Scientists believe they have found the largest volcanic region on Earth – under the ice of Antarctica.
A remote survey discovered 91 volcanoes ranging in height from 100m to 3,850m in a massive region known as the West Antarctic Rift System.
Geologists and ice experts say the range has similarities to east Africa’s volcanic ridge, currently acknowledged to be the densest concentration of volcanoes in the world.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh remotely surveyed the underside of the ice sheet for hidden peaks of basalt rock, like those of other volcanoes in the region whose tips push above the ice.
They analysed the shape of the land beneath using measurements from ice-penetrating radar, and compared the findings with satellite and database records, as well as geological information from aerial surveys.
The study, which is the first of its kind, was proposed by Max Van Wyk de Vries, a third-year student at the University of Edinburgh.
Scientists hope it will help them understand how volcanoes can influence long-term fluctuations in the ice sheet and how the continent has changed in past climates.
Mr Van Wyk de Vries said: “Antarctica remains among the least studied areas of the globe, and as a young scientist I was excited to learn about something new and not well understood.
“After examining existing data on West Antarctica, I began discovering traces of volcanism. Naturally I looked into it further, which led to this discovery of almost 100 volcanoes under the ice sheet.”
The results do not indicate whether the volcanoes are active, but should inform ongoing research into seismic monitoring in the area.
Previous studies have suggested that volcanic activity may have occurred in the region during warmer periods and could increase if Antarctica’s ice thins in a warming climate.
Dr Robert Bingham, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, said: “It is fascinating to uncover an extensive range of volcanoes in this relatively unexplored continent.
“Better understanding of volcanic activity could shed light on their impact on Antarctica’s ice in the past, present and future, and on other rift systems around the world.”
The study has been published in the Geological Society Special Publications series.