Geothermal Heat Discovered Beneath West Antarctic Ice Sheet

Posted: Jul 13 2015, 7:55am CDT | by , in News | Latest Science News


Geothermal Heat Discovered Beneath West Antarctic Ice Sheet
Photo Courtesy of WISSARD/UCSC

Researchers discover geothermal heat flow beneath West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Scientists are surprised on what they have found beneath the ice sheet.

Recently a new study led by UC Santa Cruz researchers has shown that the amount of heat that is flowing towards the base of the West Antarctic ice sheet from geothermal sources deep within the Earth is quite high.

The results were published on July 10th in Science Advances provides data for the researchers that are trying to predict the future of the ice sheet. The ice sheet has been experiencing rapid melting over the past decade.

The lead author of the study Andrew Fisher who is a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz has emphasized that the geothermal heating that has been reported in this study does not explain the alarming loss of ice sheet from West Antarctica that been documented by other researchers.

He stated that the ice sheet has developed and evolved with the geothermal heat flux that is coming up from below. He explained that when you add the negative effects of global warming things start to change quickly. 

The high heat flow that is found below the West Antarctic ice sheet may also help explain the presence of lakes beneath it and why parts of the ice sheet flow rapidly as ice streams. Basically the water that is found at the bae of the ice streams is thought to provide the lubrication that speeds their motion.

This carries large volumes of ice out onto the floating ice shelves at the edges of the ice sheet. Fisher stated that this is the first ever geothermal heat flux measurement made below the West Antarctic ice sheet and that is why no one knows how localized these warm geothermal conditions might be. He explained that the region is home to volcanic activity so the measurement may be due to a local heat source in the crust. 

This study was basically a part of a large Antarctic drilling project that has been funded by the National Science Foundation that is called WISSARD (Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling). The research team that conducted this study used a special thermal probe designed and built at UC Santa Cruz.

Now this geothermal heating is contributing to the melting of basal ice which is responsible for supplying water to a network of Subglacial lakes and wetlands that scientists have discovered underlies a large region of the ice sheet.

Apart from this there was a study last year in Nature, the WISSARD microbiology team had reported that there was an abundant and diverse microbial ecosystem is the same lake. The warm geothermal conditions may actually help to make subglaical habitats more supportive of microbial life and could even drive fluid flow that delivers heat, carbon and nutrients to these communities.  

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