I am the 20 year old student who recently discovered 91 volcanoes in Antarctica! AMA
I am Max Van Wyk de Vries, an undergrad student from the university of Edinburgh who recently published a paper as lead author about 91 previously unknown volcanoes under the Antarctic ice. I am here to answer any questions about the study, its implications or anything else you guys care to ask about!
The paper is open access (free) and you can read it here: http://sp.lyellcollection.org/content/early/2017/05/26/SP461.7
If you want a brief intro as to what this is all about here is a pretty good article by the Washington post about the study: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/08/15/another-climate-change-nightmare-dozens-of-volcanoes-beneath-antarcticas-thinning-ice/?utm_term=.64a89d2a71d9
Top comments on this AMA get a volcano named after them!
No seriously, it is not up to me to name these volcanoes at this point. There is a special committee whose role it is to give things names, such as remote volcanoes or mountains, in Antarctica. But people who study Antarctica for long enough are good candidates, and usually end up having something named after them (for example my coauthor Rob Bingham), so I could be in luck someday!
Please name a volcano after my ex-girlfriend. As long as you Caldera bad name.
Name one after my ex, also. Great mounds, usually pretty cool, but when she blew up she'd wreck EVERYTHING.
She sounds like she could be a blast, but maybe a bit of an ash hole sometimes.
Wow super answr dude
Thanks mate! I do try and work for the crater good to have a bit of an impact.
did you feel hindered at all by your age, or were experts in the field open to your findings without bias?
Luckily I did not end up having too many problems with this- if anything I maybe doubted myself because of how young I was. I found it hard to believe at first that an undergrad like me could stumble across something this big without anyone else having discovered it! Luckily scientists are, in my experience, fairly open to others no matter their background. So long as the evidence you present is solid and your research interesting, they will give your their time of day and treat you without any bias. For getting the story published my lack of experience was maybe a little more of an issue sometimes, it can be quite delicate choosing which journal to send the paper to and how to format it. Luckily my coauthors have a wealth of experience on this so were able to help me through.
What lead you down your path of discovery?
To be honest it was something of a coincidence to start with!
I started looking at the Antarctic data for another reason entirely- I was just trying to understand more about how the ice sheet flowed. However I started stumbling across cones under the ice, something that should not be there normally as ice erodes the land into long valleys and ridges. I grew up in a region surrounded by volcanic cones, so it immediately occurred to me that these may be volcanoes.
I didn't think it was necessarily a big deal at first, but by talking to different professors and reading up about the area it became evident that this could actually be an important discovery. And this started me down the path that lead to getting this published.
Have you set on foot on Antarctica?
Honestly though, actually going to Antarctica probably wouldn't have helped much with this study. The newly discover volcanoes are all hidden under 1-2km of ice so people can walk right over them without knowing they're there. We analysed the base of the ice sheet from afar using data collected from many previous expeditions to Antarctica. Both my coauthors have been to Antarctica though, for several months!
Do you want to go?
Would these volcanoes also help contribute with the melting of Antarctica? In the point of view, that the volcano is heating the ground enough to melt the ice from below. Are any of them super volcano like the one in yellow stone park?
Very good question actually, this is exactly what us scientists are asking ourselves as well.
It is difficult to say at this point, but the idea is generally that these volcanoes are unlikely to be the main cause of ice melt. The main cause is, and for the foreseeable future is likely to remain, rising air and sea temperatures linked to climate change. However there are definitely concerns that if they erupt at the right (wrong?) moment these volcanoes could accelerate ice sheet collapse by melting pathways for warm seawater to seep under the ice or accelerating ice flow.
One very interesting feedback is that ice ice starts to melt the volcanoes will almost certainly become more active. Volcanoes are very sensitive to pressure, and melting ice removes pressure, thus melting ice makes the volcanoes more likely to erupt. For example when the ice melted from Iceland 10 000 years ago the volcanoes there erupted 10x more than normal.
So basically we are not sure yet if the volcanoes can melt the ice, but we are pretty sure that the ice can set off the volcanoes!
Are you going to publish a book by any chance?
