High geothermal heat flux found below Subglacial Lake Whillan in West Antarctic

A study published in the journal Science Advances on July 10 has revealed that heat flowing toward West Antarctica ice sheet’s base from different geothermal sources of the Earth’s core is amazingly high in intensity.

The said study was carried out by researchers representing the UC Santa Cruz and provides researchers with essential data that would aid them in predicting the ice sheet’s fate. For those who don’t know: the past decade have seen this ice sheets experience rapid melting.

Andrew Fisher, the study’s lead author, stressed that geothermal heating talked about in this new study doesn’t actually explain the worrying ice loss in West Antarctica documented by several other researchers. He said that this geothermal heat is part of the system in West Antarctica, and it was very much there both even when the ice sheet was formed and evolved.

However, Fisher added that the presence of the geothermal heat flux might help in finding the factors that are making the sheet to unstable. According to him, adding global warming to the equation can change things pretty quickly. Fisher represents UC Santa Cruz as a professor of Earth and planetary sciences.

Such colossal heat flow under the West Antarctica ice sheet might also help researchers in explaining why lakes are formed underneath it as well as why certain parts of the sheet gets converted into ice streams so rapidly.

It’s believed that water at the ice streams’ base is meant for providing lubrication for speeding their motion up. Fisher pointed out that during the study geothermal measurement was obtained from just a single location. He also informed that heat flux will be different at different spots underneath the ice sheet.


This is the first ever geothermal heat flux measurements carried out underneath the West Antarctic ice sheet. So, according to Fisher, he and his team don’t have any idea about how localized these excessively hot geothermal conditions can be. He further said that this region often hosts volcanic activities; as a result, the measurement might be a result of a local source of heat on the curst.

The study discussed here is part of a big drilling project and has been funded by Whillans Ice Stream Sub glacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD), a National Science Foundation. The project has two other participating organizations besides UC Santa Cruz.


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