GeoLog

Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Petrology & Volcanology

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 http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: harnessing Earth’s inner heat

Imaggeo on Mondays: harnessing Earth’s inner heat

Iceland, the land of ice and fire, is well known for its volcanicity. Most famously, it is home to Eyjafjallajökull: the volcano which caused wide spread mayhem across European airspace when it erupted in 2010.

But not all the local volcanic activity is unwelcome. High temperature geothermal areas are a byproduct of the volcanic setting and the energy released can be used to power homes and infrastructure. Indeed, geothermal power facilities currently generate 25% of the country’s total electricity production.

“I took the photograph during a three hour walk in the Krafla area, a few kilometres away from Myvatn Lake in Northern Iceland,” explains Chiara Arrighi, a PhD student at the University of Florence in Italy, who took today’s featured image while on a two week holiday on the island.

There are 20 high-temperature areas containing steam fields with underground temperatures reaching 250°C within 1,000 m depth dotted across the country. Krafla, a caldera of about 10 km in diameter, and the wider Myvatn area is one of them. The volcano has a long history of eruptions, which drives the intrusion of magma at (geologically) shallow depths which in turn heats groundwater trapped deep underground, generating the steam field. Only a few hundred meters from the shooting location a power station of 60 MW capacity exploits high- and low-pressure steam from 18 boreholes.

Fumaroles and mud pots, like the one photographed by Chiara, are the surface expression of the geothermal activity. The discoloration of the rocks in the immediate vicinity of the bubbling mire is due to the acidic nature of the water in the pool. The steam is rich in hydrogen sulphide, which oxidises to sulphur and/or sulphuric acid as it mixes with oxygen when it reaches the surface. It deposits around the vents of fumaroles and as sulphuric acid in the stagnant waters, leading to alteration of the surrounding bedrock and soil.

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 http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Life on bare lava

Life on bare lava

There are plenty of hostile habitats across the globe but some flora and fauna species are resourceful enough to adapt and make extreme environments their home. From heat-loving ants of the Sahara to microbes living in the light-deprived ocean depths, through to beatles who brave the bitterly cold Alaskan winter, there are numerous examples of plants, animals and bugs who strive in environments often considered too challenging to harbour life. In today’s post, brought to you by geomorphologist Katja Laute, we feature Vinagrerilla roja, a plant species adept at making difficult terrains its home.

Vinagrerilla roja (Rumex vesicarius) / the Canary Island bladderdock is one of the most successful endemic plants for colonizing new territory in arid and volcanic areas. The photo was taken on the crater rim of the volcano Montana Bermeja (157 m asl.), located at the northernmost edge of the volcanic island La Graciosa. The island was formed by the Canary hotspot and is today part of the protected Chinijo Archipelago Natural Park which shelters endemic and highly endangered species of the Canary Islands.

The volcano Montana Bermeja is composed of red lapilli (pea to walnut-sized fragments ejected during an eruption) which seems to impede any kind of life. But as the photo shows, the bladderdock is actively growing in this apparently hostile environment. That plant life emerges from such a barren and rough volcanic environment seems almost impossible.

Only very few pioneer species succeed and manage to survive in such harsh environments with little to no soil and under an almost desertic climate. Being located on the northern side of the crater rim enables the bladderdock to capture moisture out of the reoccurring Atlantic winds. As these pioneer species grow, their dead leaves and roots will enrich the soil with organic content providing the base for a chain of ecological succession.

By Katja Laute, researcher at IUEM, Brest, France

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 http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: the remotest place on Earth?

Imaggeo on Mondays: the remotest place on Earth?

Perhaps a bold claim, but at over 4,000 km away from Australia and 4,200 km from South Africa, Heard Island is unquestionably hard to reach.

The faraway and little know place is part of a group of volcanic islands known as HIMI (comprised of the Heard Island and McDonald Islands), located in the southwest Indian Ocean. Shrouded in persistent bad weather and surrounded by the vast ocean, Heard Island, the largest of the group, was first sighted by the merchant vessel Oriental in 1853.

Its late discovery and inaccessibility mean Heard Island is largely undisturbed by human activity (some research, surveillance, fishing and shipping take place on the island and it’s surrounding waters). It boasts a rich fauna and flora: seals, invertebrates, birds and seals call it home, as do hardy species of vegetation which grow low to the ground to avoid the fierce winds which batter the island.

Geologically speaking the islands are pretty unique too. They are the surface exposure of the second largest submarine plateau in the world, the Kerguelen Plateau. Limestones deposited some 45–50 million years ago began the process which saw the emergence of the islands from the ocean floor. Ancient volcanic activity followed, accumulating volcanic materials,  such as pillow lavas and volcanic sediments, up to 350m thick. For the last million years (or less) Heard Island has been dominated by volcanism, giving rise to the 2745m tall Big Ben and 700m tall Mt. Dixon. Eruptions and volcanic events have been observed on the island since 1947. Much of the recent volcanism in the region has centered around McDonald island, which has grown 40 km in area and 100 m in height since the 1980s.   

As the group of islands provides a remarkable setting, where geological processes and evolution (given that large populations of marine birds and mammals numbering in the millions, but low species diversity) can be observed in in real time, UNESCO declared HIMI a World Heritage Site back in 1997.

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 http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.

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