Many have worried about polar masses melting on Earth, especially on the planet’s southernmost point of Antarctica. There have been several factors that have contributed to melting within the continent, and now a new one has been found.


Researchers at NASA have found that there’s a mantle plume sitting underneath Antarctica. A mantle plume is explained as a bit of a “plumbing system” underneath the Earth’s surface that brings magma under the crust and is the source for volcanic eruptions. The area underneath Yellowstone National Park in the United States is figured to be the hottest around, but the one underneath Antarctica could be just as hot.


The research team said that the heat from this mantle plume is creating lakes and rivers underneath the ice, and the more it heats up, the more ice that melts from Antarctica’s mass. They explained that the previous Ice Age was likely caused by a similar mantle plume that caused Antarctica to collapse. They now suggest that this mantle plume could cause similar problems with mass melting.

Helene Seroussi was the lead author of the study, and she initially thought the idea of the mantle plume underneath Antarctica was a “crazy” though. “I didn’t see how we could have that amount of heat and still have ice on top of it,” she said. However, they discovered that there was a significant amount of heat being produced, which causes the melted ice to turn into water, acting as a sort of lubricant that allows glaciers to glide and make the area more unstable.


NASA has had to use satellite imagery to help support this new theory, as the ice is too thick to simply see through or traverse. Using their resources, NASA said that the amount of friction, heat and increased water suggests that the mantle plume is a reasonable cause. In these areas, nearly 200 milliwatts of energy per square meter is being produced, well above the Earth’s average of about 50 milliwatts.


The theory of a mantle plume causing increased melting in Antarctica actually isn’t a new one. More than 30 years ago, there were some scientists that believed that the Western end of Antarctica could be sitting on top of a mantle plume. However, the resources back then weren’t enough to support this theory. With heat mapping from satellites, the theory is gaining credence and has some people worried.


Scientists have warned that increased air temperatures around the world have caused the oceans to heat up, contributing to melting polar masses. Add in a mantle plume underneath and this might be what has caused icebergs the size of small states to break away from Antarctica. The Western end has seen melting faster than anywhere else, which could cause rising water levels around the globe.

The researchers said that “Without a plume-like heating source our simulations show that intrinsic heating and crustal sources to not provide enough energy to generate significant amount of basal meltwater.” However, Seroussi adds that the mantle plume has “been there forever, it will remain there for a really long time…We don’t have to worry about it, but at the same time, as the future brings more heat…the ice will probably be warmer in this area than in other places.”