Scientists have discovered active volcanoes under the eastern portion of Antarctica, according to new research released this week — and a volcanic eruption could potentially speed up the flow of ice into the ocean, contributing to already rising global sea levels.
In research released in the Nature Geoscience journal, the researchers described how they inadvertently discovered the volcanoes after setting up seismographs across the remote area of Western Antarctica's Marie Byrd Land.
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They were looking for earthquakes, but the seismic data looked more akin to what's presented by volcanoes, seismology student Amanda Lough told NBC News. They realized the mountains they had been looking at were actually a chain of frozen — but not dormant — volcanoes.
"All of the lines of evidence just fell together nicely," Lough said to NBC. The clusters of earthquakes "are indicative of magma movement in the crust and that this area is still quite active."
The discovery has some implications for world ice loss, which has accelerated to a worrying extent from 2002 to 2011, according to NASA scientists. More melting ice translates into higher sea levels, which could be devastating for coastal cities.
Hot magma beneath the ice could be accelerating the ice flow in Western Antarctica, says Agence France-Presse, as the substance lubricates the underside of the ice and causes it to move more quickly.
Although the research indicates that volcanoes do exist beneath Antarctica's ice and are moving southwards, it's not something even the most nervous should be lying awake in bed worrying about.
“Does this mean that something is going to be happening in the next 20 years or so? I have no idea,” said Lough of the volcanoes, according to the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not something that’s going to cause major issues. You’d have to have a huge, huge eruption.”