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Film review: Revolution

Film review: Revolution

It’s not every day you are asked to review a film, and since it’s a documentary that encompasses a few of EGU’s sciences (such as climate sciences, biogeosciences, and energy, resources and the environment), I couldn’t say no. I’ll start by giving it a rating, 3.5/5 stars, though I would probably give it more if I were part of the film’s main target audience.

Revolution, by biologist-photographer turned filmmaker-conservationist Rob Stewart, is about some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. It aims to educate the audience about ocean acidification, climate change, overfishing and deforestation, alerting them to how these issues can impact our planet and, in turn, humanity. But it’s also about much more than that.

The film starts with Stewart telling his own story, revealing how his personal experiences lead him to make his first documentary, Sharkwater, and how researching and promoting that film made him want to tell the broader story of Revolution. This makes for good story telling, and it’s an interesting and candid introduction (Stewart says at one point that he had no idea how to make a movie before Sharkwater). But it seems a tad overly dramatic at times and not always scientific in its claims. For example, to illustrate how humans, responsible for many environmental problems, can also be part of their solution, Stewart tells a crowd in Hong Kong that the “holes in the ozone layer are almost a figment of our imagination now”, which is not exactly true. According to a 2014 NASA release, the ozone hole is still roughly the size of North America, though it has been shrinking over the past couple of decades. I should point out, however, that while there are some minor scientific inaccuracies here and there in the film (and a glaring typo in a sentence where CO2 appears incorrectly written as CO2) the majority of the facts and figures cited in the movie do roughly seem to be accurate, even if rather dramatic and seemingly exaggerated at first.

The movie becomes more exciting (though, at times, depressing too) when Stewart changes the focus from his story to the story of how life evolved on Earth, and what its future might look like. The backdrop is beautiful footage, worthy of a BBC wildlife programme. Stewart starts where life itself started, underwater, and the images showing a diversity of corals and colourful fish (and the cute pigmy sea horse) are breath-taking and work well in illustrating his points. For example, as the colourful imagery gives place to shades of grey, Stewart describes and shows how corals have been affected by ocean acidification and rising temperatures.

Coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has declined by 36% over the last 25 years. That's an enormous loss. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

Coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has declined by 36% over the last 25 years. That’s an enormous loss. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

If the footage, both underwater and on land, makes for a stunning background, the interviews with various scientific experts bring home the film’s key messages. To me, they are the strongest aspect of Revolution. Stewart talks to credible researchers who are able to communicate their, often complex, science in clear language. Some of the readers of this blog may be able to relate to scientists Charlie Veron and Katharina Fabricius, whose field work is shown in the film, while viewers less familiar with the effects of ocean acidification on coral reefs will likely be moved by the dramatic words of these researchers.

What the scientists tell us will happen if humans continue in the business-as-usual path is indeed gloomy: deforestation increasing, fisheries collapsing, greenhouse gas emissions and temperatures on the rise at unprecedented rates, species going extinct en masse… the list goes on. The issues of deforestation and mass extinction are addressed when Stewart travels to Madagascar: the island’s tropical dry forests are home to unique animals and plants, many of which have seen their habitats destroyed by the burning of trees to make room for pastures and crops. Humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels is illustrated when Stewart talks about the Alberta tar sands, and how resource intensive and polluting it is to extract oil from them. A key message of the film is again illustrated here by one of the experts interviewed. Hans Joachim (‘John’) Schellnhuber, a scientific advisor to the German Government and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, explains how stopping the Canadian tar sands project “is one of the decisive battles in the war against global warming”.

Indeed, Stewart sets out not only to inform people about the environmental issues faced by humanity, but also to encourage the audience to act on them: “Revolution is not just about the environment – it’s a film about hope and inspiration.” As such, Stewart balances out this negative outlook with examples of people who are standing up for climate justice and fighting for an end to fossil-fuel burning (and, sometimes, with clips of flamboyant cuttlefish and jumping lemurs!). Although it may not seem like it halfway through the film, the overall message is positive.

This is most evident when Stewart talks to young people, particularly those who travelled to Cancun, Mexico for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2010 (COP16). It is heartening to find out how committed and courageous some young people are in fighting for our future, their future, and in wanting to make the Earth a better place by changing human behaviour. This fighting spirit is best encapsulated in a speech by Mirna Haider, from the COP16 Lebanon Youth Delegation, which is particularly bold and moving, if impatient: “You have been negotiating all my life, you cannot tell me you need more time.”

