Earth Magnetism and Rock Physics

Imaggeo on Mondays: In the belly of the beast

In the belly of the beast . Credit: Alexandra Kushnir (distributed via

Conducting research inside a volcanic crater is a pretty amazing scientific opportunity, but calling that crater home for a week might just be a volcanologist’s dream come true, as Alexandra postdoctoral researcher at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Strasbourg, describes in this week’s Imaggeo on Mondays.

This picture was taken from inside the crater of Mount St Helens, a stratovolcano in Washington State (USA). This particular volcano was made famous by its devastating explosive eruption in 1980, which was triggered by a landslide that removed most of the volcano’s northern flank.

Between 2004 and 2008 Mount St Helens experienced another type of eruption – this time effusive (where lava flowed out of the volcano without any accompanying explosions). Effusive eruptions produce lava flows that can be runny (low-viscosity) like the flows at Kilauea (Hawaii) or much thicker (high viscosity) like at Mount St Helens. Typically, high viscosity lavas can’t travel very far, so they begin to clump up in and around the volcano’s crater forming dome-like structures.  Sometimes, however, the erupting lava can be so rigid that it juts out of the volcano as a column of rock, known as a spine.

The 2004 to 2008 eruption at Mount St Helens saw the extrusion of a series of seven of these spines. At the peak of the eruption, up to 11 meters of rock were extruded per day. As these columns were pushed up and out of the volcanic conduit – the vertical pipe up which magma moves from depth to the surface – they began to roll over, evoking images of whales surfacing for air.

‘Whaleback’ spines are striking examples of exhumed fault surfaces – as these cylinders of rock are pushed out of the volcano their sides grind against the inside of the volcanic conduit in much the same way two sides of a fault zone move and grind past each other. These ground surfaces can provide scientists with a wealth of information about how lava is extruded during eruption. However, spines are generally unstable and tend to collapse after eruption making it difficult to characterize their outer surfaces in detail and, most importantly, safely.

Luckily, Mount St Helens provided an opportunity for a group of researchers to go into a volcanic crater and characterise these fault surfaces. While not all of the spines survived, portions of at least three spines were left intact and could be safely accessed for detailed structural analysis. These spines were encased in fault gouge – an unconsolidated layer of rock that forms when two sides of a fault zone move against one another – that was imprinted with striations running parallel to the direction of extrusion, known as slickensides. These features can give researchers information about how strain is accommodated in the volcanic conduit. The geologist in the photo (Betsy Friedlander, MSc) is measuring the dimensions and orientations of slickensides on the outer carapace of one of the spines; the southern portion of the crater wall can be seen in the background.

Volcanic craters are inherently changeable places and conducting a multi-day field campaign inside one requires a significant amount of planning and the implementation of rigorous safety protocols. But above all else, this type of research campaign requires an acquiescent mountain.

Because a large part of Mount St Helens had been excavated during the 1980 eruption, finding a safe field base inside the crater was possible. Since the 2004-2008 deposits were relatively unstable, the science team set up camp on the more stable 1980-1986 dome away from areas susceptible to rock falls and made the daily trek up the eastern lobe of the Crater Glacier to the 2004-2008 deposits.

Besides being convenient, this route also provides a spectacular tableau of the volcano’s inner structure with its oxidized reds and sulfurous yellows. The punctual peal of rock fall is a reminder of the inherent instability of a volcanic edifice, and the peculiar mix of cold glacier, razor sharp volcanic rock, and hot magmatic steam is otherworldly. That is, until an errant bee shows up to check out your dinner.

By Alexandra Kushnir, postdoctoral researcher at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Strasbourg, France.

This photo was taken in 2010 while A. Kushnir was a Masters student at the University of British Columbia and acting as a field assistant on the Mount St Helens project.

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


Imaggeo on Mondays: Lava highway in Kanaga Island

Imaggeo on Mondays: Lava highway in Kanaga Island

On a rare sunny day, Mattia Pistone (a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC) was able to capture this spectacular shot of Kanaga, a stratovolcano in the remote Western Aleutians, which is usually veiled by thick cloud.

The Western Aleutians form a chain of 14 large and 55 small volcanic islands, belonging to one of the most extended volcanic archipelagos on Earth (1900 km), stretching from Alaska across the northern Pacific towards the shores of Russia.

