GeoLog

Field Work

Iceland’s rootless volcanoes

Iceland’s rootless volcanoes

Picture a volcano, like the one you learned about in primary school. Can you see it? Is it a big rocky mountain, perhaps with a bubbling pool of lava at the top? Is it perched above a chasm of subterranean molten rock?

I bet you didn’t picture this:

Rootless cones in the Lanbrotshólar district, S Iceland. Created by the 940AD Eldgjá eruption, there are over 4000 rootless cones in this area. Credit: Frances Boreham

You’d be forgiven for mistaking these small volcanoes for a scene from the Lord of the Rings, or maybe a grassy version of the surface of Mars (in fact, these kind of volcanoes do occur on Mars). These, however, are in Iceland and are called rootless cones.

These mini-volcanoes are unusual because they are ‘rootless’ meaning, unlike most volcanoes, they are not fed from the underground. To make them even stranger, they erupted only once and as part of the same event.

This type of volcanism is observed in several places around the world and occurs only in a unique set of circumstances. Despite showing similarities to more traditional volcanoes (like pyroclastic cones), the cones pictured above actually erupted several tens of kilometres from a ‘true’ volcano.

Rootless cones occur when a hot lava flow produced by an eruption travels away from the volcano and meets water. This can be a lake, a river, a glacier or simply a bit of soggy ground. The only criteria are that there needs to be water, and it needs to be trapped. Lava flows are usually at temperatures of over 1000oC and so, when they come into contact with trapped water or ice, its causes a build-up of steam, which can explode violently through the lava forming a rootless cone.

An article, published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research in September by volcanologists from the University of Bristol and the University of Iceland, analysed the shape and location of some of these cones to understand more about the environment in which they formed.

These features are found in northeast Iceland in the region around lake Mývatn. The area, 50 km east of the city of Akureyri, is world famous for its beautiful scenery and unusual landscapes.

The volcano responsible for the phenomena is the Þrengslaborgir–Lúdentsborgir crater row which erupted around 2000 years ago. The eruption produced a huge lava flow that covered an area of 220 km2; over 2% of the surface of Iceland. The flow, known as the Younger Laxá Lava, permanently changed the landscape, diverting rivers and damming lakes. After its extrusion from the volcano, the stream of molten rock meandered through different environments including river gorges and wide glacial valleys.

The flow’s diverse 67km journey allowed lead author Frances Boreham and her colleagues, to learn how it interacted with its surroundings. As she explains it, “one of the things that makes the Younger Laxá Lava such a great case study is the range of environments that the lava flowed through.”

Rootless cones do not all look the same and vary greatly in size, from small ‘hornitos’ which are about the size of a small car, to large crater-shaped cones hundreds of metres in size. The scale and complexity of the deposits makes them difficult to study as Boreham explains, “One of the biggest challenges is trying to understand and unpick the different effects of lava and water supply on rootless eruptions. We see a huge variety in rootless cone shapes and sizes, but working out which aspects are controlled by the lava flow and which by the environment and available water is tricky, especially when working on a lava flow that’s approximately 2000 years old!”

From Boreham et al. 2016. “Different types of rootless cone and associated features. a) Scoriaceous rootless cone at Skutustaðir, Mývatn. Cone base is ~100 m diameter. b) Explosion pits (marked with arrows) surrounding a scoriaceous rootless cone near Mývatn. c) Spatter cone at Mý d) Hornito in Aðaldalur, NE Iceland. Map imagery on d ©2017 DigitalGlobe, Google.” Licensed under creative commons.

Despite their beauty, the rootless cones represent a more serious issue. Lava flows are often thought of as quite benign compared to other volcanic hazards like pyroclastic flows. The presence of rootless cones suggests this isn’t always the case. “As far as I know, none of these rootless cones are currently taken into account for lava flow hazard assessments, in Iceland or elsewhere in the world. While not applicable everywhere, wet environments with a history of lava flows, such as Iceland or parts of the Cascades, could be affected and these hazards should be considered in future risk assessments and plans, e.g. by identifying vulnerable property, roads and infrastructure.” said Boreham.

By Keri McNamara, freelance science writer

Keri McNamara is a freelance writer with a PhD in Volcanology from the University of Bristol. She is on twitter @KeriAMcNamara and www.kerimcnamara.com.

Imaggeo on Mondays: An iceberg-sized issue

Imaggeo on Mondays: An iceberg-sized issue

This was taken during a study, undertaken by me and my colleagues, on the sea ice of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. We designed the project to document how supercooled water carrying suspended ice crystals flows along its pathway towards the open ocean. Ultimately, this work aims to assess the Ross Ice Shelf’s contribution of local melt to the long-term trend of increased sea ice cover around Antarctica – a signal which has been dominated by expansion in the Ross Sea.

However, over the winter prior to the field season an iceberg, 12 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide that had calved from the Ross Ice Shelf, grounded itself across the middle of our intended study region. This created a significant constriction to the flow, as the iceberg forced the approximately 30 km-wide plume to squeeze into half of that space.

We quickly modified the objectives for the field season to take advantage of this, adding an element focusing on the fluid dynamics of accelerated large-scale flow around the tip of the iceberg, and another on the thermodynamics of the supercooled plume interacting with a deep wall of ice. These adjustments to our study required drilling several holes through the sea ice along lines that approached the iceberg from two different directions to collect the necessary oceanographic data.

The iceberg towers about 40 m above the frozen sea surface, with our field support team providing scale as they scope a route of safe approach. However, hidden from sight by the sea ice, the iceberg stretches a further 170 m below the surface to the point where it is grounded on the seafloor.

