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

Abstract

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.

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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). https://doi.org/10.1038/361526a0

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