As part of a team of researchers, Mattia spent three grueling weeks in the isolated region. Being one of the most extended volcanic arc systems on Earth, the Aleutians can shed light on one of the most fundamental questions in the Earth sciences: how do continents form?

The Earth’s landmasses are made of continental crust, which is thought to be largely andesitic in composition. That could mean it is dominated by a silicon-rich rock, of magmatic origin, which is fine grained and usually light to dark grey in colour. However, basaltic magmas derived from the Earth’s upper mantle and erupted at active volcanoes contribute to chemistry of the continental crust. The fact that continental crust bears the chemical hallmarks of both suggests that the formation of new continents must somehow be linked to motion of magma and its chemistry.

Establishing the link between magma generation, transport, emplacement, and eruption can therefore significantly improve our understanding of crust-forming processes associated with plate tectonics, and, particularly, help determining the architecture and composition of the continental crust. The Alaska-Aleutian archipelago is a natural laboratory which offers a variable range of volcanic rocks. The islands present a perfect opportunity for scientists to try and understand the origin of continents.

By collecting samples of volcanic ash erupted at Kanaga and other volcanoes of the Aleutian arc, Mattia and his colleagues are currently investigating the origin of this volcanic ash. Understanding its chemistry allow the team to get a clearer idea of the conditions that were present while the magma was forming and ascending, for example, how much water and iron were present.

The team were based on the Maritime Maid research vessel, and hoped from island to island collecting samples and taking measurements of volcanic activity as part of a large research consortium called GeoPRISMS, funded by the National Science Foundation. The field work was supported by a Bell 407 helicopter and its crew.

Today’s featured image shows an andesitic lava flow erupted in 1906. The volcanic deposits were explored during the field geological mission by Mattia and the team. Kanaga last erupted in 1994. Ash from that eruption was found in the nearby island of Adak. Even at present, there is a highly active system of fumaroles at the summit of the volcano.

If you pre-register for the 2017 General Assembly (Vienna, 22 – 28 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 1 February up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at

Looking back at the EGU Blogs in 2016: a competition

Looking back at the EGU Blogs in 2016: a competition

The past 12 months has seen an impressive 360 posts published across the EGU’s official blog, GeoLog, as well as the network and division blogs. From a lighthearted Aprils Fools’ Day post featuring an extreme chromatic phenomenon (otherwise known as FIB); through to how climate change is affecting mountain plant’s sex ratios; features on natural hazard events throughout the year and children’s disarming ability to ask really simple questions that demand straightforward answers, 2016 has been packed full of exciting, insightful and informative blog posts.

EGU Best Blog Post of 2016 Competition

To celebrate the excellent display of science writing across the network and division blogs, we are launching the EGU Blogs competition.

From now until Monday 16th January, we invite you, the EGU Blogs readers, to vote for your favourite post of 2016. Take a look at the poll below, click on each post to read it in full, and cast your vote for the one you think deserves the accolade of best post of 2016. The post with the most votes by will be crowned the winner.

New in 2016

Not only have the blogs seen some great writing throughout the year, they’ve also continued to keep readers up to date with news and information relevant to each of our scientific divisions.

With the addition of WaterUnderground, the network blogs now feature a groundwater nerd blog written by a global collective of hydrogeologic researchers. The new blog is for water resource professionals, academics and anyone interested in groundwater, research, teaching and supervision. Excitingly, it is also the first blog hosted jointly by the EGU Blogs and the AGU blogosphere.

The portfolio of division blogs was also expanded, with the addition of the Tectonics and Structural Geology (TS), Planetary and Solar System Sciences(PS) and Earth and Space Science Informatics (ESSI) blogs back in July. Since then they’ve featured posts on big data, a regular feature showcasing the variety of research methods used in tectonics and structural geology and research from the now iconic Rosetta Mission.

Fissure eruption at Bardabunga in 2014. Photo by Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson, as featured on the TS Blog.

Get involved

Are you a budding science writer, or want to try your hand at science communication? All the EGU Blogs, from GeoLog (the official EGU blog), through to the network and division blogs, welcome guest contributions from scientists, students and professionals in the Earth, planetary and space sciences.

It couldn’t be easier to get involved. Decide what you’d like to write about, find the blog that is the best fit for your post and contact the blog editor – you can find all editor details on the individual blog pages. If in doubt, you can submit your idea for a post via the Submit a Post page on GeoLog, or email the EGU Communications Officer, Laura Roberts, who can help with initial enquiries and introduce you to individual blog editors.

