Study bolsters theory of heat source under Antarctica


A geothermal heat source called a mantle plume - a hot stream of subterranean molten rock that rises through the Earth's crust - may explain the breathing effect visible on Antarctica's Marie Byrd Land and elsewhere along the massive ice sheet.

'I thought it was insane, ' said Hélène Seroussi of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, of when she first heard the idea.

The researchers found that the energy flux from the mantle plume would not be more than 150 milliwatts per square meter.

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Seroussi and Erik Ivins of JPL used the Ice Sheet System Model (ISSM), a mathematical depiction of the physics of ice sheets developed by scientists at JPL and the University of California, Irvine. NASA has also explained that this heating source is neither the new one nor is a threat for ice sheets in the Western Antarctica.

It's thought to have formed 50-110 million years ago, long before the ice sheet itself, and has likely played a role in rapid collapses that took place during past periods of climate change - and, it could help explain the instability seen today.

There are some red-hot rocks sitting beneath the ice and producing nearly as much heat as the Yellowstone supervolcano and melting part of Antarctica from the inside out. Understanding the sources and future of the meltwater under West Antarctica is important for estimating the rate at which ice may be lost to the ocean in the future. This motion allows scientists to better understand the underground topography and better estimate concentrations of water sources beneath the surface. Antarctica's bedrock features several lakes and rivers, the largest being about the size of Lake Erie. We use a simple analytical mantle plume parameterization to produce geothermal heat flux at the base of the ice sheet.

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According to NASA, mantle plumes are narrow streams of hot rock, which spread like a "mushroom cap" beneath Earth's surface. For comparison, in US regions with no volcanic activity, the heat flux from Earth's mantle is 40 to 60 milliwatts.

The JPL scientists corroborated their work with readings from NASA's IceSat satellite and airborne Operation IceBridge campaign which observe variations in the altitude of the Antarctic ice sheet's surface. The upward bulge is believed to be caused by the buoyancy of the material. That's not far from the heat produced under Yellowstone National Park, which is measured at about 200 milliwatts per square meter.

Titled "Influence of a West Antarctic mantle plume on ice sheet basal conditions", the paper appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth.

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For 30 years, scientists have suggested that a mantle plume may exist under Marie Byrd Land.