Flamboyant Cuttlefish. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

Flamboyant Cuttlefish. Photo © Rob Stewart. From the documentary film Revolution.

Young people are those who may have the most to benefit from watching this film, and I think are the primary target audience of Revolution (there’s even an accompanying Educator’s guide with pre- and post-viewing resources and classroom activities teachers and parents might find useful). It inspires them towards (peaceful) revolution against corporations who profit from burning fossil fuels and from destroying natural resources, and against governments who take no action to stop them. It is a shame the film doesn’t address other ways in which individuals could help fight climate change, deforestation and ocean acidification, such as divesting from fossil fuels or eating less meat. But perhaps that’s something that resonates better with older people. Children and teenagers tend to be more optimistic about their power to save the Planet through revolution, and this film is sure to inspire them to act on the most pressing environmental problems the Earth faces.

Revolution premiered at festivals in 2012/2013, but has only been widely released earlier this year. You can watch the film online at: http://ykr.be/hn62dkp6v (sadly, it’s not free, but you can either rent it or buy it for only a few dollars, so it’s certainly affordable!). If the film is not available in your country through this link, please check http://therevolutionmovie.com/index.php/watch-the-movie/ to find out where you’d be able to watch it.

 

By Bárbara Ferreira, EGU Media and Communications Manager

Studying an active volcano – in pictures

Studying an active volcano – in pictures

Santiaguito volcano in Guatemala is one of the most active volcanoes in Central America: currently erupting every 45-90 mintues, from its active lava dome Caliente, while at the same time sending a lava flow down its flanks. This makes it an ideal study object for volcanology. A group of volcanologists from the University of Liverpool, in the UK, installed a network of geophysical stations around the volcano in November 2014, (you can find out more about that trip here). They’ve since been back to Guatemala to download the data recorded by the stations and carry out some maintenance. This photo diary blog post, by Felix Von-Aulock, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Liverpool, gives a snap shot of what it is like to carry out research on an active volcano: it’s challenging, packed full of adventure and rewarding in equal mesure!

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

The Institute for Seismology, Volcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology (INSIVUMEH) are working hard to deliver updates on the activity of at least 3 erupting volcanoes to public, governmental bodies, and scientists. They do a really good job, despite the constant lack of funding, personel and equipment. This is our first stop on our way to Santiaguito, picking up equipment we left here last time, and catching up with Gustavo Chigna, a volcanolgist at INSIVUMEH.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

A few hours drive from Guatemala City, we finally see our destination, the Cerro Quemado/ Almolonga complex, with Santa Maria volcano (the tallest peak) in the background.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

It’s not all about the science! Guatemala is one of the biggest producers of coffee in the world and a lot of the volcanoes are surrounded by coffee plantations.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

While the volcanoes produce very fertile soils for the coffee to grow on, they can be very destructive. This farm at the base of Santiaguito has faced major hazards from lahars – torrents of hot or cold water, laden with rock fragments, ash and other volcaninc debris which hurtle down the flank of a volcano or valley following an eruption.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

The canyons fromed by the lahars cut right through the farm and the workers’ homes.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

Another hazard faced by the local communities is that posed by pyroclastic flows: high-density mixtures of hot, dry rock fragments and hot gases that move away from an eruptive volcaninc vent (as defined by the USGS).
Pictured above is the flow path of the pyroclastic flow of May 2014. The  flow paved the way for many Lahars which formed this canyon. The pyroclastic flow also nearly wiped out the volcano observatory and missed it only by 20m.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

In total we deployed 11 stations around the volcano. This trip’s main purpose was to maintain them and download the data aquired since they were installed in November 2014. We were excited to find that the first station we visited had actually been recording data until the week before we arrived. We were less excited to discover that bean plants were being planted right next to it, possibly leading to some ploughing noise in our data.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

Our room, three hours after our arrival. The chaos didn’t vanish, however, the smell got increasingly bad after 2 weeks of three guys sharing this room. Amongst the chaos, lots of expensive equipment and a kitten!

