West Antarctica is also hemorrhaging ice due to climate change, and recent studies have suggested there is no way to reverse the retreat of West Antarctic glaciers. However, the timing of this retreat is still in question, Schroeder said - it could take hundreds of years, or thousands. It's important to understand which, given that meltwater from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet contributes directly to sea level rise.
Scientists use computer models to try to predict the future of the ice sheet, but their lack of understanding of subglacial geothermal energy has been a glaring gap in these models. Measuring geothermal activity under the ice sheet is so difficult that researchers usually just enter one, uniform estimate for the contributions of geothermal heat to melting, Schroeder said.
Of course, volcanism isn't uniform. Geothermal hotspots no doubt influence melting more in some areas than in others.
"It's the most complex thermal environment you might imagine," study co-author Don Blankenship, a geophysicist at UT Austin, said in a statement. "And then, you plop the most critical dynamically unstable ice sheet on planet Earth in the middle of this thing, and then you try to model it. It's virtually impossible."