Imaggeo on Mondays: Hints of an eruption

Imaggeo on Mondays: Hints of an eruption

The photograph shows water that accumulated in a depression on the ice surface of Vatnajökull glacier in southeastern Iceland. This 700m wide and 30m deep depression [1], scientifically called an ‘ice cauldron’, is surrounded by circular crevasses on the ice surface and is located on the glacier tongue Dyngjujökull, an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull.

The photo was taken on 4 June 2016, less than 22 months after the Holuhraun eruption, which started on 29 August 2014 in the flood plain north of the Dyngjujökull glacier and this depression. The lava flow field that formed in the eruption was the largest Iceland has seen in 200 years, covering 84km2 [2] equal to the total size of Manhattan .

A number of geologic processes occurred leading up the Holuhraun eruption. For example, preceding the volcanic event, a kilometre-wide area surrounding the Bárðarbunga volcano, the source of the eruption, experienced deformation. Additionally, elevated and migrating seismicity at three to eight km beneath the glacier was observed for nearly two weeks before the eruption [3]. At the same time, seven cauldrons, like the one in this photo, were detected on the ice surface (a second water filled depression is visible in the upper right corner of the photo). They are interpreted as indicators for subglacial eruptions, since these cauldrons usually form when geothermal or volcanic activity induces ice melt at the bottom of a glacier [4].

Fracturing of the Earth’s crust led up to a small subglacial eruption at the base of the ice beneath the photographed depression on 3 September 2014. This fracturing was further suggested as the source of long-lasting ground vibrations (called volcanic tremor) [5].

My colleagues and I studied the signals that preceded and accompanied the Holuhraun eruption using GPS instruments, satellites and seismic ground vibrations recorded by an array of seismometers [2, 5]. The research was conducted through a collaboration between University College Dublin and Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in Ireland, the Icelandic Meteorological Office and University of Iceland in Iceland, and the GeoForschungsZentrum in Germany.

The FP7-funded FutureVolc project financed the above mentioned research and further research on early-warning of eruptions and other natural hazards such as sub-glacial floods.

By Eva Eibl, researcher at the GeoForschungsZentrum

Thanks go to who organised this trip.

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

Geosciences Column: Extreme snowfall potentially worsened Nepal’s 2015 earthquake-triggered avalanche

Geosciences Column: Extreme snowfall potentially worsened Nepal’s 2015 earthquake-triggered avalanche

Three years ago, an earthquake-induced avalanche and rockfalls buried an entire Nepalese village in ice, stone, and snow. Researchers now think the region’s heavy snowfall from the preceding winter may have intensified the avalanche’s disastrous effect.

The Langtang village, just 70 kilometres from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, is nestled within a valley under the shadow of the Himalayas. The town was popular amongst trekking tourists, as the surrounding mountains offer breathtaking hiking opportunities.

But in April 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, also known as the Gorkha earthquake, triggered a massive avalanche and landslides, engulfing the village in debris.

Scientists estimate that the force of the avalanche was half as powerful the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The blast of air generated from the avalanche rushed through the site at more than 300 kilometres per hour, blowing down buildings and uprooting forests.

By the time the debris and wind had settled, only one village structure was left standing. The disaster claimed the lives of 350 people, with more than 100 bodies never located.

Before-and-after photographs of Nepal’s Langtang Valley showing the near-complete destruction of Langtang village. Photos from 2012 (pre-quake) and 2015 (post-quake) by David Breashears/GlacierWorks. Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Since then, scientists have been trying to reconstruct the disaster’s timeline and determine what factors contributed to the village’s tragic demise.

Recently, researchers discovered that the region’s unusually heavy winter snowfall could have amplified the avalanche’s devastation. The research team, made up of scientists from Japan, Nepal, the Netherlands, Canada and the US, published their findings last year in the EGU’s open access journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences.

To reach their conclusions, the team drew from various observational sources. For example, the researchers created three-dimensional models and orthomosaic maps, showing the region both before it was hit by the coseismic events and afterwards. The models and maps were pieced together using data collected before the earthquake and aerial images of the affected area taken by helicopter and drones in the months following the avalanche.

They also interviewed 20 villagers local to the Langtang valley, questioning each person on where he or she was during the earthquake and how much time had passed between the earthquake and the first avalanche event. In addition, the researchers asked the village residents to describe the ice, snow and rock that blanketed Langtang, including details on the colour, wetness, and surface condition of the debris.  

Based on their own visual ice cliff observations by the Langtang river and the villager interviews, the scientists believe that the earthquake-triggered avalanche hit Langtang first, followed then by multiple rockfalls, which were possibly triggered by the earthquake’s aftershocks.

A three-dimensional view of the Langtang mountain and village surveyed in this study. Image: K. Fujita et al.

