A new NASA study suggests that a "mantle plume," nearly as hot as the Yellowstone supervolcano, is causing ice to melt from underneath Antarctica's Marie Byrd Land.

Mantle Plume Underneath West Antarctica

About three decades ago, a scientist argued that the presence of a heat source underneath the Marie Byrd Land in Antarctica could explain the regional volcanic activity that takes place in the area.

Many have doubted the theory, and since that time, there hasn't been any evidence to back it up. However, a new NASA study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth has now added more weight to this idea.

"I thought it was crazy," said Hélène Seroussi of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) when she first heard about the concept. "I didn't see how we could have that amount of heat and still have ice on top of it."

Mantle Plume

A mantle plume is an upwelling of hot rock in the Earth's mantle. John Tuzo Wilson was the first scientist to propose the theory of a mantle plume back in 1960's.

NASA Researchers Begin Studying Mantle Plume

Seroussi and her team decided that the best way to study the concept was to develop a numerical model of what would take place if indeed a heat source exists underneath.

They then would observe the effects of the heat on the "ice sheet" that lay on top. The model along with observations from NASA's IceSat satellite allowed Seroussi and her team to estimate the amount of heat that's being produced deep below the ice.


The results of the model show that the mantle plume generates energy that is no more than 150 milliwatts per square meter. More than that would cause too much ice to melt quicker. The heat underneath Yellowstone National Park generates about 200 milliwatts per square meter on average.

Mantle Plume Under Marie Byrd Land Formed 50 To 110 Million Years Ago

Researchers estimated that the mantle plume under Marie Byrd Land formed 50 to 110 million years ago, way before the time when the ice sheet came into being.

The existence of a massive mantle plume can explain why the area is so unstable today. The heat is also responsible for the hidden lakes and rivers that lay beneath the ice sheet. Researchers say that its presence is not something to worry about. If the mantle plume is there, then it's been there forever and will always be there.

Researchers say that understanding the heat source beneath Antarctica could help them estimate how long it may take for the ice to melt in the future.

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