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Mount Erebus is an active volcano in Antarctica with an elevation of 12,448 ft.

A massive grouping of volcanoes is hidden underneath the Antarctic ice, according to a new mapping study of the continent.

The West Antarctic Rift System is a previously unknown phenomenon that could be a source of ice melt, according to the work by University of Edinburgh researchers featured in a special publication by the Geological Society of London.

The 91 new volcanoes – among a total of 138 total linking the 3,500-kilometer chain – appears similar to the volcanic ridge of East Africa, the authors write.

“The West Antarctic Ice Sheet shrouds one of the world’s largest volcanic provinces, similar in scale to the East African Rift System,” they write. “The presence of such a volcanic belt traversing the deepest marine basins beneath the center of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could be prove to be a major influence on the past behavior and future stability of the ice sheet.”

The analysis began with the concept of an undergraduate, Max Van Wyk de Vries, who theorized that publicly-available radar mapping of the continent could reveal what lies beneath the ice cover.

The ground-penetrating radar was compared and contrasted with aerial surveys and satellite images, write the scientists from Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences.

The cones they found were compared to known volcanoes in size and shape, and also for concentric magnetic anomalies with surrounding areas.

Their conclusion: the 91 new volcanoes range in height from just 100 meters, to a towering 3,850 meters.

“It is fascinating to uncover an extensive range of volcanoes in this relatively unexplored continent,” said Robert Bingham, one of the Edinburgh authors, in a school statement.

The volcanoes are of relatively recent origin – meaning they could be geologically active, they write.

“The largely uneroded nature of the cones suggest that many may be of Pleistocene age or younger, which supports the argument that the rift remains active today,” they write, adding that the concentration of volcanoes could mean major changes to come. “This raises the possibility that in a future of thinning ice cover and glacial unloading over the WARS, subglacial volcanic activity may increase and this, in turn, may lead to enhanced water production and contribute to further potential ice-dynamical instability.”

Van Wyk de Vries, the undergraduate whose theory kicked off the deep look into the ice, said curiosity fueled his work.

“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,” said the student.

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