According to the researchers’ models, the primary avalanche event unleashed 6,810,000 cubic metres of ice and snow onto the village and the surrounding area, a frozen flood about two and a half times greater in volume than the Egyptian Great Pyramid of Giza. The following rockfalls then contributed 840,000 cubic metres of debris.  

The researchers discovered that the avalanche was made up mostly of snow, and furthermore realized that there was an unusually large amount of snow. They estimated that the average snow depth of the avalanche’s mountainous source was about 1.82 metres, which was similar to snow depth found on a neighboring glacier (1.28-1.52 metres).

A deeper analysis of the area’s long-term meteorological data revealed that the winter snowfall preceding the avalanche was an extreme event, likely only to occur once every 100 to 500 years. This uncommonly massive amount of snow accumulated from four major snowfall events in mid-October, mid-December, early January and early March.

From these lines of evidence, the team concluded that the region’s anomalous snowfall may have worsened the earthquake’s destructive impact on the village.

The researchers believe their results could help improve future avalanche dynamics models. According to the study, they also plan to provide the Langtang community with a avalanche hazard map based on their research findings.  

Further reading

Qiu, J. When mountains collapse… Geolog (2016).

Roberts Artal, L. Geosciences Column: An international effort to understand the hazard risk posed by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Geolog (2016).

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2018 General Assembly

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2018 General Assembly

The 2018 General Assembly took place in Vienna last month, drawing more than 15,000 participants from 106 countries. This month’s GeoRoundUp will focus on some of the unique and interesting stories that came out of research presented at the Assembly.

Mystery solved

The World War II battleship Tirpitz was the largest vessel in the German navy, stationed primarily off the Norwegian coastline as a foreboding threat to Allied armies. The ship was 250 metres in length and capable of carrying around 2,500 crewmates.

Despite its massive size, the vessel’s presence often went unnoticed as it moved between fjords, masked by a chemical fog of chlorosulphuric acid released by the Nazi army.

Ultimately the ship sank and the war ended, but evidence of the toxic smog still lingers today, in the tree rings of Norway’s nearby forests.

Claudia Hartl, a dendrochronologist from the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, made this discovery unexpectedly while sampling pines and birches near the Norwegian village Kåfjord. She and her research team presented their findings at the General Assembly in Vienna last month.

The German battleship Tirpitz partly covered by a smokescreen at Kaafjord. (Image Credit: Imperial War Museums )

Hartl had been examining wood cores to draw a more complete picture of past climate in the region when she noticed that some trees completely lacked rings dating to 1945,” reported Julissa Treviño in Smithsonian Magazine.

The discovery was odd since it is rare for trees to have completely absent rings in their trunks. Tree ring growth can be stunted by extreme cold or insect infestation, but neither case is severe enough to explain the missing tree rings from that time period.

“A colleague suggested it could have something to do with the Tirpitz, which was anchored the previous year at Kåfjord where it was attacked by Allied bombers,” explains Jonathan Amos from BBC News.

The researchers indeed found physical and chemical evidence of the smokescreen damage on the trees, demonstrating the long-lasting impact warfare can impart onto the environment.


What you might have missed

Seismicity of city life

Researchers use seismometers to record Earth’s quakes and tremors, but some seismologists have employed these instruments for a different purpose, to show how humans make cities shake. “This new field of urban seismology aims to detect the vibrations caused by road traffic, subway trains, and even cultural activities,” reports EGU General Assembly Press Assistant Tim Middleton on GeoLog.

With seismometers, Jordi Díaz and colleagues at the Institute of Earth Sciences Jaume Almera in Barcelona, Spain have been able to pick up the seismic signals of major football games and rock concerts, like footballer Lionel Messi’s winning goal against Paris Saint-Germain and Bruce Springsteen’s Barcelona show.

Seismic record captured by the seismometer during the Bruce Springsteen concert. The upper panel shows the seismogram, while the lower panel shows the spectrogram where it is possible to see the distribution of the energy between the different frequencies. (Image Credit: Jordi Díaz)

Díaz’s project first began as an outreach campaign, to teach the general public about seismometers, but now he and his colleagues are exploring other applications. For example, the data could help civil engineers with tracking traffic and monitoring how buildings withstand human-induced tremors.

Antarctica seeing more snow

Meanwhile in Antarctica, snowfall has increased by 10 percent in the last 200 years, according to new research presented at the meeting. After analysing 79 ice cores, a research team led by Liz Thomas from the British Antarctic Survey discovered that Antarctica’s increased snowfall since 1800 was equivalent to 544 trillion pounds of water, about twice the volume of the Dead Sea.

It has been predicted that snowfall increase would be a consequence of global warming, since a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, thus resulting in more precipitation. However, these ice core observations reveal this effect has already been happening. The new finding implies that Earth’s sea level has risen slightly less than it would have otherwise, but only by about a fifth of a milimetre. Though overall, this snowfall increase is not nearly enough to offset Earth’s increased ice loss.