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

After sorting out supplies and taking care of the stations at the base of the volcano in Quetzeltenango, we finally started our hike towards the active dome. While we (Felix Von-Aulock, pictured in the far right and Adrian Hornby, a volcanology PhD student, picture in the centre) went down towards Santiaguito Dome, Oliver, also volcanology PhD student, (pictured second from the right),  went to the top of Santa Maria to film with a thermal camera. Don Geronimo, on the far left, is a local who helped Oliver carry equipment and water to the 3700m high peak. Armando Pineda (second f. l) was our guide down the tricky path to the dome.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

It feels good to be finally walking after weeks of preparation and travelling, despite the packs being pretty heavy and the long day ahead of us.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

The first two days were hard work: a constant mix of rain and sun, heavy packs we were not quite used to yet and some extra walks made us feel sore pretty quickly.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

When there was rain, the sun would come out quickly thereafter and the beautiful surrounding made up for the hard work.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

A morning view from our campsite below the chain of domes that was formed during the last century. The riverbed below had a pretty decent river in it just the night before during a thunderstorm. We got caught by that thunderstorm, trying to move car batteries uphill, but luckily decided to turn around to the tent before the river and potential lahars would cross our route.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

The valley that leads to the active dome (Agua de Caliente) is an always changing channel, washed out by the frequent lahars. Good to have an experienced guide like Armando with us.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

The combination of a thin layer of ash and the frequent rain made some sections a bit tricky with the heavy packs.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

Here we’re digging out the first station, from here on we need to wear helmets as we’re about 300m from the active dome.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

The stations combine measurements of the sound (infrasound), the volcano’s seismicity and the tilt of the flanks of the volcano.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

The volcano is erupting frequently and every hour or so, we can see an ash plume rising into the sky above our heads.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

An eruption of the lava dome of Santiaguito observed from our tent around 300m from the crater.

Image credit: Felix Von-Aulock

Image credit: Felix Von Aulock

We also brought along a little quadcopter to take pictures of the dome. And although it was not the main subject of our mission it proved quite successful (we didn’t crash it!) Trying to follow a tiny spot in the sky is not easy though. And I just kept thinking:

“This must be one of the best jobs in the world, flying a little helicopter over an active volcano!”

By Felix Von Aulock , Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Liverpool

We are grateful to Rüdiger Escobar-Wolf for helping us improve an earlier version of this blog post.

Do you have some stunning field work photographs that you’d like to share with the wider community? Why not upload them to the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository, Imaggeo? 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/

Field work is an intrinsic part of the geosciences and yet the stories behind data aquisition are often left untold in scientific publlications. If you’d like to share your field work and/or lab tales, we’d love to hear from you! Part of what makes GeoLog a great read is the variety that guest posts add to our regular features, and we welcome contributions from scientists, students and professionals in the Earth, planetary and space sciences. Got an idea? If you would like to contribute to GeoLog, please send a short paragraph detailing your idea to the EGU Communications Officer, Laura Roberts  at roberts@egu.eu.

 

The day the Earth trembled: A first-hand account of the 25 April Nepal earthquake

The day the Earth trembled: A first-hand account of the 25 April Nepal earthquake

On the 25th April 2015, Viktor Bruckman, a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and a team of his colleagues were a few hours into a hike between the settlements of Lamabagar, in a remote area of northeastern Nepal, and the Lapchi Monastery when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal. Their journey cut short by the trembling Earth, stranded in the heights of the Himalayas, this is their personal experience of the Gorkha earthquake, summarised by EGU Communications Officer Laura Roberts. 

Researching land use in Nepal

Bruckman is part of an international team of researchers, from Austria, Nepal and China, studying the land use and forest resource management in the densely wooded and remote Gaurishankar Conservation Area, in eastern Nepal. Bruckman and his team want to better understand how the local communities are linked to the resources in the area and how their daily life has been affected since the introduction of the Conservation Area. Their research project also aims to explore how the ongoing building of the largest hydropower plant in Nepal: the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower Project (UTHP) might disrupt the local populations.

The team conducted a set of semi-structured interviews in order to assess land management practices and the impact of new management policies since the Gaurishankar Conservation Area was set up in 2010 (by Dr. Viktor Bruckman).

The team conducted a set of semi-structured interviews to assess land management practices and the impact of new management policies since the Gaurishankar Conservation Area was set up in 2010 (Credit: Dr. Viktor Bruckman).

To answer these questions, Bruckman and his colleagues travelled to Nepal in April to participate in workshops with government and institutional bodies based in Kathmandu, as well as visiting local communities deep within the Gaurishankar Conservation Area to conduct face-to-face interviews.

Beyond the hydropower construction site there are no roads, meaning the team had to hike across the rugged Himalayas to reach the residents of the most remote settlements and the target location for setting up monitoring plots. Their planned route would take them 25 km from Lamabagar, at 2000 m above sea level, reaching Lapchi Monastery, close to the Tibetan border, two days later having climbed to an altitude of 3800 m.

