But NASA scientists have discovered a fiercely hot geothermal heat source known as a mantle plume underneath the Antarctica’s Marie Byrd Land.
In the year 2000 an iceberg the size of Wales broke away from the shelf and the whole of the western edge is famously unstable.
Many environmentalists blamed man-made climate change.
And a news story in the Independent warned: “Climate change and the hole in the ozone layer could cause ‘a catastrophic collapse’ of the vast amount of ice on west Antarctica, raising sea levels by 3.3 metres.”
But the discovery of a mantle plume – a mass of superheated molten rock close to the Earth’s surface – has posed new questions.
A mantle plume – the same geothermal phenomena powering the current Mount Kilauea volcano in Hawaii – is a stream of hot rock rising up through the Earth’s mantle and spreading beneath the crust like a mushroom .
The mantle plume theory was developed in the 1970s to address apparently inexplicable geothermal activity thousands of miles far from the boundary of a tectonic plate.
Scientists believe a mantle plume exists underneath Antarctica’s Marie Byrd Land explaining the well-documented instability and weakness of the ice sheet today.
One study was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research4 and backed by a detailed NASA study that adds evidence that there is a geothermal heat source beneath the Antarctica region.
Researchers Helene Seroussi and Erik Ivins of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory created a model of the areas of melting and freezing under the ice in the region.
NASA’s model showed showed a measure of heat around 180 milliwatts per square meter. At Yellowstone Park – famed for its hot springs and geothermal geysers – the temperature is only a little higher at 200 milliwatts per square meter.
Another recent scientific study showed thinning and melting of Marie Byrd Land is not a new – post industrial – phenomenon.
The West Antarctic Ice Sheet has thinned by more than 700 meters near the coast throughout the past 10,000 years.