Geothermal heat flow (GHF) is an elusive physical property, yet it can reveal past and present plate tectonic processes. In Antarctica, GHF has further consequences in predicting the response of ice sheets to climate change. In this Review, we discuss variations in Antarctic GHF models based on geophysical methods and draw insights into tectonics and GHF model usage for ice sheet modelling. The inferred GHF at continental scale for West Antarctica (up to 119 mW m−2, 95th percentile) points to numerous contributing influences, including non-steady state neotectonic processes. Combined influences cause especially high values in the vicinity of the Thwaites Glacier, a location critical for the accurate prediction of accelerated loss of Antarctic ice mass. The inferred variations across East Antarctica are more subtle (up to 66 mW m−2, 95th percentile), where slightly elevated values in some locations correspond to the influence of thinned lithosphere and tectonic units with concentrations of heat-producing elements. Fine-scale anomalies owing to heat-producing elements and horizontal components of heat flow are important for regional modelling. GHF maps comprising central values with these fine-scale anomalies captured within uncertainty bounds can thus enable improved ensemble-based ice sheet model predictions of Antarctic ice loss.
Differences between geothermal heat flow maps for Antarctica that are derived using alternative approaches provide greater insight into its tectonic evolution than anomalies that are constrained from one model alone.
Non-steady state processes and heat-producing elements in the upper crust contribute markedly to the spatial distribution of anomalously high geothermal heat flow values (>60%).
High geothermal heat flow anomalies in West Antarctica are a consequence of multiple contributing sources, such as neotectonic rifting, volcanism and a mantle heat anomaly.
The stable lithosphere of East Antarctica has relatively subtle geothermal heat flow anomalies, many of which are difficult to separate from model uncertainties and currently remain unresolved.
Fine-scale geothermal heat flow variations can be accounted for, through low and high bounds to possible geothermal heat flow in the form of uncertainty maps, to provide robust inputs to predictive modelling of Antarctic ice sheet evolution.
Geothermal heat flow is a boundary condition for modelling ice loss. In particular, the fast-changing Thwaites Glacier of West Antarctica, and the outlet glaciers of the Wilkes and Aurora Basins of East Antarctica, are locations of great concern.
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The datasets analysed in this Review are available as open-source repositories (links below) or from the authors of the original studies. LE2118 https://doi.org/10.1594/PANGAEA.930237; Aq117 https://doi.org/10.1594/PANGAEA.924857; AqSS20 https://doi.org/10.1594/PANGAEA.918549; SW2016 https://sites.google.com/view/weisen/research-products; GV20174 available from authors of original article; MC1774 https://doi.org/10.1594/PANGAEA.882503; AW1576 http://www.seismolab.org/model/antarctica/lithosphere#an1-hf; FM0575 http://websrv.cs.umt.edu/isis/index.php/Antarctica_Basal_Heat_Flux; SR0413 available from authors of original article.
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This work was supported in part by the Australian Research Council (ARC), through ARC DP190100418 (A.M.R., T.S.). Additional support was provided through ARC SRI Antarctica Gateway Partnership, SR140300001 (T.S.), ARC SRI Australian Centre for Excellence in Antarctic Science, SR200100008 (A.M.R., T.S., J.A.H.), ARC DP180104074 (J.A.H., D.H.), ARC DECRA DE210101433 (F.S.M.) and ARC SRI Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future SR200100005 (F.S.M.). Further support was provided by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in the framework of the priority programme ‘Antarctic Research with comparative investigations in Arctic ice areas’ SPP 1158 (grant no. EB 255/8-1, M.L., J.E.). The authors thank the many participants of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, Scientific Research Program on Solid Earth Response and influence on Cryosphere Evolution (SCAR, SERCE, to 2020) and its successor, Instabilities and Thresholds in Antarctica, subcommittee on Geothermal Heat Flow (SCAR, INSTANT, from 2021) for discussions that informed this Review.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research INSTANT initiative provides a further connection to legacy and current Antarctic GHF models at: https://www.scar-instant.org.
Energy held by a substance owing to the vibration of molecules.
- Geothermal heat flow (GHF)
The outward movement of heat, due to cooling and radioactive decay, through the Earth. Commonly reported as a value for near-surface layers in units of W m−2 or mW m−2.
- Steady state
A system where heat flows while each point remains at a constant temperature.
- Non-steady state
A system of heat flow where points in the system are changing temperature, also known as transient heat flow.
- Heat producing elements (HPE)
Elements, such as uranium, thorium and potassium, that produce substantial heat through radioactive decay, often more concentrated in some upper-crustal lithologies.
A property of a material that defines the amount of heat energy available for transfer.
A cold-based ice sheet is an extensive body of ice where the base is below the pressure melting point.
A warm-based ice sheet is an extensive body of ice where the base is above the pressure melting point, and meltwater can be present.
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Reading, A.M., Stål, T., Halpin, J.A. et al. Antarctic geothermal heat flow and its implications for tectonics and ice sheets. Nat Rev Earth Environ 3, 814–831 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-022-00348-y