea but the planet’s temperature. Experts believe the activity may carry major repercussions because the oceanic ridges account for some 70 percent of the planet’s volcanic eruptions. By definition, that makes them enormous sources of heat and exotic minerals as well as such everyday gases as carbon dioxide, which all volcanoes emit.”

    • dave permalink
      June 30, 2018 7:10 am

      “…enormous…” (in the second line from the bottom).

      That profoundly unscientific (indeed, anti-scientific) word, again…

      Our School Masters always used to strike out such words from our scrawls; “If you know how much, why not tell me?” “If the exactness of the magnitude is important, explain how and why.” By the same token, intensifiers such as “very” usually got the red pen treatment.
      Of course, the phrase “totally unique” resulted in “Idiot Boy! (this is an oxymoron in this Form)”.

  12. Ardy permalink
    June 30, 2018 2:14 am

    It is very sad that scientists aim their research at the totally uninformed and therefore gullible. No scientist worth their weight in honesty would claim this was unexpected or ‘previously unanticipated activity’. No wonder sites like this are flourishing. Science is dying as it is based on honesty and cool observations with no great expectation of outcomes.

    Now the scientists working on GlobalBS all know the answer to everything, even before their paper is published.

    Majority of the top scientists seem to be working in health/pharmaceutical these days.

  13. Geoff Sherrington permalink
    June 30, 2018 3:16 am

    From the article –
    “The heat source, Loose and team note, is about half that of the active volcano Grímsvötn, in Iceland.”
    What on earth does this mean? As I understand, to date there has been no measurement of the energetics or heat that might be involved there.
    There does not seem to be a relative measurement of the areas affected.
    Maybe they mean that the helium isotope they found is half the concentration.
    But then, that is meaningless unless you know dilutions.

    In general, the information about volcanism is merely an oddity until it can be put in a time context. If we are looking at climate change, it is rather vital to know if the effect of postulated volcanism predates alleged climate change, or has become active during the last century or so.

    What sort of crap scientist would allow such kindergarten statements to go public? Geoff.

  14. 4TimesAYear permalink
    June 30, 2018 7:05 am

    Reblogged this on 4TimesAYear's Blog.

  15. June 30, 2018 9:17 am

    There was considerable comment on this quite a few years ago – is someone only using snail mail?

    • sensferguson permalink
      June 30, 2018 9:49 am

      As i recall, it was well before the Nat Science blokes caught up with it.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: