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Seabed Volcanoes Can Influence west Antarctic Glacier Melts

By Larry Bell
Monday, 06 August 2018 09:51 AMCurrent | Bio | Archive

New evidence now updates and confirms a column I wrote in June 2014 that some or all of the highly publicized melting of western coastal Antarctic glaciers may be caused by seabed volcanoes rather than having much or anything to do with climate change.

An article published in June 22 edition of the journal Nature Communications reports that an international team of scientists tracing a chemical signature of helium in the seawater discovered that contemporary volcanic heat is causing observed melting beneath the massive west Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS.)

Participating organizations included the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, East Anglia and Southampton universities in the UK Arizona State University, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the British Antarctic Survey.

Whereas volcanic activity was first noted in 2007, and verified its existence again in 2014 using radar techniques to examine underwater flows, this latest study has provided the first geochemical evidence of such influence. Its research focus was to investigate observed rapid melting of a Pine Island Glacier in order to better understand current and future contributions to sea level increases.

Pine Island melting first attracted major public attention in 2014 when a large iceberg which broke loose caused media-trumpeted speculation that this “race to the sea” heralded the beginning of the end for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Volcanic activity is also very likely increasing the melting pace of the adjacent Thwaites Glacier. Five years ago, researchers at University of Texas Institute for Geophysics found the resulting heat was much more widely and less evenly distributed than had previously been believed, with some areas considerably hotter than others.

UTA lead researcher David Schroeder commented in a press release at that time, “The combination of variable sub-glacial geothermal heat flow and the interacting sub-glacial water system could threaten the stability of Thwaites Glacier in ways that we never before imagined.”

Thwaites, one of the world’s largest and most rapidly retreating glaciers, drains an area roughly the size of the state of Florida. The melting rate appears to have doubled since the mid-1990s, leading some scientists to conjecture that a Thwaites collapse within the next few decades or centuries could significantly affect global sea levels.