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Underground volcanoes contributing to glacier melt in Antarctica

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Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 5:16 PM - Hidden volcanoes under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet appear to be contributing to glacier melt, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

The team analyzed Thwaites Glacier, which is melting rapidly and at risk of collapsing.

Radar was used to study how water moves under the ice. "Significant" sources of geothermal heat were discovered, suggesting that rising water temperatures aren't the only thing contributing to the glacier's melt.

"The geothermal heat contributed significantly to melting of the underside of the glacier, and it might be a key factor in allowing the ice sheet to slide, affecting the ice sheet's stability and its contribution to future sea level rise," the researchers say in a press release.

"The cause of the variable distribution of heat beneath the glacier is thought to be the movement of magma and associated volcanic activity arising from the rifting of the Earth's crust beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."

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Researchers say the findings stand to "significantly change" our current understanding of the region. In the past, the team says it was virtually impossible to obtain information about the landscape underneath the glacier.

The Thwaites Glacier, which is roughly the size of Florida and up to 4,000 metres thick, is considered unstable due to its rapid melt.

Should the glacier collapse, global sea levels could rise between 1 and 2 metres, according to the University of Texas at Austin.

The complete study can be found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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