Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Active volcanism beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet and implications for ice-sheet stability


IT is widely understood that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) would cause a global sea level rise of 6 m, yet there continues to be considerable debate about the detailed response of this ice sheet to climate changel–3. Because its bed is grounded well below sea level, the stability of the WAIS may depend on geologically controlled conditions at the base which are independent of climate. In particular, heat supplied to the base of the ice sheet could increase basal melting and thereby trigger ice streaming, by providing the water for a lubricating basal layer of till on which ice streams are thought to slide4,5. Ice streams act to protect the reservoir of slowly moving inland ice from exposure to oceanic degradation, thus enhancing ice-sheet stability. Here we present aerogeophysical evidence for active volcanism and associated elevated heat flow beneath the WAIS near the critical region where ice streaming begins. If this heat flow is indeed controlling ice-stream formation, then penetration of ocean waters inland of the thin hot crust of the active portion of the West Antarctic rift system could lead to the disappearance of ice streams, and possibly trigger a collapse of the inland ice reservoir.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout


  1. Mercer, J. H. Nature 271, 321–325 (1978).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Thomas, R. H. J. Glaciol. 24, 167–177 (1979).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. MacAyeal, D. R. Nature 359, 29–32 (1992).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Blankenship, D. D., Bentley, C. R., Rooney, S. T. & Alley, R. B. Nature 322, 54–57 (1986).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Alley, R. B., Blankenship, D. D., Bentley, C. R. & Rooney, S. T. Nature 332, 57–59 (1986).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. LeMasurier, W. E. Abstr. Progr. 10, 443 (Geological Society of America, 1978).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Wilson, T. J., Antarct. J. 25, 31–34 (1991).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Davey, F. J. in The Antarctic Continental Margin. Geology and Geophysics of the Western Ross Sea, 1–16 (Circum-Pacific Council for Energy and Resources, Houston, 1987).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Behrendt, J. C., Cooper, A. K. & Yuan, A. in The Antarctic Continental Margin: Geology and Geophysics of the Western Ross Sea, 155–177 (Circum-Pacific Council for Energy and Resources, Houston, 1987).

    Google Scholar 

  10. LeMasurier, W. E. & Thomson, J. W. (eds) Volcanoes of the Antarctic Plate and Southern Oceans (American Geophysical Union, 1990).

  11. Robin, G. de Q., Nature 215, 1029–1032 (1967).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. Paterson, W. S. B. The Physics of Glaciers (Pergamon, Oxford, 1981).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Bjornsson, H. Jökull 33, 13–18 (1983).

    Google Scholar 

  14. Clarke, G. K. C., Cross, G. M. & Benson, C. S. J. geophys. Res 94, 7237–7249 (1989).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Bindschadler, R. A. & Scambos, T. A. Science 252, 242–246 (1991).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Dalziel, I. W. D. & Elliot, D. H. Tectonics 1, 3–19 (1982).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Drewry, D. J. Antarctica: Glaciological and Geophysical Folio (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, 1983).

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Blankenship, D., Bell, R., Hodge, S. et al. Active volcanism beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet and implications for ice-sheet stability. Nature 361, 526–529 (1993).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing