Study: ‘Surprisingly High’ Amounts Of Geothermal Heat Melting Antarctica

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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There’s a lot of geothermal heat flowing towards Antarctica’s western ice sheet which scientists warn is in a state of collapse, according to a new study. The “surprisingly high” amounts of heat under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could be contributing to its rapid melting over the last decade, say researchers.

Scientists at the University of California, Santa Cruz published the first direct measurement of geothermal heat flux at the base of Antarctica’s western ice sheet. Surprisingly, the heat flux was “significantly higher than the continental and regional averages estimated for this site using regional geophysical and glaciological models.”

Researchers concluded the “difference between these heat flux values could contribute to basal melting and/or be advected from Subglacial Lake Whillans by flowing water” and “explain why ice streams and subglacial lakes are so abundant and dynamic in this region.”

What’s most interesting is that the heat flow from under the southern continent is higher than the heat forcing from carbon dioxide emissions first measured and published by scientists earlier this year.

The geothermal heat flux measured by UC Santa Cruz scientists was about 0.3 watts per square meter, while CO2 heat forcing measured earlier this year was 0.2 watts per square meter per decade. Though the CO2 forcing measure was taken from sites in North America, not the South Pole.

The study’s authors, however, argue that geothermal heating under Antarctica doesn’t explain why the western part of the continent has undergone rapid ice loss in recent decades. The other part of the equation is global warming, they argue.

“The ice sheet developed and evolved with the geothermal heat flux coming up from below–it’s part of the system,” lead author Prof. Andrew Fisher said in a statement. “But this could help explain why the ice sheet is so unstable. When you add the effects of global warming, things can start to change quickly.”

Scientists began raising the alarm about Antarctica’s western ice sheet last year after NASA published findings it had become “unstable” and was in a state of collapse. Even though the ice could take centuries to fully collapse, alarm quickly spread through the news media.

Most of the focus on ice sheet collapse has been on warming temperatures, but previous studies have also found that volcanic activity under Antarctica is playing a role in its instability.

A study released last year by University of Texas, Austin researchers found that geothermal heat under the Thwaites Glacier in western Antarctica was contributing to its demise. The study’s lead author said the “combination of variable subglacial geothermal heat flow and the interacting subglacial water system could threaten the stability of Thwaites Glacier in ways that we never before imagined.”

Before the UTA study, it was assumed that heat under Antarctica was pretty much distributed evenly, but that study showed evidence it wasn’t. Not the UC Santa Cruz study adds to the argument that high concentrations of geothermal heat could be a source of instability in Antarctica’s western ice sheet.

[h/t: Watts Up With That]

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