Conducting field science in Antarctica requires being able to adapt to a dynamic environment. In this case, our flexibility was rewarded with a unique data set – essentially a laboratory study in fluid mechanics on a real-world scale.

By Natalie Robinson, New Zealand National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA)

If you pre-register for the 2019 General Assembly (Vienna, 07–12 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 15 January until 15 February, 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 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: The calm before the storm

Imaggeo on Mondays: The calm before the storm

The picture was taken during the 2015 research cruise HE441 in the southern German Bight, North Sea. It features the research vessel Heincke, on a remarkably calm and warm spring day, forming a seemingly steady wake.

The roughly 55 metre long FS Heincke, owned by the German federal government and operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute, provides a great platform for local studies of the North Sea shelf. Eleven scientists and students from the University of Bremen, MARUM Research Faculty, University of Kiel, and Federal Waterways Engineering and Research Institute, along with the ship’s crew formed a great team under the supervision of chief scientist Christian Winter.

On deck, different autonomous underwater observatories were waiting to be deployed. Their purpose was to measure the seabed- and hydrodynamics in a targeted area of the German Bight. The investigation of the interaction between geomorphology, sedimentology and biogeochemistry is crucial to understand the processes acting on this unique and dynamic environment. In the German Bight various stakeholders with diverse interests come together. Profound knowledge, backed by cutting edge research, helps to resolve future conflicts between use and protection of the environment.

While this photo features a tranquil day at sea, some days later the weather and wave conditions got so bad that the cruise had to be abandoned. Storm Niklas, causing wave heights of more than three metres, made deployment and recovery of the observatories too dangerous for the crew, scientists, and delicate instruments.

Despite the severe weather, the research cruise was still able to gather important data with the time made available. Schedules on research vessels are tight and optimized to fit as much high-quality measurements as possible into time slots that are depending on convenient sea (tide) and weather conditions. State-of-the-art research equipment were prepared, deployed, recovered and assessed several times during the then only 8-day long cruise. Measurements were supported by ship based seabed mapping and water column profiling. Transit times, like the one depicted, were used to prepare the different sensors and instruments for the upcoming deployment.

The rare occasion of good weather combined with idle time was utilized to take this long exposure photo. A calm sea, a stable clamp temporarily attached to a handrail, and a neutral density filter were additionally required to increase the exposure time of the camera to 13 seconds, in order to capture this picture. The long exposure time smooths all movement relative to the ship, enhancing the effect of the wake behind the Heincke vessel.

Over the course of several years, regular Heincke research cruises and the collaboration between the different institutions has led to the successful completion of research projects, with findings being published in various journals, listed below.

By Markus Benninghoff, MARUM, University of Bremen, Germany

Further reading

Ahmerkamp, S, Winter, C, Janssen, F, Kuypers, MMM and Holtappels, M (2015) The impact of bedform migration on benthic oxygen fluxes. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 120(11). 2229-2242. doi:10.1002/2015JG003106

Ahmerkamp, S, Winter, C, Krämer, K, de Beer, D, Janssen, F, Friedrich, J, Kuypers, MMM and Holtappels, M (2017) Regulation of benthic oxygen fluxes in permeable sediments of the coastal ocean. Limnology and Oceanography. doi:10.1002/lno.10544

Amirshahi, SM, Kwoll, E and Winter, C (2018) Near bed suspended sediment flux by single turbulent events. Continental Shelf Research, 152. 76-86. doi:10.1016/j.csr.2017.11.005

Krämer, K and Winter, C (2016) Predicted ripple dimensions in relation to the precision of in situ measurements in the southern North Sea. Ocean Science, 12(6). 1221-1235. doi:10.5194/os-12-1221-2016

Krämer, K, Holler, P, Herbst, G, Bratek, A, Ahmerkamp, S, Neumann, A, Bartholomä, A, van Beusekom, JEE, Holtappels, M and Winter, C (2017) Abrupt emergence of a large pockmark field in the German Bight, southeastern North Sea. Scientific Reports, 7(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05536-1

Oehler, T, Martinez, R, Schückel, U, Winter, C, Kröncke, I and Schlüter, M (2015) Seasonal and spatial variations of benthic oxygen and nitrogen fluxes in the Helgoland Mud Area (southern North Sea). Continental Shelf Research, 106. 118-129. doi:10.1016/j.csr.2015.06.009

If you pre-register for the 2019 General Assembly (Vienna, 07–12 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 15 January until 15 February, 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 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/.

EGU Photo Competition 2019: Now open for submissions!

EGU Photo Competition 2019: Now open for submissions!

If you are pre-registered for the 2019 General Assembly (Vienna, 7 – 12 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! Winners receive a free registration to next year’s General Assembly!

The tenth annual EGU photo competition opened on 15 January. Up until 15 February, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up to three original photos and one moving image on any broad theme related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences.

Shortlisted photos will be exhibited at the conference, together with the winning moving image, which will be selected by a panel of judges. General Assembly participants can vote for their favourite photos and the winning images will be announced online on the last day of the meeting. 

If you submit your images to the photo competition, they will also be included in the EGU’s open access photo and video database, Imaggeo. You retain full rights of use for any photos or videos submitted to the database as they are licensed and distributed by EGU under a Creative Commons license.

You will need to register on Imaggeo so that the organisers can appropriately process your photos. For more information, please check the EGU Photo Competition page on Imaggeo.

Previous winning photographs from 2010 to 2018 can be seen on the previous winners’ pages.

In the meantime, get shooting!

EGU 2019 will take place from 07 to 12 April 2019 in Vienna, Austria. For more information on the General Assembly, see the EGU 2019 website and follow us on Twitter (#EGU19 is the official conference hashtag) and Facebook.