GeoLog

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This guest post was contributed by a scientist, student or a professional in the Earth, planetary or space sciences. The EGU blogs welcome guest contributions, so if you've got a great idea for a post or fancy trying your hand at science communication, please contact the blog editor or the EGU Communications Officer Laura Roberts Artal to pitch your idea.

Volcanic ash layers in Svalbard hold clues to the formation of the North Atlantic

Volcanic ash layers in Svalbard hold clues to the formation of the North Atlantic

This guest post by Dr Morgan Jones (a Researcher in Volcanology at the Centre of Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) at the University of Oslo, Norway) describes the latest findings of his multidisciplinary research into how the North Atlantic formed. His open access study, in collaboration with colleagues at CEED and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is published in the Nature Journal: Scientific Reports. This post is modified from a version which first appeared on John Stevenson’s blog, Volcan01010. Read the original post.

Summary

The Earth’s tectonic plates have pulled apart and come together multiple times during its long history. These processes leave hallmarks of the past layouts of continents, which allow scientists to reconstruct how the plates have moved through time. While we know from the geological record that these movements took place, it is sometimes difficult to work out when key events occurred and their correct order. One such example is just before the formation of the northeast Atlantic Ocean, around 62-55 million years ago, when there were several changes in the relative motions of North America, Greenland, and Eurasia (the combined landmass of Europe and Asia) in just a few million years.

A technique called radioisotopic dating allows us to determine the exact age of volcanic rocks. This study shows that the Greenland plate began to push against part of the Eurasian plate around 61.8 million years ago, leading to the formation of a mountain belt between Greenland and Svalbard. This precise age of first compression occurred at the same time as other changes around the edge of the Greenland plate. For the first time, this study provides evidence that these events are connected.

This gives scientists who work in plate tectonic reconstructions the ability to refine their models to understand how North America and Eurasia began to break apart.

Plate Tectonics in the Palaeocene

The Palaeocene epoch was between 66-55.8 million years ago, occurring after the Cretaceous period. The between the Cretaceous and the Palaeocene 66 million years ago is marked by the well-known catastrophe that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The Palaeocene was also an important time period for plate tectonic motions in the northern hemisphere. At the time when dinosaurs became extinct, the North Atlantic Ocean was still in its infancy and seafloor spreading did not extend further north than Canada and Portugal. Over the course of the next few million years, North America and Eurasia began to break apart, which eventually resulted in a seaway that connected the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

However, the break up was a complicated process. As the Atlantic Ocean grew northward, branches opened on either side of southern Greenland (between Canada to the west and Scotland/Norway to the east). The western arm pulled apart first, but at some point both of these rift zones were active, and a mountain range was formed in what is now Svalbard. This meant that for a short period (geologically speaking) Greenland was its own tectonic plate, moving independently of both North America and Eurasia.

The aim of our study is to pinpoint exactly when Greenland and Svalbard began to push together, as this compression is directly related to the rifting further south. This means that understanding the geological history of Svalbard can shed light on when and why Greenland became its own tectonic plate.

The Geology of Svalbard

The rock outcrops in western Svalbard are intensely folded and cut by long faults. They were once part of a mountain chain that formed due to Greenland and Svalbard pushing together. This was followed later by sideways movement as the northeast Atlantic Ocean began to open; pulling Greenland and Svalbard apart.

The rocks in south-central Svalbard, adjacent to this ancient mountain range, are sedimentary deposits that were formed in deltas and shallow seas. Mountain ranges often have low-lying regions alongside them (called basins) where sediments accumulate. Modern examples include the Po Valley next to the Alps in Italy and the Ganges Basin next to the Himalayas in India.

Importantly, these basins form at the same time as the mountains grow, which means that techniques to work out the age of rock formations can be used to accurately date when both the basin and the mountains started to form.

Dating First Compression between Svalbard and Greenland

An important tool for working out the age of a rock is radioisotopic dating. Radioactive isotopes of elements are unstable, meaning that over time they will degrade from one form to another. The half-life (the rate at which radioactive decay occurs) of each system varies from milliseconds to billions of years, which means that different isotope systems can be used for dating, depending on how far back in time your interest lies.

