Boffins from the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences have found 91 previously unknown volcanoes beneath the West Antarctic Ice Shelf, a total that suggests it might be the most volcanic region on Earth.
In a paper [PDF] titled “A new volcanic province: an inventory of subglacial volcanoes in West Antarctica”, authors Maximillian Van Wyk De Vries, Robert G Bingham and Andrew Hein explain that with radar surveys and other techniques they were able to detect 91 cones that suggest the presence of volcanos. The cones are sometimes massive – they range in size from 100m in height to 3850m, with an average relief of 621m. 29 of the features are over 1km tall. All are beneath ice, in some cases kilometres of it.
We already knew about over 40 volcanos in the region. The discovery of 91 more therefore heats things up a little, although we don't know if any are active.
The discovery appears to be significant for three reasons.
Firstly, the density of volcanos in the region is matched only by the East African Rift System, which stretches from Tanzania to the Arabian Peninsula and is home to many active volcanos.
Second, whatever is causing climate change on Earth, news that there's a larger-than-previously-thought heat source under a major ice sheet is worth knowing. Or as the authors put it, “The presence of such a volcanic belt traversing the deepest marine basins beneath the centre of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could prove to be a major influence on the past behaviour and future stability of the ice sheet.”
Lastly, those who believe that the works of HP Lovecraft possess more than entertainment value have a new candidate front for the Elder Things vs. Cthulhu conflict. Which if revived would make any climate-induced chaos resemble little more than the flapping of a butterly's wings.
So delve not too deep, geo-boffins. For who can know what lies beneath these new Cones of Chaos, and what madness might be unleashed by disturbing them? ®