The active West Antarctic Rift System, which extends from the continental shelf of the Ross Sea, beneath the Ross Ice Shelf and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, is comparable in size to the Basin and Range in North America, or the East African rift systems. Geophysical surveys (primarily marine seismic and aeromagnetic combined with radar ice sounding) have extended the information provided by sparse geologic exposures and a few drill holes over the ice and sea covered area. Rift basins developed in the early Cretaceous accompanied by the major extension of the region. Tectonic activity has continued episodically in the Cenozoic to the present, including major uplift of the Transantarctic Mountains. The West Antarctic ice sheet, and the late Cenozoic volcanic activity in the West Antarctic Rift System, through which it flows, have been coeval since at least Miocene time. The rift is characterized by sparse exposures of late Cenozoic alkaline volcanic rocks extending from northern Victoria Land throughout Marie Byrd Land. The aeromagnetic interpretations indicate the presence of > 5 x 105 km2 (> 106 km3) of probable late Cenozoic volcanic rocks (and associated subvolcanic intrusions) in the West Antarctic rift. This great volume with such limited exposures is explained by glacial removal of the associated late Cenozoic volcanic edifices (probably hyaloclastite debris) concomitantly with their subglacial eruption. Large offset seismic investigations in the Ross Sea and on the Ross Ice Shelf indicate a ~ 17-24-km-thick, extended continental crust. Gravity data suggest that this extended crust of similar thickness probably underlies the Ross Ice Shelf and Byrd Subglacial Basin. Various authors have estimated maximum late Cretaceous-present crustal extension in the West Antarctic rift area from 255-350 km based on balancing crustal thickness. Plate reconstruction allowed < 50 km of Tertiary extension. However, paleomagnetic measurements suggested about 1000 km of post-middle Cretaceous translation between East Antarctica and Pacific West Antarctica. Because a great amount of crustal extension in late Cenozoic time is unlikely, alternate mechanisms have been proposed for the late Cenozoic volcanism. Its vast volume and the ocean island basalt chemistry of the exposed late Cenozoic alkaline volcanic rocks were interpreted as evidence for a mantle plume head. An alternative or supplemental explanation to the mantle plume hypothesis is significantly greater lower lithosphere (mantle) stretching resulting in greater decompression melting than the limited Cenozoic crustal extension allows. Because of very slow rates of late Cenozoic extension in the West Antarctic Rift System, the amount of advected heat is small compared with the conductive heat. Therefore, phase transition probably would not explain the large subsidence with low extension observed in the West Antarctic Rift System. (C) 1999 Elsevier Science B.V.