This is an edited version of Figure 5 from the paper, created using the open source plate tectonics software GPlates by Grace Shephard and Morgan Jones. It shows a regional reconstruction of how the tectonic plates were 62 million years ago. The blacked dashed lines show where the plate boundaries between North America, Greenland, and Eurasia are predicted to have been. The light blue areas show the approximate extent of seafloor in the Labrador Sea and in Baffin Bay. The orange areas show the rifting zone to the east of Greenland where the northeast Atlantic would later open. The purple areas show the known extent of magma intrusions and volcanic deposits from the first pulse of the North Atlantic Igneous Province (NAIP). The purple star is where the centre of the mantle plume is predicted to be at this time. The red arrows show the onset of compression between Greenland and Svalbard, beginning at 61.8 million years ago. The volcano symbols mark where the ash layers in Svalbard came from.

When considering millions to billions of years in the past, uranium-lead (U-Pb) dating is used as 238U has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years. Zircon crystals are ideal for this method as they form in cooling magma chambers. Zircons can have a high uranium concentration, which means that if they are found in volcanic deposits such as lavas or volcanic ash layers, they can be used to accurately date those rocks.

The sediments in Svalbard have numerous volcanic ash layers preserved within them. These ash layers are likely to have originated from volcanoes in northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island, now over 1000 km away across the ocean.

Based on the dating of these ash layers it is possible to calculate when sedimentation first began in central Svalbard. This age of valley formation, and therefore the initiation of compression between Greenland and Svalbard, is predicted to be start around 61.8 million years ago.

This age is significant because it overlaps with key events further south. Around 61.6 million years ago there was a dramatic change in the sedimentation in the North Sea from limestone to sandstone and siltstone. The speed of seafloor spreading increased between Canada and Greenland, and many faults were active along the edges of eastern Greenland.

The synchronicity of these events strongly indicates a common driving force affecting all margins of Greenland.

Potential Causes

A remaining mystery is what caused Greenland to change direction.

There are several possible candidates that could have caused the shift, either individually or together.

The acceleration of seafloor spreading in the Labrador Sea has the potential to drive changes in relative plate motions. It is also plausible that events further afield may be important. Greenland was in between the North American and Eurasian plates, so the change in motion may be a result of forces acting on one of these much larger plates.

Another possibility is the arrival of a mantle plume at the base of the crust. Mantle plumes bring considerable heat from deep in the Earth, resulting in widespread crustal melting and volcanic activity. The North Atlantic Igneous Province (NAIP) is one such example. The first pulse of magma arrived at the surface around 62 million years ago and is still causing enhanced melting today to form Iceland.

The scale of volcanic and magmatic products from the NAIP is truly enormous. Current estimates put the total amount of magma at 6 to 10 million cubic kilometres. Much of this activity is still exposed along the edges of the northeast Atlantic, including the British Isles, Faroe Islands, and East Greenland. There are also considerable deposits found in West Greenland. It is therefore possible that the change in plate motions may be connected to this pulse of magma. However, further work is needed to test this hypothesis.

By Dr Morgan Jones, Researcher in Volcanology at the Centre of Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) at the University of Oslo, Norway

Imaggeo on Mondays: Symbiosis of ice and water

Imaggeo on Mondays: Symbiosis of ice and water

This mesmerising photograph is another of the fabulous finalists (and winner) of the 2017 imaggeo photo contest. Imaggeo is the EGU’s open access image repository. It’s a great place to showcase your photographs; so whether you are stuck in the lab this summer, frantically typing away at a paper, or are lucky enough to be in the field, be sure to submit your photographs for all EGU members to see. You never know, we might choose to feature it on the blog too!

This picture was taken at Storforsen, an impressive rapid in the Pite River in northern Sweden. That day, the sinking sun illuminated the whole area with warm reddish colors which formed a contrast to the remains of the long-lasting winter period. The rapid is located close to the site of a temporary seismological recording station which is part of the international ScanArray project. Within that project we focus on mapping the crustal and mantle structure below Scandinavia using a dense temporary deployment of broadband seismometers.

