A recent volcanic eruption beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet

Abstract

Indirect evidence suggests that volcanic activity occurring beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet influences ice flow and sheet stability1,2,3. However, only volcanoes that protrude through the ice sheet4 and those inferred from geophysical techniques1,2 have been mapped so far. Here we analyse radar data from the Hudson Mountains, West Antarctica5, that contain reflections from within the ice that had previously been interpreted erroneously as the ice-sheet bed. We show that the reflections are present within an elliptical area of about 23,000 km2 that contains tephra from an explosive volcanic eruption. The tephra layer is thickest at a subglacial topographic high, which we term the Hudson Mountains Subglacial Volcano. The layer depth dates the eruption at 207 BC±240 years, which matches exceptionally strong but previously unattributed conductivity signals in nearby ice cores. The layer contains 0.019–0.31 km3 of tephra, which implies a volcanic explosive index of 3–4. Production and episodic release of water from the volcano probably affected ice flow at the time of the eruption. Ongoing volcanic heat production may have implications for contemporary ice dynamics in this glacial system.

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Figure 1: Distribution and interpretation of airborne radar data.
Figure 2: Terrain-corrected radar echogram (vertical exaggeration×35) for flight segment A–A shown in Fig. 1.
Figure 3: The relative reflected power of the tephra-layer echo for a section of profile A–A shown in Fig. 2, calculated for individual radar traces (crosses).

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Acknowledgements

The field campaign received logistical support from the British Antarctic Survey and US National Science Foundation and was conducted in collaboration with the University of Texas. We acknowledge the support from field personnel who assisted us, and discussions from many researchers who improved the manuscript.

Author information

H.F.J.C and D.G.V. contributed equally to this work.

Correspondence to Hugh F. J. Corr.

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Corr, H., Vaughan, D. A recent volcanic eruption beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet. Nature Geosci 1, 122–125 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo106

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