The Antarctic has remained a place of mystery for years. Now we are finding out that it holds a volcano with bubbling lava. Scientists have recently discovered an active volcano in the heart of the frozen continent, likely remaining hidden for thousands of years.
It’s on a remote sub-Antarctic island. Mount Michael is a volcano shrouded in mystery. Only a handful of people know about the remote Saunders Island on which it sits. No one has ever climbed the summit before. But now, the expedition led by Dr. Emma Nicholson of University College London has. And it found the Antarctic volcano full of lava.
“Mount Michael has harbored a persistent thermal anomaly at its summit for decades. A hotspot much hotter than the surrounding area,” Nicholson said in a statement. “There are other ‘open vent’ volcanoes around the world. They host these hotspots that often have active lava lakes inside.”
Stable lava lakes are a rare geologic feature. They need to balance magma heat and heat loss at the surface to remain molten. Of about 1,500 active volcanoes on Earth, only seven have hosted one recently.
It is an ideal natural laboratory for studying how volcano emissions affect the local environment. The island’s closest inhabited neighbors are the Falkland Islands, 2,000 kilometers away. “Few other places have such a pristine environment. Here you know that every trace of metal in the environment comes from the volcano,” Nicholson said.
The team, whose adventure has been illustrated by National Geographic, had hoped to use some of the virgin snow for drinking water. But it was deeply acidic and completely undrinkable. It’s a clue to how much the volcano was affecting the island’s environment. “We expected there would be some interaction, but I never expected it to be this strong,” they said.
“It’s really a window into the development of more mature arcs,” Nicholson said. “The whole island arc itself is incredibly interesting. Geologically it’s one of the youngest volcanic arcs on Earth.”
Island arcs like these are home to millions of people around the world. The lava-filled Antarctic volcano would not only serve to study its effect on the environment. It would serve to improve eruption forecasting and monitoring capabilities at volcanoes in populated areas.