The hike

On the morning of the 25th April, a team composed of Bruckman, his Nepalese colleague Prof. Devkota, Devkota’s student Puskar and Prof. Katzensteiner from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU), set off on the trek to Lapchi. They were accompanied, albeit a little later following breakfast, by three porters who carried the bulk of their scientific equipment, some food and other ‘home comforts’ such as sleeping bags and mattresses. Given the physical effort the trek would involve, many of the food supplies were delivered to Lapchi via helicopter, a few days in advance – local porters would meet the team at settlements downstream of the monastery and deliver the provisions over the course of the next few days.

Despite the constant drizzle and strains of the climb, the entire team was stuck by the beauty of the surroundings: steep cliffs of metamorphosed sedimentary series (Tethys Himalaya within the Central Himalayan Domain), diverse mix deciduous forests and glistening streams.

The moment everything changed

At 12:05, not long after having traversed the most challenging section of the hike thus far, walking along the Lapchi River Valley, the ground under the team’s feet started to quiver. The quiver quickly grew to a strong shake dislodging football sized rocks from the surrounding slopes. The realisation hit the researchers that they were experiencing an earthquake and their primary concern was to seek shelter from the ongoing rock fall triggered by the ground shaking.

“Large rocks, with size equal to small houses, smashed into the river breaking into smaller pieces which where flung in all directions”, describes Bruckman, who by now had found protection, alongside Prof. Devkota, behind a large tree.

A few moments later, the earthquake ended and both emerged from behind the tree unharmed.

Left: Rockfall from the opposite cliffs made our location a highly dangerous place. Right: Seconds after the main tremor was over, everything was changed. The river color turned brown, dust and Sulphur smell was in the air and the path was destroyed by small landslides or rocks (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

Left: Rockfall from the opposite cliffs made the researchers’ location a highly dangerous place. Right: Seconds after the main tremor was over, everything was changed. The river color turned brown, dust and Sulphur smell was in the air and the path was destroyed by small landslides or rocks (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

They found Prof. Katzensteiner sheltering under a large rock overhang, but there was no sign of Puskar. The three men eyed up a large boulder which had come to rest on the path and feared the worst. Some minutes later, Puskar appeared, unharmed, along the path accompanied by a lama – a Buddhist monk – who’d encouraged the student to run up hill away from the projectiles from the river.

“The lama saved our student’s life; he was almost hit by a large rock which destroyed the water bottle attached to his backpack,” says Bruckman.

A stroke of luck

With their porters some hours trek behind them, almost no food supplies and no other equipment, and worried about potential flash floods as a result of landslides upstream, the group decided to make their way out of the valley and head back towards Lamabagar, only to find that the trail had been wiped out by a massive landslide.

The lama’s knowledge of the local terrain was invaluable as he guided the scientists to a meditation centre, where a group of about 20 lamas kindly took them in, sharing their food, offering tea and a place to sleep.

Having found a place of shelter, Bruckman and his colleagues, knowing how worried their families would be, were desperate to contact them. But amongst the high peaks of the Himalayas, in one of the most remote parts of Nepal, mobile phone signal is hard to come by. Only once, on the morning of the 26th of April, were the group successful in reaching loved ones, but it was enough: they were able to communicate they had survived, but were now trapped in the Lapchi River Valley.

The retreat where lamas provided the scientists with food and shelter (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

The retreat where lamas provided the scientists with food and shelter (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

Back home, a rescue mission started: The scientists’ families, the officials of their institutions, their countries Foreign Ministries’, Embassies and the local military all rallied to locate and bring home the researchers. Five days after first arriving at the Buddhist meditation centre, the group was rescued by a helicopter, which took them to the safety of military camp Charikot.

Retracing their steps, this time in a helicopter, Bruckman and his colleagues realised the scale of the devastation caused by the earthquake. The first village they’d intended to reach on their hike, Lumnang, was completely destroyed. 80% of the building structures in the valley had disappeared. Landslides has wiped out large sections of the trail, meaning returning to Lamabagar would have been out of the question.

Tragedy

The team’s porters, travelling behind the researchers when the earthquake hit, were far less fortunate. Tragically, one of the team’s porters was killed by a landslide triggered by the earthquake, whilst another was seriously injured. Only one returned safely to Lamabagar. Whilst hiking, the scientists overtook several groups of people also headed towards Lapchi and a team of hydropower experts – they are all reported missing.

The region, already damaged by the April 25th earthquake, was further rocked by a powerful, magnitude 7.3, aftershock. Since then, Bruckman and his colleagues have been unable to reach their contacts in Lamabagar. Reports indicate that hardly any structures were left standing in the village.