I'm hoping to do a collaboration with George R.R. Martin set in Antarctica called 'A song of Ice and Fire 2'. Complete with murder, intrigue and fire breathing penguins.
Are you happy with 91, or did you try really hard to find another 9 to make it a nice round even number?
Maybe even regret that 91st one?
Haha its true that 91 doesn't make quite such a clean headline. I can't say that I am disappointed though as this discovery makes Antarctica one of the world's biggest volcanic regions!
At the start of the study we had identified almost 200 cones that were volcano candidates, however we used some quite strict criteria to ensure that the cones were actually volcanoes. This meant that we narrowed the list of new volcanoes down a little, but we were able to say with near 100% confidence that those 91 listed are actually volcanic. Some of the tests we used were going through magnetic and gravitational data of Antarctica and crosschecking each cone (as volcanic rocks are denser and have a different magnetic signal than other rocks).
Also, as more data comes in about the Antarctic ice bed, we will almost certainly discover more (smaller) volcanoes -no pun intended- these 91 are just the tip of the iceberg!
What is your favorite dinosaur?
Also, you should name one of your volcanoes after said dinosaur.
Think I would go with the archaeopteryx, I've always kind of wanted to fly to be honest :p
Not sure that it would make a great name for a subglacial volcano though, it may be a bit claustrophobic for it though.
How long have these volcanoes been dormant? Do you expect them to erupt within the next thousand years?
It is quite hard to say for individual volcanoes, but as a whole it is very likely that one will erupt in the near future. The size and near conical shape of the volcanoes suggest that they are all fairly young (several million years at most, sounds old but really isn't for this kind of thing).
Some researchers have previously detected signs of activity at other volcanoes, so it is very likely that a number of these will erupt within the next few 100 years.
Also as I explained in an earlier comment, if we begin to melt large quantities of ice off of Antarctica, we will almost certainly see a large increase in the volume and rate of volcanism (more eruptions) !
What's your most interesting find?
The most interesting find is probably the fact that some of the volcanoes are HUGE! The fact that there are a large number of undiscovered volcanoes over 1000m high and 10km wide under the ice was honestly surprising to me at first. In a way this really brings home how huge Antarctica is - that insignificant looking white land at the bottom of the map is actually and area larger than Europe covered in 2-3km (1.5-2 mi) of ice!
What are your plans for the future? Continuing research in volcanoes/Antarctica, or something else?
To be honest I am still not entirely sure where I am going to end up, I still have a final year at university to complete! I would definitely like to continue this work on volcanoes and Antarctica though, it is a super interesting topic to work on. Even before I thought the research would be a big deal I was looking into the area!
I think a lot of future work can come out of the discovery of these volcanoes as there are still a lot of questions to answer about them. For example, how many of them are active/have recently been active? What effect could these volcanoes have if the ice sheet starts melting significantly?
I would love to be one of the people who helps answer these questions.
Any super volcanoes?
Luckily not, any super volcanoes would be on another scale entirely!
On a side note, having a supervolcano blow up under the Antarctic ice sounds like bad news, but it is a whole lot better than having one blow up anywhere else. If Yellowstone or any of these other supervolcanoes were to explode they would make most of the world feel as cold as Antarctica for a few years (and probably kill most of us). But hey, it would probably look cool.
When the volcanoes do erupt under the 1000s of meters of ice, do they make the same formations as they would if they were exposed to air?
They can do. It really depends on the type of eruption, a large volcano erupting over an extended period of time can yield a cone similar to anywhere else on Earth. However they can also form other more interesting/exiting shapes. If you get a chance to visit Iceland or western Canada there are some spectacular examples there.
For example you will often get very fractured looking volcanic flows, or flat topped, table like volcanoes called Tuyas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuya).
Pretend like I'm not much of a sciency guy. How did you locate the volcano's?
Would you name one "Burrr"?
Basically volcanoes have different shapes to non volcanoes.
Volcanoes build up via lava flowing out of a central hole, so make cones. These cones can either be steep (think Mt Fuji, Japan) or very shallow (for example Mauna Kea, Hawaii).
