ScienceDaily (Dec. 18,
2007) — Scientists have discovered what they think may be another reason
why Greenland ‘s ice is melting: a thin spot in Earth’s crust is enabling
underground magma to heat the ice.
They have found at least one “hotspot” in the northeast corner of Greenland —
just below a site where an ice stream was recently discovered.
The researchers don’t yet know how warm the hotspot is. But if it is warm
enough to melt the ice above it even a little, it could be lubricating the base
of the ice sheet and enabling the ice to slide more rapidly out to sea.
“The behavior of the great ice sheets is an important barometer of global
climate change,” said Ralph von Frese, leader of the project and a professor of
earth sciences at Ohio State University. “However, to effectively separate
and quantify human impacts on climate change, we must understand the natural
“Crustal heat flow is still one of the unknowns — and it’s a fairly
significant one, according to our preliminary results.”
Timothy Leftwich, von Frese’s former student and now a postdoctoral engineer
at the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas,
presented the study’s early results on Thursday, December 13, 2007, at the
American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.
von Frese’s team combined gravity measurements of the area taken by a Naval
Research Laboratory aircraft with airborne radar measurements taken by research
partners at the University of Kansas. The combined map revealed changes in mass
beneath the Earth’s crust, and the topography of the crust where it meets the
Below the crust is the mantle, the partially molten rocky layer that
surrounds the Earth’s core. The crust varies in thickness, but is usually tens
of miles thick. Even so, the mantle is so hot that temperatures just a few miles
deep in the crust reach hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit, von Frese explained.
“Where the crust is thicker, things are cooler, and where it’s thinner,
things are warmer. And under a big place like Greenland or Antarctica , natural
variations in the crust will make some parts of the ice sheet warmer than
others,” he said.
The ice thickness, the temperature at the base of the ice, and ground
topography all contribute to the forming of an ice stream — a river of ice that
flows within a larger ice sheet. In recent years, Greenland ice streams have
been carrying ice out to sea faster, and ice cover on the island has been
Once the ice reaches the sea, it melts, and global sea levels rise.
“The complete melting of these continental ice sheets would put much of
Florida, as well as New Orleans, New York City and other important coastal
population centers, under water,” von Frese said.
The ice sheet in northeast Greenland is especially worrisome to scientists.
It had no known ice streams until 1991, when satellites spied one for the first
time. Dubbed the Northeastern Greenland Ice Stream, it carries ice nearly 400
miles, from the deepest interior of the island out to the Greenland Sea.
“Ice streams have to have some reason for being there. And it’s pretty
surprising to suddenly see one in the middle of an ice sheet,” von Frese
The newly discovered hotspot is just below the ice stream, and could have
caused it to form, the researchers concluded. But what caused the hotspot to
“It could be that there’s a volcano down there,” he said. “But we think it’s
probably just the way the heat is being distributed by the rock topography at
the base of the ice.”
Collaborator Kees van der Veen began working on the project when he was a
visiting associate professor of geological sciences and research scientist at
Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State. He is now at the University of
“Recent observations indicate that the Greenland Ice Sheet is much more
active than we ever believed,” van der Veen said. “There have been rapid changes
in outlet glaciers, for example. Such behavior is critically linked to
conditions at the ice bed. Geothermal heat is an important factor, but
until now, our models have not included spatial variations in heat, such as this
“Our map is the first attempt at quantifying spatial variations in geo-heat
under Greenland — and it explains why the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream is
where it is,” van der Veen added.
To measure actual temperatures beneath the ice, scientists must drill
boreholes down to the base of the ice sheet– a mile or more below the ice
surface. The effort and expense make such measurements few and far between,
especially in remote areas of northeast Greenland.
For now, the researchers are combining theories of how heat flows through the
mantle and crust with the gravity and radar data, to understand how the hotspot
is influencing the ice.
Once they finish searching the rest of Greenland for other hotspots, they
hope to turn their attention to Antarctica.
This research was funded by the National Science Foundation.
Adapted from materials provided by Ohio State
or report? Use one of the following formats:
Earth’s Magma Contributing To Melting Of Greenland Ice. ScienceDaily.
Retrieved December 18, 2007, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2007/12/071212103004.htm
view of Greenland. Scientists have discovered what they think may be another
reason why Greenland ‘s ice is melting: a thin spot in Earth’s crust is enabling
underground magma to heat the ice. (Credit: iStockphoto/Klaas Lingbeek- van
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