By Michael Grund, Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT)

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sediments make the colour

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sediments make the colour

Earth is spectacularly beautiful, especially when seen from a bird’s eye view. This image, of a sweeping pattern made by a river in Iceland is testimony to it.

The picture shows river Leirá which drains sediment-loaded glacial water from the Myrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland. Myrdalsjökull glacier covers Katla, one of Iceland’s most active and ice-covered volcanoes.

A high sediment load (the suspended particles which are transported in river water) is typical for these glacial rivers and is visible as the fast-flowing glacial river (on the right of this image) appears light brown in colour. The sediment is gradually lost in the labyrinth of small lakes and narrow, crooked connections between lakes as can be seen as a gradual change in colour to dark blue.

The sediment load, height of the water  and chemistry of this and other glacial rivers are measured partly in real-time by the Icelandic Meteorological Office. This is done for research purposes and in order to detect floods from subglacial lakes that travel up to several tens of kilometers beneath the glacier before they reach a glacial river.

These glacial outburst floods do not only threaten people, livestock and property, but also infrastructure such as Route 1, a circular, national road which runs around the island. They occur regularly due to volcanic activity or localized geothermal melting on the volcano, creating a need for an effective early-warning system.

Advances in the last years include the usage of GPS instruments on top of a subglacial lake and the flood path in order to increase the early-warning for these floods. In 2015, the GPS network, gave scientists on duty at the Icelandic Meteorological Office 3.5 days of warning before one of the largest floods from western Vatnajökull emerged from beneath the ice.

The peak discharge exceeded 2000 m3/s,  which is comparable to an increase in discharge from that of the Thames to that of the Rhine.  This flood was also pioneeringly monitored with clusters of seismometers, so called arrays (from University College Dublin & Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Ireland), that enabled an early-warning of at least 20 hours and allowed to track the flood front merely using the ground vibrations it excited. The flood propagated under the glacier at a speed of around 2 km/h; so assuming you can keep up the speed over nearly a day you can escape the flood by walking while it is moving beneath the glacier.

Related publications about the tracking of these subglacial floods will emerge in the published literature soon (real time update available at www.evapseibl.wordpress.com).

By Eva Eibl, researcher at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Thanks go to www.volcanoheli.is who organised this trip.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: Tongue of a small giant

Imaggeo on Mondays: Tongue of a small giant

In a world where climate change causes many mountain glaciers to shrink away, bucking the ‘melting’ trend is not easy. In today’s post, Antonello Provenzale, a researcher in Italy, tells us of one glacier in the Alps which is doing just that.

Mountain glaciers are retreating worldwide, with the possible exception of the Karakoram area. For most glaciers, ablation (ice melt) during the warm season is stronger than the accumulation of new ice by snowfall. As a result, while glacier ice flows downhill, the accelerated melting at lower elevation forces the terminus of the glacier to retreat uphill, with a net loss of ice volume.

Such behavior is especially evident on the southern flank of the Alps, where many mountain glaciers have dramatically reduced their dimensions, often fragmenting into smaller, detached pieces.

An important exception is represented by the Miage glacier in Val Veny, Val d’Aosta, northwestern Italy, at the base of the Mount Blanc massif. This glacier is covered with a thick layer of debris, which protects the underlying ice from the direct heating by sunlight. The rocks which make up the debris are poor heat conductors and thus preserve the ice beneath them, making this glacier particularly stable.

This glacier is so stationary that vegetation and trees have grown on its margins and on the debris. Several ponds punctuate the surface of the glacier, as well as some areas on its sides. The Miage lake, for example, is directly in contact with the slowly flowing ice and it is sometimes run by large outburst waves generated by huge blocks of ice and rock falling into the lake water.

This picture was taken in September 2014, during a field excursion of the Italian Glaciological Committee. The image is a composition (stitch) of several images taken with a moderate wide angle lens on a rangefinder digital camera.

By Antonello Provenzale studies Geophysical Fluid Dynamics, Earth System processes and Geosphere-Biosphere interactions at the Institute of Geosciences and Earth Resources of the National Research Council of Italy.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

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