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Volcanoes Sheltered Life through Ice Ages

Mount Erebus is perhaps the most well-known volcano in Antarctica, and is one of the large volcanoes that may have sheltered life through past ice ages. Photo: Steven Chown

Mount Erebus is perhaps the most well-known volcano in Antarctica, and is one of the large volcanoes that may have sheltered life through past ice ages. Photo: Steven Chown

By Ceridwen Fraser

Researchers studying the diversity of life in Antarctica have found surprising evidence that many plants and animals survived past ice ages by huddling close to warm volcanoes.

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As the Earth enters an ice age and the polar ice caps expand, many plants and animals move away from the poles towards the Equator. Then, as the world warms and the polar ice caps shrink, species move back towards the poles.

Increasingly, however, we’re seeing evidence from genetics and fossil pollen that many species must actually have survived within the ice-covered regions around the Arctic and Antarctic. How could species that need ice-free land to live manage to survive within regions covered by massive glaciers?

Do Hot Rocks Make Ice-Free Oases?

There are hundreds of volcanoes in the world, as well as “hot rocks” heated by radiogenic decay, which occurs when unstable isotopes of some elements change into other elements, emitting heat. Both volcanic and radiogenic heat are forms of geothermal energy.

If you climb into a car in the middle of a cold winter there’s a good chance you won’t be able to see through the windscreen because it will be covered with ice. One way to get rid of ice on a windscreen is to heat the glass by blowing hot air from the car engine across it. The warmth of the glass melts the ice, and a quick swipe with the wipers allows you to see the road again.

In much the same way, warm rocks on the surface of the planet might be able to keep some areas ice-free. Where glaciers tower hundreds of metres above the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.