A view of Lamabagar prior to the earthquakes. At 2000m a.s.l., the village lies on the flat riverbed of the Upper Tamakoshi River, which developed as a consequence of a massive landslide (probably earthquake-induced) in the past (by Dr. Viktor Bruckman).

A view of Lamabagar prior to the earthquakes. At 2000m a.s.l., the village lies on the flat riverbed of the Upper Tamakoshi River, which developed as a consequence of a massive landslide (probably earthquake-induced) in the past (Credit: Dr. Viktor Bruckman).

The future

Following the earthquake, the scientists realise that the original research aims are no longer valid and “we would probably not meet the communities’ needs if we stick to the original ideas”, explains Bruckman.

Therefore, the plan is to carefully assess the regions current situation and develop a new research proposal which will focus on supporting the remote villages on a long-term and sustainable basis. In the event of any future field work in the region, the scientist will ensure they carry, at the very least, an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), if not a satellite phone.

Science aside, their experience in the Nepal means the scientists were deeply touched by the kindness extended to them by the lamas and now seek to support the communities affected by the earthquakes. In particular they want to raise funds for the families of the porters who passed away and were injured while transporting their supplies.

 By Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer

A message from Bruckman and his colleagues

Please help us support the affected families.

For the purpose of collecting donations, we opened an account at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna (BOKU). Funds will be collected in a transparent manner and directly used for supporting the porter’s families and the villagers of Lumnang, who have lost everything and they will most likely not receive help from other sources soon. We will facilitate support through the trustworthy Nepalese project partners (including full documentation) and the Lamas of Lapchi monastery and from the retreat where we were able to stay. Please help us to support this remote region; even a small contribution is very much appreciated. Our direct contacts ensure that 100% of the donations reach the target group.

Here are the account details for wire transfer:

Recipient: Universität für Bodenkultur Wien, Spenden IBAN: AT48 3200 0018 0050 0512 BIC: RLNWATWWXXX Payment reference: 7912000003

Payments via Credit Card are also possible (Master Card and Visa). Should you wish to pay per credit card, please send an e-mail containing your name, address, card number, expiry date and security code (3-digits) to c.hofer@boku.ac.at.

We thank you very much for your contribution!

The team after their ordeal. They extend their deepest condolences to the family of the porter that lost his life during our the Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

The team after their ordeal. They extend their deepest condolences to the family of the porter who lost his life during the expedition. (Credit: Prof. Dr. Klaus Katzensteiner).

 

This blog post is a summary of: How a geophysical extreme event dramatically changed fieldwork plans – a personal account of the Gorkha Earthquake, originally posted on the EGU’s Energy, Resources and the Environment Division Blog.

For more information about the 2015 April and May earthquakes, please see the links provided in the original blog post. You can also access more information via this information briefing issued by the EGU.

Iceland’s Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun: a remarkable volcanic eruption

Iceland’s Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun: a remarkable volcanic eruption

A six month long eruption accompanied by caldera subsidence and huge amounts of emitted gasses and extruded lavas; there is no doubt that the eruption of the Icelandic volcano in late 2014 and early 2015 was truly remarkable. In a press conference, (you can live stream it here), which took place during the recent EGU General Assembly, scientists reported on the latest from the volcano.

Seismic activity in this region of Iceland had been ongoing since 2007, but in late August 2014 a swarm of earthquakes indicated that the activity at Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun was ramping up a notch. By August 18th, over 2600 earthquakes had been registered by the seismometer network, ranging in magnitude between M1.5 and M4.5. Scientist now know that one of the main drivers of the activity was the collapse of the ice-filled Bárðarbunga caldera.

Caldera collapses -where the roof of a magma chamber collapses as a result of the chamber emptying during a volcanic eruption – are rare; there have only been seven recorded events this century. The Bárðarbunga eruption is the first caldera collapse to have occurred in Iceland since 1875. They can be very serious events which result in catastrophic eruptions (e.g. the Toba eruption of 74,000 BP). In other cases the formation of the large cauldron happens over time, with the surface of the volcano slowly subsiding as vast amounts of magma are drained away via surface lava flows and the formation of dykes. Bárðarbunga caldera subsided slowly and progressively, much more so than is common for this type of eruption, to form a depression approximately 8km wide and 60m deep.

“The associated volcanic eruption, which took place 40km away from the caldera, was the largest, by volume and mass of erupted materials, recorded in Iceland in the past 230 years”, described Magnus T. Gudmundsson, Professor at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland, during the press conference.