Don’t forget to a look at the blog pages for a flavour of the content you can expect from the new, and existing, blogs in 2017. The blogs are also a great place to learn about new opportunities, exciting fields of research and keep up to date with news relating to the upcoming 2017 General Assembly.


Editor’s note on the EGU Best Blog Post of 2016 Competition: The winning post will be that with the most votes on 15th January 2017. The winner will be announced on GeoLog shortly after voting closes. The winning post will take home an EGU goodie bag, as well as a book of the winners choice from the EGU library (there are up to 4 goodie bags and books available per blog. These are available for the blog editor(s) – where the winning post belongs to a multi-editor blog, and for the blog post author – where the author is a regular contributor or guest author and not the blog editor). In addition, a banner announcing the blog as the winner of the competition will be displayed on the blog’s landing page throughout 2017.

GeoTalk: Peter Lippert, understanding continental tectonics through palaeomagnetic studies

GeoTalk: Peter Lippert, understanding continental tectonics through palaeomagnetic studies

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Peter Lippert, a palaeomagnetist at the University of Utah, and winner of the 2016 EMRP Outstanding Young Scientist Award. He was granted the award for his contributions to insights into palaeoceanography and continental tectonics through palaeomagnetic studies. Crucially, his work using biogenic magnetite – magnetic grains found within organisms – to better understand the Palaeocene – Eocene boundary, is a significant advance in the field.

First, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I distinctly remember a conversation with my high school 4x800m relay team in which I emphatically stated that I was not interested in pursuing a PhD. At that time, Earth Science wasn’t on my mind, either. I thought I was headed to college to earn a degree in Environmental Engineering and Public Policy.

That changed rather quickly during my first semester at the University of Rochester, when I enrolled in an introductory geology class for mere interest and found myself obsessed with the topic. After two field seasons in the High Canadian Arctic, starting a research project, and seeing Death Valley National Park with the eyes of a budding geologist, I was a geoscience major headed into my junior year of college. I was incredibly fortunate to have great mentors at Rochester who prepared me for and encouraged me to consider graduate school.

I had spent my entire life in the Northeast US, and I was ready to move to the West Coast to begin graduate studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I selected the graduate program at Santa Cruz because of the collegiality and creativeness of the department, its reputation for international collaboration, and the strong paleoclimate and tectonics programs there, with the opportunity to carve out my own hybrid of the two. I slogged through graduate school with many of the highs and lows that most graduate students experience, but it was at Santa Cruz where I grew to love international research partnerships, teaching and mentoring undergraduate students, and the transdisciplinary nature of mineral, rock, and palaeomagnetic research.

After a brief stint teaching undergraduate courses at UCSC, I moved to Tucson, where I completed two post-docs fellowships. The first was sponsored by the National Science Foundation Continental Dynamics Program working with 13 other PIs from around the world and a huge cadre of great graduate students and other post-docs to reconstruct the India-Asia collision zone. The second was sponsored by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Earth Systems Evolution Program to develop and test new proxies for wildfire in the rock record.

As a complete aside, I also sailed as an expedition palaeomagnetist on the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Expedition 342 (Paleogene Newfoundland Sediment Drifts) during this time; sailing on Expedition 342 is arguably one of the coolest things I’ve done as a young geoscientist and has paved the way for new collaborations and palaeoclimate studies.

I joined the faculty at the University of Utah in 2014, where I’ve been teaching a mix of undergraduate core courses and graduate classes in structural geology, tectonics, and paleomagnetism.

I’ve spent my entire life in academia working with excellent mentors, colleagues, and students across Europe, Asia, and the US: I would have never predicted this when I was 18 years old, but I wouldn’t want it any other way now.

During EGU 2016, you received the Outstanding Young Scientist Award from the EMRP Division for your work on using biogenic magnetite to understand environmental change and also your use of palaeomagnetism to constrain tectonics. Let’s focus on the latter first and recap on some of the basics (for those readers who may not be so familiar with palaeomagnetism): how can palaeomagnetism studies help in continental reconstructions?

One of the hallmarks of Earth’s geomagnetic field is that if we measure and average its shape near the surface of the Earth over 1000s of years, we find that this shape is explained well by a simple magnetic dipole that is aligned with the spin axis of the Earth.

