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The Antarctic's burning secrets

Even though it is one of the coldest places on Earth, inside it has a powerful source of heat
Dumont d’Urville in East Antarctica - Photo: Pauline Askin/REUTERS
16/11/2017
14:24
Berenice González Durand
Mexico City
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The Antarctic with its dreamlike landscapes and the promise of silence as a refuge, the fascination exerted by the region has an icy price: during the winter, the temperature can drop below 89 degrees Celsius (-128 degrees Fahrenheit). The Antarctic is a polar region around the Earth's South Pole, opposite the Arctic region around the North Pole. It has an almost circular shape and a diameter of about 4,500 kilometers. Even though it is one of the coldest places on Earth, inside it has a powerful source of heat. Recent NASA studies provide new evidence on the existence of a powerful geothermal energy source responsible for maintaining a network of rivers and lakes flowing beneath its ice sheet.

The study, recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research (JGR), indicates that for thirty years several theories on geothermal activity had been proposed to the interior of the region that explained volcano presence in the area, yet experts never believed that there could be such an intense source of heat just a few kilometers down the surface.

Images on the seismicity of the area, as well as data from NASA's ICESat (Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite), were key tools to perform calculations and measure heat. ICESat was launched almost 15 years ago and it is the benchmark Earth Observing System mission for measuring ice sheet mass balance, cloud and aerosol heights, as well as land topography and vegetation characteristics.

The findings were surprising. "I thought it was crazy. I didn't see how we could have that amount of heat and still have ice on top of it," said Hélène Seroussi of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

To assure the model was realistic, the scientists drew on observations of changes in the altitude of the ice sheet surface made by IceSat and airborne Operation IceBridge campaign. Using a fleet of research aircraft, NASA’s Operation IceBridge images Earth's polar ice to better understand connections between polar regions and the global climate system by studying annual changes in thickness of sea ice, glaciers and ice sheets.

The area where the greatest amount of geothermal energy is concentrated is below Antartica's Marie Byrd Land, west of the Ross Sea and south of the Pacific Ocean.

Scientists determined that the icy surface of Antarctica constantly rises and falls around six meters and this is related to the theory of mantle plumes, narrow streams of hot rock rising through Earth's mantle and spreading out like a mushroom cap under the crust causing it to bulge upward. Taking into account freezing and thawing variables, along with the friction and fusion of the materials inside the Earth, the temperatures were calculated.

Antarctica is a region surrounded by oceans, unlike the Arctic, which is basically surrounded by continents. In 1959 the Antarctic Treaty was signed, an agreement recognized by 48 countries that avoid disputes over territorial claims. Thus, nobody can proclaim ownership of the region and its occupation established a multinational deal that includes activities mainly based on scientific research and tourism.

The study explains why before climate change on Earth began to manifest, there was a previous deterioration in the ice sheet that covers the Antarctic, yet experts emphasize that the internal heat of does not represent a threat for the life in the planet, but rather it is an indicator to understand the stability of the ice sheet and its future.

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