Volcanic Activity Is Melting This Antarctic Glacier from Below

Like many Antarctic glaciers, the Pine Island Glacier is melting. But Pine Island is melting faster than any other glacier in the world. Surprisingly, it's not climate change alone that is causing the thaw. New research by the National Science Foundation has found evidence that volcanic activity beneath the glacier is a likely culprit.

An international team of scientists from NSF and the U.K.'s Natural Environmental Research Council discovered an underwater heat source by tracing the chemical signature of helium underwater, according to a press release. That heat source is almost certainly in the form of underwater volcanic activity.

Pine Island Glacier
Pine Island Glacier is slowly melting, as seen from above. NASA

It's unclear exactly how badly the heat source could be damaging the glacier, and how much it will speed up the glacier's demise, but scientists are sure that the glacier is being melted from below. This thawing could raise the global sea level considerably, and not only because the ice itself is melting into the ocean. The Pine Island Glacier is important for “plugging” other ice from flowing into the sea too quickly, and without it, we may see an even faster sea level rise.

The Pine Island Glacier is also particularly important for stabilizing the Thwaites Glacier, an enormous piece of ice that scientists fear it may already be too late to save. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is in dire straits, having already lost 175 billion tons of ice since 2012.

The researchers determined that underwater volcanic activity was causing the melts because of the quantity of helium-3 found in the water, and also because of the uneven deformations of the glacier. Layers of ash found in ice core samples and rumblings from earthquakes also helped paint a picture of hidden volcanic eruptions. However, physically finding a volcano, or a geological feature of volcanic activity, hiding so deeply under ice and water would be exceptionally difficult and expensive, so scientists still lack solid proof.

The scientists published their discovery in the journal Nature Communications.