This approximation, which palaeomagnetists refer to as the Geocentric Axial Dipole (GAD) hypothesis, has two very convenient outcomes: over 1000s of years, the average positions of the geomagnetic poles are coincident with the geographic poles, such that declination— the horizontal component of lines of magnetic flux— points directly away or toward a pole, and that inclination— the vertical component of the magnetic field— is a simple function of latitude.

A simplified geomagnetic field redrawn from Robert Butler's 1992 book "Paleomagnetism: Magnetic Domains to Geologic Terranes".

A simplified geomagnetic field redrawn from Robert Butler’s 1992 book “Paleomagnetism: Magnetic Domains to Geologic Terranes“.

Thus, a package of rocks that forms over several 1000s of years at the equator will have a magnetic inclination of zero, whereas a package of rocks that forms at high northerly latitudes will preserve a magnetic inclination that is nearly vertical, and here in Utah, sediments in the Great Salt Lake are preserving a magnetic inclination that is approximately 60°.

The GAD hypothesis is incredibly powerful for tectonic reconstructions, because if you can date the age of a rock well and measure the magnetic inclination preserved in that rock and demonstrate that the magnetization has not be modified since the rock formed, then you can estimate the latitude at which that rock formed. You can imagine doing this for a series of rocks from the same area but of different ages and measuring if and how the latitude of that area has changed with time.

Paleomagnetic methods, based again on the GAD hypothesis, also provide the only way to quantify vertical axis rotations of large blocks of rock in the geological record. Because the declination always points toward the geomagnetic pole, changes in declination through time can reveal how a block of Earth’s crust, such as a chain of islands or a continent has rotated with respect to the pole or neighbouring blocks of crust. We apply these basic assumptions nearly every day in our research on convergent margin and continental tectonics.

A big chunk of your recent work has focused on using palaeomagnetism to decipher the tectonics of Tibetan Plateau. Could you give us a whistlestop tour of your work in that area?

I’ve been very fortunate to work with diverse and varied international teams throughout China. My graduate work began in Central Tibet and has expanded steadily outward since – in both space and time. I was introduced to Tibet by working on the Palaeogene (66-33 million years ago) tectonics of the central Qiangtang Terrane in the middle of the Tibetan Plateau, which at that time hardly anyone else was working on. I then had the opportunity to join a team working on the long-term slip history of the Altyn Tagh Fault, on the northern edge of the plateau and into the Chinese Gobi, and I have since spent three field seasons working in the remote deserts of the Alxa Region of northwest China, most recently with one of the graduate students in my group and a masters student from China University of Geosciences. I began working in Southern Tibet on India-Asia suture zone palaeogeography just as I started wrapping up my dissertation.

Sunset on Mt. Everest & Rombuk Monastery. Credit: Peter Lippert

Sunset on Mt. Everest & Rombuk Monastery. Credit: Peter Lippert

Through students, postdocs, and my own work, I remain active and invested in each of these regions. In all, I’ve already spent over a year of my life in the high, remote deserts of Western China working with colleagues and students from the US, Canada, Italy, The Netherlands, and several Chinese universities. I can’t say that I have a favorite trip, because each one has its own suitcase of unique memories, but one of the most special was a five week trip to west-central Qiangtang in the autumn 2007, to a very remote region of the plateau. That trip entailed just me, my undergraduate field assistant from Santa Cruz, our guide, and our drivers. The landscape, people, wildlife, and geology were spectacular and rarefied. It was one of the most challenging yet rewarding field seasons I’ve had, and it exemplifies the type of collaborative research and exploration experiences I’m trying to make available to my students and postdocs.

It certainly sounds like your field work has been a highlight of your work! What, would you say, is the biggest finding from your work in the Tibetan Plateau and how does it fit in with the overall geology of the region?

Fieldwork, creativity, and international collaboration are certainly some of the big perks of a career like this. What I regard as our biggest finding is a rather simple one. A large component of my PhD work and the first few years of my first postdoc focused on measuring robust estimates of the latitude of Southern and Central Tibet from 50 million years ago to the present. Our work— and I say our because this has been and continues to be a team effort— demonstrates that the southern margin of the Tibetan Plateau region was positioned at 20°N prior to and at the time pieces of India began colliding with Asia.

