Is volcanic activity contributing to the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet?

Asked by Morag

Wow, this is an interesting question! You can learn all about subglacial volcanoes here. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet has many subglacial lakes beneath it; geothermal heating is thought to contribute to the melting of the base of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. However, the extent of this, and the rate, is very poorly known and currently not included in glaciological numerical models. Actual volcanoes may, during eruptions, melt quite large portions of the ice sheet around them. In Iceland, volcanic eruptions beneath the ice sheet regularly cause catastrophic floods, called jokulhlaups. Subglacial volcanoes are therefore probably contributing at least a little to Antarctic ice sheet melt; the extent to which this is happening is probably reasonably stable over longer timescales.

4 thoughts on “Is volcanic activity contributing to the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet?

  1. Can you specify a bit more? Which volcanoes are erupting these days and are contributing to the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet?

  2. It seems that there is an eagerness to allocate blame for the imminent collapse of the west Antarctic peninsula on climate change and anthropogenic interference but a marked reluctance to give seabed intense volcanic activity the same credence……..would you not agree ?

    • There is good evidence that it is changes in ocean currents that is driving rapid grounding-line recession in West Antarctica. Subglacial volcanic activity and geothermal heating is certainly important in providing subglacial meltwater, which lubricates the ice streams and facilitates fast ice-flow, but a step-change in geothermal energy has not been observed that can account for the extremely rapid recession at the ice-ocean interface. See here for more information on subglacial volcanoes.

  3. Since the knowledge that there were sub Glacial volcanoes is relatively new. 2008 is when the latest discovery was made. The volcano is located beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet in the Hudson Mountains . The region has many volcanic features and we may or may not know about them or their activity. How then is it possible to state without equivocation that there is no step change in geothermal energy that can account for increased melt? The area of influence of the volcano at latitude 74.6°South, longitude 97°West does not cover the entire west ice sheet. Other factors like a change in currents and sea water temperatures could account for the rest but on the whole, the entire Antarctic ice sheet is gaining mass every year according to NASA using ICESat.

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