Volcanic Chain and Hot Rock Lurking Beneath Antarctica Mapped

First Posted: Dec 09, 2015 09:49 AM EST

Scientists may have learned a bit more about what lurks beneath Antarctica. Ruggidized seismometers that can withstand the cold in this polar landscape have revealed that a volcanic chain with areas of hot rock can be found beneath the overlying ice sheet.

"Our understanding of what's going on is really hampered because we can't see the geology," said Andrew Lloyd, one of the researchers, in a news release. "We have to turn to geophysical methods, such as seismology, to learn more."

In this case, the scientists helped deploy research seismometers across the West Antarctic Rift System and Marie Byrd Land. Then, they waited to recover the data. More specifically, the researchers used the recordings the instruments made of the reverberations of distant earthquakes to create maps of seismic velocities beneath the rift valley.

So what did they find? The researchers discovered a giant blob of superheated rock about 60 miles beneath Mount Sidley, the last of a chain of volcanic mountains in Marie Byrd Land at one end of the transect. They also found hot rock beneath the Bentley Subglacial Trench, which is part of the West Antarctic Rift System.

"A line of volcanoes hints that there might be a hidden mangle plume, like a blowtorch, beneath the plate," said Doug Wiens, one of the researchers. "The volcanoes would pop up in a row as the plate moved over it. But it's a bit unclear if this is happening here. We think we know which direction the plate is moving, but the volcanic chain is going in a different direction and two additional nearby volcanic chains are oriented in yet other directions. If this was just a plate moving over a couple of mantle plumes, you'd expect them to line up, as they do in the Hawaiian Island."

The most interesting finding is the hot zone beneath the Bentley Subglacial Trench. This could have implications in the future if the ice melts in this region.

The findings are published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth.

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