This conclusion fundamentally changes the way tectonicists, climate scientists, geodynamists, and paleobiologists think about the India-Asia collision. Previously, much of the community assumed, based primarily on pioneering but outdated and undersampled palaeomagnetic studies, that the India-Asia collision began at 10-12°N latitude and that the most of deformation associated with the collision accumulated in the upper plate of the collision zone (i.e., Asia). Our palaeolatitude estimates require that most of the deformation is instead partitioned into the lower plate of the system, largely by subduction and underthrusting of Indian-associated lithosphere beneath Asia.

Spring 2011 India-Asia Suture Zone field crew including graduate students from the University of Arizona, Utrecht University, and the Institute for Tibetan Plateau Research. Credit: Peter Lippert.

Spring 2011 India-Asia Suture Zone field crew including graduate students from the University of Arizona, Utrecht University, and the Institute for Tibetan Plateau Research. Credit: Peter Lippert.

Moreover, the proto-Tibetan Plateau was located within the high tropics and mostly within the low subtropics at the time collision began and throughout much of its history since. Therefore, we need to reassess how the Tibetan Plateau likely interacted with global atmospheric jets (like the Intertropical Convergence Zone and Westerlies), with important downstream effects on global and regional climate, precipitation patterns in and around the Tibetan Plateau region, physical and chemical weathering and therefore interactions with marine geochemistry, and regional floral and faunal biodiversity. We’re already seeing many different groups critically and creatively addressing each of these topics within this new palaeogeographic framework. By carefully measuring the magnetization of rocks, we can reconstruct a region’s paleogeography, which is, in many respects, a starting point for understanding many Earth System Science processes.

Another big focus of your work is biogenic magnetite. Can you tells more about it and how that fits in with palaeomagnetism?

My research group’s work on biogenic magnetite is quite separate from our research program in convergent margin and continental tectonics, which I love, because that helps keep things fun and intellectually diverse in the group.

Biogenic magnetite represents one of the many ways that rock and mineral magnetism is relevant to so many aspects of Earth System Science. In my group, we study magnetite that is made within the cells of oxygen-sensitive bacteria, so-called magnetosomes produced by magnetotactic bacteria.

Modern forms of these bacteria are genetically diverse, and the shapes of their magnetosomes are also varied, which may be related to the genetic and ecological diversity. We’re testing some of the assumptions that link morphological diversity and the specific ecology of the bugs, as well as methods for in situ magnetic measurements of that morphological diversity, as part of a larger goal of expanding the use of magnetotactic bacteria as biomarkers for specific ecological conditions in aquatic environments.

Simply put, what does the biodiversity of some of the smallest bugs in an aquatic ecosystem tell us about changes in surface processes, such as seasonal run-off, nutrient availability, and temperature, not only today, but also during periods of rapid cooling or warming in the geological record? We work with microbiologists to study these bugs primarily with magnetic measurements, high-resolution electron microscopy, and techniques developed in the materials science and nanotech communities.

UCSC undergraduate students taking in the neotectonics, glacial geomorphology, and volcanic history of the Mt. Morrison region of the Eastern Sierra Nevada as part of a capstone field class for Earth & Planetary Science majors. Credit: Peter Lippert.

UCSC undergraduate students taking in the neotectonics, glacial geomorphology, and volcanic history of the Mt. Morrison region of the Eastern Sierra Nevada as part of a capstone field class for Earth & Planetary Science majors. Credit: Peter Lippert.

We’ll round off the interview focusing on another reason why you have been recognised with this award: your commitment to mentoring and supervising undergraduate and PhD students. Could you tell us more about why you find this element of your work so important?

I’m compelled to quote Jack Kampmeier, the late Professor of Chemistry at the University of Rochester: “Research is teaching at different levels up and down the spectrum. Sometimes you’re teaching undergraduates, sometimes you’re teaching post-docs or visiting faculty members, but you’re always teaching.” And I would add to this that while teaching, you’re always learning.

As a member of an academic faculty, one of the most important things that I can do is help students learn how to learn for themselves, to give them the confidence and encouragement to use those skills to take calculated intellectual risks in pursuing their curiosity for how planetary processes work and to apply them to making their lives better.

I love the viewpoint and energy that an engaged classroom or lab brings to research and learning. Students, post-docs, and colleagues force us to challenge our assumptions and improve our explanations and models in ways that we cannot do on our own, and thus, working closely with students and fostering an environment in which it’s okay to take intellectual risks and question assumptions is a vital, and thankfully really fun aspect of maintaining a creative research program.


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