Especially underneath an ice sheet, non volcanoes will be eroded into long, thin landforms (think of the fjords in Norway for example).
This means that if you find a cone underneath an ice sheet it is most likely a fairly young volcano that has not been eroded away yet. This was out basic methodology for finding the volcanoes.
Mt Burrr would definately be a fitting name in an area where it can get down to -100°F (-70°C)!
Congratulations to getting a paper published at a young age, Few questions.
What's the next stage of research?
Are they feed by a hotspot like Iceland? Had a quick look online couldn't find anything about a Hotspot under Antarctica, I'm guess they have to be as there is no subducting plate.
What's was it like trying to get the paper published?
Cheers for that, I'll try and give a few answers.
We are still discussing the next steps in this project, but some likely lines of work are: 1) Expanding the search zone to other regions of Antarctica 2) Looking into the cones in more detail to determine which may be active 3) Working with the modelling community to determine what effect these volcanoes may have on ice flow/melt
You are right there is no subduction here, west Antarctica is actually a large rift zone (where the crust is getting stretched and thinned). Just like in East Africa or the New Mexico area of the US this can fuel volcanism. There may also be a couple of small hot spots in the region under Marie Byrd Land and Mt Erebus, but there are still questions about this (look up 'Erebus hotspot' in google scholar if you are interested).
Getting a paper published is both quite exiting and pretty slow. It took more than 6 months for the paper to be finally published, and I gather this is on the faster end. It is also quite fiddly getting the formatting and everything perfect, which they often expect. Overall the whole peer review process was great though and definitely helped improve the paper.
Do you think you will ever try to look for other natural disasters like maybe becoming a storm chaser?
Honestly yes, working with natural disasters is a fun path to go down. Not only are they exciting to work on and discover, but there is also the added long term benefit of understanding the hazards better and being able to improve safety for anyone who lives near them. I don't know about being a storm chaser though, where I live it tends to just rain lightly 24/7 so I don't know how interesting that would be :p
were you distrusted because of your age?
Surprisingly no, I didn't end up having too many problems with this. If anything the person that had the most doubts about this at first was me!
Almost every scientist I have spoken to about this has been more interested in the strength of the data and the content of the study than whether I am old enough to be 'trustworthy'. Of course a lot of people had questions about the study at first, but none of them related to my status as a student.
In a way I am lucky to be studying in this field, I am sure it is not this good everywhere:)
Did you make any money from this?
Nope, no financial gain. I did all this research alongside my studies so there was not even any academic grant involved.
I guess you could argue that over the long term it may help me secure a better job though, so maybe over the long run it will :)
What kind of data did you have? Where did you get it?
Most of the initial analysis was done using a dataset called Bedmap2, which is basically a topographical map of the Antarctic ice bed. The data is freely available online here.
We used a bunch of other data to crosscheck the initial findings including magnetic data and gravity data from various sources. If you are interested the sources are listed in the paper here.
Almost all the data we used is freely available online, and fairly easy to access on any GIS software.
Are you a geology major? Do you plan up pursuing a phd after undergard?
Good guess, I am a geology major.
I would definitely enjoy continuing in research, so doing a phd is a good path to go down eventually. I can't say that I have any exact plans for the future yet, but I will start searching out opportunities in this coming year.
Would you say you have 1 first name, 3 middle names, and one last name? Or how does that work?
I've has this problem for ages, it took me a year longer than everyone else at school to learn how to write my name!
van Wyk de Vries is just one very long and messed up last name.
Have you ever been tempted to jump in one purely based on how pants-shittingly cold it is there?
You would have to drill yourself through 1-2km of ice before jumping in most of these volcanoes!
It is definitely a good idea though, I think Antarctica could do with a large, natural hot tub.
Probably not all that much, at least to start with.
For a start these are not the explosive type of volcanoes, they are more the calm lava flow type (think Hawaii). The concerns would not be so much from the volcanoes melting ice directly, but rather because the volcanoes could open up cavities below the ice for warm seawater to infiltrate and melt the ice from below (most the area is below sea level).
