Heat source under Antarctica melting ice sheet

09 November, 2017, 20:04 | Author: Oscar Goodwin
  • Mysterious ‘heat source’ under Antarctica could be melting the ice NASA says

Experts working at the South Pole have found evidence to support a theory that a huge geothermal heat source may be lurking beneath the surface - and it could be as devastating as the Yellowstone volcano.

According to the study, the heat source may explain why the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed rapidly in an earlier era of rapid climate change and why it is so unstable today.

A scientist at the University of Colorado Denver first suggested the presence of a mantle plume beneath Marie Byrd 30 years ago. When Hélène Seroussi of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, first heard the idea, however, "I thought it was insane", she said. Very recent seismic imaging has supported this concept.

A new NASA study indicates that there is a huge upwelling of hot rock, called a mantle plume, under Marie Byrd Land between the Ross Ice Shelf and the Ross Sea, which creates lakes and rivers under the ice sheet.

Ms Seroussi and Erik Ivins of JPL used the Ice Sheet System Model (ISSM), which is a mathematical model that uses the physics of the ice sheets, to look for heat sources and meltwater deposits. This was the time when West Antarctic ice sheet had not formed. She says that she has always thought of how we could have that amount of heat and still have ice on top of it.

To assure the model was realistic, the scientists drew on observations of changes in the altitude of the ice sheet surface made by NASA's IceSat satellite and airborne Operation IceBridge campaign. The researchers used multiple parameters including dozens of different simulations as the location and size of the mantle plume is still unknown. Whereas, the Yellowstone National Park in the United States which is well known as a geothermal hotspot has an average heat flux of 200 milliwatts per square meter over the entire park, even though individual geothermal features like geysers will be much hotter.

To work with the space-based data, they found the heat flow must be between 150 and 180 milliwatts per square meter. For comparison, over the entirety of Yellowstone National Park the underground heat measures an average of 200 milliwatts per square meter.

Mantle plumes are believed to be narrow streams of hot, molten rock which erupts through Earth's mantle and forms a mushroom cap-like structure under the crust. In order to be consistent with observations of basal hydrology in Marie Byrd Land, the upper bound on the plume-derived geothermal heat flux is 150 milliwatts per square meter.

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