Ocean’s tides create a magnetic field

Also at the Assembly, scientists presented new data collected from a team of ESA satellites known as Swarm, In particular, the satellite observations recently mapped magnetic signals induced by Earth’s ocean tides. As the planet’s tides ebb and flow, drawn by the Moon’s gravitational pull, the salty water generates electric currents. And these currents create a tiny magnetic field, around 20,000 times weaker than the global magnetic field.

Scientists involved with the Swarm project say the magnetic view provides new insight into Earth’s ocean flow and magnetic field, can improve our understanding of climate change, and help researchers build better Earth system models.

When salty ocean water flows through Earth’s magnetic field, an electric current is generated, and this in turn induces a magnetic signal. (Credit: ESA/Planetary Visions)


Other noteworthy stories:


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Shaking in the city

Shaking in the city

Bruce Springsteen was playing at Barcelona’s football stadium on 14th May 2016. 65,000 people were there to hear him as he launched into an encore including “Born in the USA”, “Dancing in the Dark” and “Shout”. But unknown to Springsteen, just 500 metres away, in the basement of the Institute of Earth Sciences Jaume Almera (ICTJA), Jorde Díaz and his colleagues were also listening in via their broadband seismometer. “We have beautiful recordings of rock concerts,” says Díaz, the scientific director of the Seismic Laboratory at ICTJA, part of the Spanish Scientific Research Council (CSIC).

The first global seismic networks, installed in the 1960s and 1970s, were set up, not to record earthquakes, but to listen in on human activities. Their primary goal was to monitor nuclear tests during the height of Cold War tension. Since then, the same devices have been used extensively and successfully to record the Earth’s natural vibrations, allowing scientists to study earthquakes and volcanoes, as well as map the interior of the Earth in remarkable detail. But researchers are now turning their attention to human activities again; this new field of urban seismology aims to detect the vibrations caused by road traffic, subway trains, and even cultural activities.

“Our motivation for installing this station was mainly for outreach,” Díaz says, “to show [people] how a seismometer works.” But Díaz soon realised that there might be useful information buried within the seismic noise at this new station. “We identified a number of signals and we wanted to know the origin of these signals. Some of them are quite amusing,” he recalls.

Some of these less conventional signals were so-called “foot-quakes”, tremors associated with goals scored at the Barcelona football stadium. “We can get information every time there is a goal,” says Díaz. “Or at least every time there is a Barcelona goal. Not the other side! People jump and then the shaking is recorded at our instrument.” Indeed, ever since the famous Gol del terremoto, Earthquake’s Goal, in Argentina in 1992, we have known that football fans could be picked up by seismometers.

Springsteen’s concert was another of the less orthodox events that the seismologists were able to study. As well as a simple seismogram of the whole four-hour show, which shows the magnitude of the shaking through time, Díaz also plots his data on a spectrogram. The spectrogram reveals the different frequencies present in the vibrations and how they change over time.

Seismic record captured by the seismometer during the Bruce Springsteen concert. The upper panel shows the seismogram, while the lower panel shows the spectrogram where it is possible to see the distribution of the energy between the different frequencies. (Image Credit: Jordi Díaz)

The colour on this diagram then corresponds to the amplitude of the shaking. “You can see that every single song has a particular pattern,” explains Díaz, “and you can even define from the seismic data when we are moving from one song to another.” The vertical stripes in Díaz’s spectrogram correspond to the different songs, whilst the horizontal, red stripes indicate the main frequencies that are present in each track. “In the goal celebrations… the energy is distributed all over,” says Díaz, “while here [at the concert] you can see what we call harmonic structures. You have energy localised at precise [frequencies]. This is because people are dancing, moving in a coordinated way.”

As Díaz explains in his paper, published last year in Scientific Reports, the harmonic structures are likely to be because of a phenomenon known as the Dirac comb effect. As the audience dance to a track with a specific beat, they create a series of equally-spaced pulses in time. This then transforms to a series of “evenly spaced harmonics in the frequency domain,” which is the series of horizontal stripes for each track. Furthermore, faster songs tend to produce higher frequencies.

Rock concerts in a football stadium might sound light-hearted, but Díaz’s work is not without important applications. The majority of the concert vibrations are in the range of 1.8 to 2.5 Hz. Meanwhile, building codes suggest that, structures should not be built with resonant frequencies higher than around 6 Hz. As Díaz and his team have demonstrated, the precise vibrations that the stadium experiences vary depending on the activity occurring. But some of the higher harmonics at the rock concert are close to the suggested building limit such that, if structures were to have resonant frequencies close to this limit, then there might be the potential for damage to the building. “Additional work, following a more engineering approach, is required to know if structure excitation has a significant contribution to the total shaking,” says Díaz.

The shaking in the city that Díaz and his colleagues have been observing is not only good fun, but also potentially of significant importance for civil engineers.

By Tim Middleton