What the hell! Volcanoes in Antartica?? I think you are high
High in latitude maybe ;)
I'm very curious, what insight or opportunity did you have that the larger community did not have? Is Antarctica that unexplored? Kudos for doing the work... I thought that this was already known territory. That the land under the ice and the tectonic forces were both know.
I've been asked this question a lot actually, and I'm not sure myself what the answer is.
One possibility is ''I didn't know it was impossible, so I did it''. Basically people who had worked on the area for years wouldn't have expected to find volcanoes there (as none were known of yet), so may have unconsciously ignored evidence for them.
Having grown up around volcanoes myself I had a fairly good idea what they looked like, so I was able to see what a seasoned glaciologist may have missed. Others have though of using this method locally, but we were the first ones to apply it to the whole west Antarctic basin.
It is surprising that there are still areas of the world that are unknown, but in a way it is exiting - the world is often a bigger place than we realise!
Did you get payed for it? (especially after it came clear, that you made such an important discovery) And if not so, how much did the research cost you? I often hear scientists are underpayed so I would be interested in your perspective :)
No, I did not get paid for this. It started off as a bit of a side project and developed into a major discovery, but I was never working for anyone.
On the flip side it didn't cost me anything, apart from a lot of time. Even though I dont benefit financially from it at this point, it was still totally worth it. Quite apart from being a good addition to my CV and everything doing the research is a lot of fun- I wouldn't hesitate for a second to do it again.
It is true that scientists often make less money than than people working in business/industry, but in a way the work is a lot more interesting and less repetitive so it sort of makes up for it.
What do you look forward to doing next, as in discovery wise?
Also, much kudos to you, an amazing find.
Thanks a lot, its been an exiting couple of years!
As to what work I most look forward to doing next, there are a lot of very interesting questions raised by this study that I would love to help answer. For example, we still don't know how many of these volcanoes are active or have recently been active.
With climate change being such a pressing issue a lot of very timely studies still need doing. Just in the area overlying the volcanoes there is enough ice to raise global sea levels by around 10 metres, which would obviously be devastating. As West Antarctica has shown signs of being highly unstable in the past, we need to monitor closely how the ice responds in the next few years. Understanding what role the volcanoes have in this system could help make our estimates more accurate, which is ultimately what we rely on to convince politicians/the general public to take action.
Congratulations!! This is very impressive and I'm always so grateful to see people advancing humanity's body of knowledge. That is a noble feat and it's impact will leave a powerful legacy for you.
Do you have any advice for people hoping to have a similar impact in their field at your age? It often feels like I don't know enough to have a big impact in my field (computer science) yet. Did you finish your studies early? Or did you just jump in not knowing as much as your professional peers, and pick stuff up as you go?
Ah thanks a lot, I hope it will do some good on the long run!
As for how to have an impact on your field at an early age, I would say just make sure you are studying something that you are interested/curious in. I didn't finish my studies early or anything, but I was always interested in what I was learning. This helps you quickly pick stuff up as you go- and you occasionally come across these unanswered problems that you can help solve.
Also, when it comes to your professional peers you don't want to try and compete against them, instead come up with something new and original that is your own and work with them on it. I was surprised by this at first, but it seems they don't judge you by your age/status as a student rather by the strength of your work. If you have an original idea they will listen to you :)
How many of these will eventually erupt and destroy the earth?
How many of these will eventually erupt?
Probably a lot of them. The volcanoes still have pretty nice, clean cone shapes so they have not been subject to glacial erosion for very long. This means they must have erupted fairly recently. Some of them could very well be active right now, but the traces of these eruptions hidden beneath 1000s of metres of ice.
and destroy the earth?
Most likely not (although with a lot of help from us humans they could give it a shot). A lot of people mistake this discovery for bad news, when on the contrary it is a good thing. From a planning perspective is is much better to know about and monitor 90+ potentially hazardous volcanoes than not know about them and have them messing any high precision climate models.
How could there be an active volcano under all that ice, unless it was underwater?
Since even a minor amount of lava puts off billions or trillions of BTU's, why wouldn't there be a chimney like hole reaching up from the active volcano to the surface?
