GeoLog

volcano

Imaggeo on Mondays: In the belly of the beast

In the belly of the beast . Credit: Alexandra Kushnir (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

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 http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

 

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: A Bubbling Cauldron

Imaggeo on Mondays: A Bubbling Cauldron

Despite being a natural hazard which requires careful management, there is no doubt that there is something awe inspiring about volcanic eruptions. To see an erupting volcano up close, even fly through the plume, is the thing of dreams. That’s exactly what Jamie  Farquharson, a researcher at Université de Strasbourg (France) managed to do during the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Bárðarbunga. Read about his incredible experience in today’s Imaggeo on Monday’s post.

The picture shows the Holuhraun eruption and was taken by my wife, Hannah Derbyshire. It was taken from a light aircraft on the 11th of November of 2014, when the eruption was still in full swing, looking down into the roiling fissure. Lava was occasionally hurled tens of metres into the air in spectacular curtains of molten rock, with more exiting the fissure in steady rivers to cover the surrounding landscape.

Iceland is part of the mid-Atlantic ridge: the convergent boundary of the Eurasian and North American continental plates and one of the only places where a mid-ocean ridge rears above the surface of the sea. It’s situation means that it is geologically dynamic, boasting hundreds of volcanoes of which around thirty volcanic systems are currently active. Holuhraun is located in east-central Iceland to the north of the Vatnajökull ice cap, sitting in the saddle between the Bárðarbunga and Askja fissure systems which run NE-SW across the Icelandic highlands.

Monitored seismic activity in the vicinity of Bárðarbunga volcano had been increasing more-or-less steadily between 2007 and 2014. In mid-August 2014, swarms of earthquakes were detected migrating northwards from Bárðarbunga, interpreted as a dyke intruding to the east and north of the source. Under the ice, eruptions were detected from the 23rd of August, finally culminating in a sustained fissure eruption which continued from late-August 2014 to late-February of the next year.

My wife and I were lucky enough to have booked a trip to Iceland a month or so before the eruption commenced and, unlike its (in)famous Icelandic compatriot Eyjafjallajökull, prevailing wind conditions and the surprising lack of significant amounts of ash from Holuhraun meant that air traffic was largely unaffected.

At the time the photo was taken, the flowfield consisted of around 1000 million cubic metres of lava, covering over 75 square kilometres. After the eruption died down in February 2015, the flowfield was estimated to cover an expanse of 85 square kilometres, with the overall volume of lava exceeding 1400 million cubic metres, making it the largest effusive eruption in Iceland for over two hundred years (the 1783 eruption of Laki spewed out an estimated 14 thousand million cubic metres of lava).

Numerous “breakouts” could be observed on the margins of the flowfield as the emplacing lava flowfield increased in both size and complexity. Breakouts form when relatively hot lava, insulated by the cooled outer carapace of the flow, inflates this chilled carapace until it fractures and allows the relatively less-viscous (runnier) interior lava to spill through and form a lava delta. Gas-rich, low-viscosity magma often results in the emission of high-porosity (bubbly) lava. My current area of research examines how gases and liquids can travel through volcanic rock, a factor that is greatly influenced by the evolution of porosity during and after lava emplacement.

Flying through the turbulent plume one is aware of a strong smell of fireworks or a just-struck match: a testament to the emission of huge volumes of sulphur dioxide from the fissure. Indeed, the Icelandic Met Office have since estimated that 11 million tons of SO2 were emitted over the course of the six-month eruption, along with almost 7 million tons of CO2 and vast quantities of other gases such as HCl. These gases hydrate and oxidise in the atmosphere to form acids, in turn leading to acid rain. The environmental impact of Holuhraun as a gas-rich point source is an area of active research.

By Jamie Farquharson, PhD researcher at Université de Strasbourg (France)

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/.

Volcanic darkness marked the dawn of the Dark Ages

Volcanic darkness marked the dawn of the Dark Ages

The dawn of the Dark Ages coincided with a volcanic double event – two large eruptions in quick succession. Combined, they had a stronger impact on the Earth’s climate than any other volcanic event – or sequence of events – in the last 1200 years. Historical reports reveal that a mysterious dust cloud dimmed the sun’s rays between in 536 and 537 CE, a time followed by global societal decline. Now, we know the cause.

By combining state-or-the-art ice core measurements with historical records and a climate model, researchers from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Germany, and a host of international organisations showed that the eruptions were responsible for a rapid climatic downturn. The findings, published in Climatic Change, were presented at the EGU General Assembly in April 2016.

Explosive volcanic eruptions typically emit large volumes of ash and gas high into the atmosphere. The way this ash spreads depends both on how high up it’s propelled and the prevailing weather conditions. When it reaches the stratosphere, it has the capacity to spread far and wide over the Earth, meaning the eruption will have much more than a local impact.

Individually, these events were strong, but not that strong. Their combined force was what made their affect of the earth’s climate so significant. They occurred closely in time and were both in the Northern hemisphere.

Volcanic emissions reflect light back into space. Consequently, less light and, importantly, less heat reaches the surface, causing the Earth to cool. Diminishing sunlight following the eruptions resulted in a 2 °C drop in temperature, poor crop yields and population starvation. The drop in temperature led to a 3-5 year decline in Scandinavian agricultural productivity – a serious problem.

This double event had a major impact on agriculture in the northern hemisphere – particularly over Scandinavia. It’s likely that societies could withstand one bad summer, but several would have been a problem.

An ash covered plant via Wikimedia Commons.

An ash covered plant via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s agricultural evidence to support the theory too. Pollen records read from sediment cores can be used to work out when agricultural crops covered the land and when the land was ruled by nature. Scandinavian cores suggest there was a shift from agricultural crops to forest around the time of the eruption. There is some scepticism regarding the cause of this shift, but the implication is that when food decreases, so does the population, This means there’s no need to farm as much land, nor enough people to do so. In the absence of agriculture, nature takes over and trees once again cover the land.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Press Assistant and PhD candidate at the University of Exeter.

Sara is a science writer and marine science PhD candidate from the University of Exeter. She’s investigating the impact of climate change on predator-prey relationships in the ocean, and was one of our Press Assistants this year’s General Assembly.

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