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Student's obsession leads to discovery of Antarctic volcanoes

Max Van Wyk de Vries helped find what may be 'largest volcanic region on earth'.

Discovery: Max uncovered the volcanoes in his first year.
Discovery: Max uncovered the volcanoes in his first year. R.G. Bingham/Max Van Wyk de Vries / composite

As a first year student, Max Van Wyk de Vries was already getting ahead of himself by studying data in his spare time from his geology degree.

Growing up Clermont-Ferrand in France surrounded by volcanoes, his childhood fascination would soon lead to a remarkable discovery at just 18.

The Edinburgh University student, now 20, had stumbled upon data that would lead to nearly 100 volcanoes being identified below Antarctica's vast ice sheet - which could be the world's largest volcanic range.

"I started noticing these cones that shouldn't be there, that stood out from the rest of the land forms beneath the ice sheet," Max says.

"I grew up in France in surrounded by volcanoes... as a child I always loved climbing up those volcanoes and playing in the crater.

"So I just recognised something in that shape which made me think 'why are these down in Antarctica', which got me started down the path of looking into into it further and eventually talking with the glaciology professors about it, which was when I really realised it might be something of interest and it may not just be just a random discovery."

Max was studying data in his spare time when he made the discovery.
Max was studying data in his spare time when he made the discovery. Max Van Wyk de Vries

The peaks, the largest of which is as tall as the Eiger in Switzerland at more than 13,000ft, were found concentrated in a region known as the West Antarctic Rift System, spanning 2175 miles from Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Speaking with Dr Andy Hein and Dr Robert Bingham, the student's lecturers were taken aback by his findings and together they worked for two years to produce a paper mapping out the locations of Antarctica's newly uncovered volcanoes and the impact they may have.

Dr Bingham says instances where students uncover information of this magnitude are rare and usually occur through deliberate study rather than from those in their first year.

"In every other scenario when I've ever had anything like this, the student was actually pursuing it for lets say their dissertation or an assignment," explains the glaciologist.

"As far as I'm aware, this is something he was doing off his own back almost as a hobby. I think that's just an amazing aspect of the study."

Using around 40 years' worth of data collated across the world via radar, Max's discovery of the conical shapes was a surprise to Robert.

He assumed work had previously been done to use the data to interrogate the existence of volcanoes but was surprised to find there had not.

Dr Bingham adds: "Those data are generally used to give us information like how much ice is in west Antarctica and what's the shape of the bed for ice sheet modelling, and in general to answer the question about projecting ahead to how the ice might be thinning and contributing to sea level rises."

Dr Bingham helped measure ice thickness during an NERC/iSTAR expedition.
Dr Bingham helped measure ice thickness during an NERC/iSTAR expedition. R.G. Bingham

Hidden under more than a mile of ice, the two lecturers along with Max remotely surveyed the underside of the ice sheet for hidden peaks of basalt rock, whose tips push above the ice.

They compared the findings with satellite and database records as well as aerial surveys to present their findings with the utmost confidence.

The 91 volcanoes identified in their paper rival those in east Africa's volcanic ridge, which is currently known as the densest concentration of volcanoes around the world.

Max's discovery could mean Antarctica could take the title instead.

He says due to the near-perfect shape of the volcanoes, many of them are "fairly young" and could be active.

The impact of the discovery has now turned attention towards rising sea levels and global warming.

"There are concerns that combined with external factors, combined with rising sea temperatures and such like due to global warming and climate change which has been fairly heavily impacting the area, that these volcanoes could be something of a tipping point that either accelerates ongoing ice melts or causes ice melts to happen faster than it otherwise would have" Max explains.

Dr Bingham argues the fact the volcanoes protrude upwards into the ice could act as an obstacle to rising sea levels.

"The effects could go both ways, it all depends on whether the volcanos are primarily active or not, as to what their impact might be and that's simply something that we don't know," he says.

"There's still a lot of questions about this but there's work that is yet to be done."

The volcanoes lie more than a mile beneath the ice.
The volcanoes lie more than a mile beneath the ice. R.G. Bingham

Dr Bingham believes the results could lead to the locations of the volcanoes being studied in more intense detail in the coming years and welcomes new scientists to take the lead on their research work.

Max's priorities lie with passing his third year and working towards his dissertation.

Working on geological mapping in the French Alps for the past month, he says while he never expected to study the volcanoes from his youth, a new career path may have opened up due to his discovery.

"I like the fact that in science, in studies like this you're both answering questions but when you answer those questions each question raises five, ten new questions as well," he says.

"In a way it's a never-ending process but that's very exciting because while you think you understand the world more, in a way you realise how little of it you understand as well.

"I find that very exciting."

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