You are totally right, any volcano that erupts there would rapidly melt the ice and be underwater. In some cases this water can escape in a flash flood (jokulhlaups) and leave a cavity for the volcano.
I'll be honest it took me an embarrassing amount of time to work out what a BTU was (we use joules over in Europe). Water is extremely good at sapping the heat out of magma, and once the surface of the lava cools the rest is stuck inside to slowly cool over time (and not melt its way upwards). It would take an extremely large volcano to melt its way through the Antarctic ice sheet directly upwards, even the largest supervolcano would struggle to get through 2km of solid ice.
How have your undergrad studies changed with this, along with your future path ?
My undergrad studies themselves have stayed pretty much the same as this was a side project. If anything it has made my studies a little more hectic with all the other side work!
As to my future path, I cannot read the future unfortunately so I cannot say, however I think having a paper out at my age can only help me no matter what path I take. It has definitely opened my eyes to the world of research and how stimulating the work can be.
What's up with the pyramid in antarctica? Whatdid the nazis admiral Byrd do there? Is the earth hollow? TELL ME NOW I NEED ANSWERS!!!
So if the ice melted away, would these volcanoes be submerged under water or would the top break the surface? I don't have a strong grasp of the topography down there. Like once the ice is gone, what is considered Antarctica?
Take a look at this map to see more or less where would be water if the ice all melted goo.gl/qr9B7z.
Many of these volcanoes would indeed be underwater if the ice was all removed, although a number of the larger ones would poke through the ocean making really cool volcanic islands.
The ice in this area has probably melted in the fairly recent path, so some of these volcanoes may actually have started their lives underwater. It would be interesting if it was possible to tell which volcanoes erupted into ice and which into water- it could help us identify when and where the ice melted in the past and understand present day vulnerabilities.
That's a really cool map! Thanks. I feel like I never really considered it as more than a large collection of ice so this is kinda mind bottling.
Yep it is super cool! Antarctica would be more of an archipelago rather than one coherent continent if all the ice were removed.
Awesome find. Congrats! What inspired you to search for these?
Thanks a lot mate!
I have always found Antarctica a pretty cool place, largely because it is so remote and always has potential for new discoveries! Based on this and my love of volcanoes (I grew up around some young volcanoes in central France), I was inspired to look in detail at remote areas of Antarctica.
Once I started discovering volcanic cones, I started discussing the work with other researchers (both in volcanology and glaciology) which eventually led to me writing a paper in collaboration with two of them!
Thats awesome. What techniques did you use to find them? Did you need special tools/technology with special permissions?
I did all the initial identification using a dataset called Bedmap2, which is basically a topographical map of the base of the Antarctic ice sheet. It is all freely available online, all you need is to know how to use a couple of computer programs to operate it.
Almost all the rest of the data we used was also freely available, apart from a few of the ice penetrating radar lines we used to check the cones. There is definitely a big push among the scientific community to make all data freely available nowadays, it is quite frowned upon to keep data to yourself for private/future work.
These sound like some sneaky volcanoes if they hid from everybody until now... Sneakiness level on a scale of 1-10?
I'd give them an 8.
They are sneaky, but they had a lot of help. Its like playing hide and seek in a cardboard box factory- if you don't know where to look you are unlikely to just come across them.
Do you keep imagining throwing a ton of ice into one of them just to see what would happen? For science
Basically this is already what would happen when any one of them erupts. Most of these volcanoes are covered in 1-2km of ice, so when they erupt the ice will almost instantly react with the magma.
If you want to see what happens when you mix a volcano with ice go visit Iceland or western Canada- there are plenty of examples of old volcanoes that erupted into thick ice. You get all sorts of cool and funky shapes, in particular table shaped volcanoes called Tuyas.
How many of them erupt through the ice?
Of the newly discovered volcanoes, none of them (at least today).
This is one of the major reasons that they were undiscovered- they are not visible from the surface at any point. All the previously known volcanoes in the region do erupt through the ice, and have a tip that is visible at the surface- which obviously makes them easier to find.
Many of the concerns about these volcanoes are not about them erupting through the ice, but rather about them melting pathways beneath the ice or making the ice flow faster.
Have you named them?
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