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Hidden Underwater Volcanoes Melting Glaciers In The Western Antarctic

Update Date: Jun 10, 2014 10:11 AM EDT

Generally we know Antarctica as a land of ice. But dive below the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and waiting will be subglacial volcanoes. 

These subglacial volcanoes and other geothermal "hotspots" are contributing to the melting of Thwaites Glacier, according to a new study. Thwaites glacier is a major river of ice that flows into Antarctica's Pine Island Bay. 

Areas of the glacier that sit near geologic features thought to be volcanic are melting faster than regions farther away from hotspots, said Dustin Schroeder, the study's lead author and a geophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin, according to Discovery News. 

The study warned that melting could significantly affect ice loss in the West Antarctic that is further losing ice quickly. 

"It's not just the fact that there is melting water, and that water is coming out," Schroeder said. "It's how that affects the flow and stability of the ice."

Due to climate change, West Antarctica is also hemorrhaging ice and if recent studies are to be believed, there are no ways to reverse the retreat.

Researchers rely on computer models for predicting the future of the ice sheet. However, the lack of understanding of subglacial geothermal energy is a glaring gap in these models. 

"It's the most complex thermal environment you might imagine," study co-author Don Blankenship, a geophysicist at UT Austin, said in a statement. "And then, you plop the most critical dynamically unstable ice sheet on planet Earth in the middle of this thing, and then you try to model it. It's virtually impossible."

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