According to a team of researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, under the 14 million square kilometers of the icy continent lies the largest volcanic area on planet Earth. Located in western Antarctica, the group of three researchers, Maximilliam Van Wik de Vries, Robert Bingham and Andrew Hein, discovered 91 new volcanoes, joining the 47 already found, totaling 138 volcanoes.
These volcanoes have heights between 100 and 3850 meters, to the surprise of the researchers. “We are thrilled,” Robert Bingham told The Guardian. “We were not expecting to find anything like this number. We have almost tripled the number of volcanoes that are thought to exist in western Antarctica”, he added.
In a study published in Geoscientist, a journal of the London Geological Society, the researchers report that they analyzed the bottom of the Antarctic ice sheet, thus identifying the existence of basalt in the region, a rock that had already been found in other volcanoes in that area.
The researchers also studied the data obtained from old works collected by land and air radars. After crossing all the data, the researchers determined the existence of 91 new volcanoes, all covered with ice.
For now, the discovery makes that continent the largest volcanic region on Earth. The peak area extends over 3,500 kilometers in the Western Antarctic. However, researchers believe there are more volcanoes on the world’s largest ice shelf, the Ross platform, also located in Western Antarctica. This site has yet to be studied. “It is very likely to become the densest volcanic region on the planet, even larger than that in East Africa”, added Robert Bingham.
The researchers believe that there can be disturbing consequences for the planet in case the volcanoes erupt. “If any of these volcanoes erupt it could destabilize Antarctica’s ice sheets”, warned Robert Bingham.
“Anything that causes the melting of the ice will increase the speed with which it will reach the ocean”, said Bingham, adding that it is not known “how active these volcanoes were in the past”. So, whether or not volcanoes are active is “something we have to determine as quickly as possible”.
“The most recent volcanoes erupting in the world happen in regions that have lost their glacier cover”, he said.
“These include Iceland and Alaska. There is a theory that can explain that phenomenon, when there is no glacier cover there is “the release of pressure on the volcanoes, making them become more active”.
This chain reaction could happen in Antarctica, a region where climate change has already begun to affect the melting of ice sheets. “It’s something we have to watch closely”, concludes Robert Bingham.