If the facts and figures above aren’t sufficiently impressive, the eruption at Holuhraun also produced the largest amount of lava on the island since 1783, with a total volume of over 1.6 km3 and stretching over more than 85 km4. In places, the lava flows where 30 m thick!

The impressive figures shouldn’t detract from the significance of the events that took place during those six months: scientists were able to observe the processes by which new land is made on Earth! Major rifting episodes like this “only happen once every 50 years or so”, explained Gudmundsson.

So what exactly have scientists learnt? Most divergent boundaries – where two plates pull apart from one another – are found at Mid-Ocean Ridges, meaning there is little opportunity to study rifting episodes at the Earth’s surface. The eruption at Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun offered researchers the unique opportunity to take a closer look at how rifting takes place; something which so far has only been possible at the Afar rift in Ethiopia.

New crust is generated at divergent plate margins, commonly fed by vertical sheet dykes – narrow, uniformly thick sheets of igneous material originating from underlying magma chambers. Dykes at divergent plate boundaries are common because the crust is being stretched and weakened. One of the clusters of seismic activity at Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun was consistent with the formation of a dyke. The seismic signal showed that the magma from the Bárðarbunga caldera, rather than being transported vertically upwards to the surface, was in fact being transported laterally, forming a magma filled fissure which stretched 45 km away from Bárðarbunga. This video, from the Icelandic Met Office, helps to visualise the growth of the dyke over time.

The figure shows all the earthquakes which took place in the region in and around Bárðarbunga, from 16 August 2016 until 3 May 2015. The bar on the right counts days since the onset of events, and it gives a colour code indicative of the time passed. The dark blue colour implies the oldest earthquakes whereas the red colour implies the youngest earthquakes. The earthquakes clearly show the growth of a lateral dyke, headed northeast, away from the Bárðarbunga caldera. Click here to enlarge the map. (Credit: Icelandic Meteorological Office)

The figure shows all the earthquakes which took place in the region in and around Bárðarbunga, from 16 August 2016 until 3 May 2015. The bar on the right counts days since the onset of events, and it gives a colour code indicative of the time passed. The dark blue colour implies the oldest earthquakes whereas the red colour implies the youngest earthquakes. The earthquakes clearly show the growth of a lateral dyke, headed northeast, away from the Bárðarbunga caldera. Click here to enlarge the map. (Credit: Icelandic Meteorological Office)

Further study of the dyke using understanding gained the from propagating seismicity, ground deformation mapped by Global Positioning System (GPS), and interferometric analysis of satellite radar images (InSAR), allowed scientists to observe how the ground around the dyke changed in height and shape. The measurements showed the dyke was not a continuous feature, but rather it appeared broken into segments which had variable orientations. Modelling of the dyke revealed that it was the interaction of the laterally moving magma with the local topography, as well as stresses in the ground cause by the divergent plates, that lead to the unusual shape of the dyke.

On average, magma flowed in the dyke at a rate of 260 m3/s, but the speed of its propagation was extremely variable. When the magma reached natural barriers, it would slow down, only picking up momentum again once pressure built up sufficiently to overcome the barriers. Shallow depressions observed in the ice of Vatnajokull glacier (the white area in the map above) – known as Ice cauldrons – were caused by minor eruptions underneath the ice at the tips of some of the dyke segments. The dyke propagation slowed down once the fissure eruption at Holuhraun started in September 2014.

What has the Bárðarbunga-Holuhraun taught scientists about rifting processes? It seems that at divergent plate boundaries, in order to create new crust over long distances, magma generated at central volcanoes (in this case Bárðarbunga), is distributed via segmented lateral dykes, as opposed to being erupted directly above the magma chamber.

 

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

 

Further reading and references

You can stream the full press conference here: http://client.cntv.at/egu2015/PC7

Details of the speakers at the press conference are available at: http://media.egu.eu/press-conferences-2015/#volcano

The speakers at the press conference also reported on the gas emissions as a result of the Holuhraun fissure eruption and the implications for human health. You can read more on this here: Bardarbunga eruption gases estimated.

Sigmundsson, F., A. Hooper, Hreinsdóttir, et al.: Segmented lateral dyke growth in a rifting event at Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland, Nature, 517, 191-195, doi:10.1038/nature1411, 2015.

Sigmundsson, F., A. Hooper, Hreinsdóttir, et al.: Segmented lateral dyke growth in a rifting event at Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland, Geophys. Res. Abstr.,17, EGU2015-10322-1, 2015 (conference abstract).

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