The complicated birth of a volcano

Snow storms, ice and glaciers – these are the usual images we associate with the Antarctic. But at the same time it is also a region of fire: the Antarctic continent and surrounding waters are dotted with volcanoes – some of them still active and others extinct for quite some time. The Marie Byrd Seamounts in the Amundsen Sea are in the latter group. Their summit plateaus are today at depths of 2400-1600 meters. Because they are very difficult to reach with conventional research vessels, they have hardly been explored, even though the Marie Byrd Seamounts are fascinating formations. They do not fit any of the usual models for the formation of volcanoes. Now geologists from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel were able to find a possible explanation for the existence of these seamounts on the basis of rare specimens. The study is published in the international journal “Gondwana Research“.

Classic volcanologists differentiate between two types of fire mountains. One type is generated where tectonic plates meet, so the earth’s crust is already cracked to begin with. The other type is formed within the earth’s plates. “The latter are called intraplate volcanoes. They are often found above a so-called mantle plume. Hot material rises from the deep mantle, collects under the earth’s crust, makes its way to the surface and forms a volcano,” said Dr. Reinhard Werner, one of the authors of the current paper. One example are the Hawaiian Islands. But neither of the above models fits the Marie Byrd Seamounts. “There are no plate boundary in the vicinity and no plume underground,” says graduate geologist Andrea Kipf from GEOMAR, first author of the study.

To clarify the origin of the Marie Byrd Seamounts, in 2006 the Kiel scientists participated in an expedition of the research vessel POLARSTEN in the Amundsen Sea. They salvaged rock samples from the seamounts and subjected these to thorough geological, volcanological and geochemical investigations after returning to the home labs. “Interestingly enough, we found chemical signatures that are typical of plume volcanoes. And they are very similar to volcanoes in New Zealand and the Antarctic continent,” says geochemist Dr. Folkmar Hauff, second author of the paper.

Based on this finding, the researchers sought an explanation. They found it in the history of tectonic plates in the southern hemisphere. Around 100 million years ago, remains of the former supercontinent Gondwana were located in the area of present Antarctica. A mantle plume melted through this continental plate and cracked it open. Two new continents were born: the Antarctic and “Zealandia”, with the islands of New Zealand still in evidence today. When the young continents drifted in different directions away from the mantle plume, large quantities of hot plume material were attached to their undersides. These formed reservoirs for future volcanic eruptions on the two continents. “This process explains why we find signatures of plume material at volcanoes that are not on top of plumes,” says Dr. Hauff.

But that still does not explain the Marie Byrd Seamounts because they are not located on the Antarctic continent, but on the adjacent oceanic crust instead. “Continental tectonic plates are thicker than the oceanic ones. This ensures, among other things, differences in temperature in the underground,” says volcanologist Dr. Werner. And just as air masses of different temperatures create winds, the temperature differences under the earth’s crust generate flows and movements as well. Thus the plume material, that once lay beneath the continent, was able to shift under the oceanic plate. With disruptions due to other tectonic processes, there were cracks and crevices which allowed the hot material to rise, turn into magma and then- about 60 million years ago – allowed the Marie Byrd Seamounts to grow. “This created islands are comparable to the Canary Islands today,” explains Andrea Kipf. “Some day the volcanoes became extinct again, wind and weather eroded the cone down to sea level, and other geological processes further eroded the seamounts. Finally, the summit plateaus arrived at the level that we know today,” the PhD student describes the last step of the development.

Based on the previously little investigated Marie Byrd Seamounts, the researchers were able to show another example of how diverse and complex the processes are, that can cause volcanism. “We are still far from understanding all of these processes. But with the current study, we can contribute a small piece to the overall picture,” says Dr. Werner.

Glacial history affects shape and growth habit of alpine plants

Climate change reflects in the morphology and genes of plants. -  (Image: University of Basel / Jürg Stöcklin)
Climate change reflects in the morphology and genes of plants. – (Image: University of Basel / Jürg Stöcklin)

Alpine plants that survived the Ice Ages in different locations still show accrued differences in appearance and features. These findings were made by botanists from the University of Basel using two plant species. So far, it was only known that the glacial climate changes had left a «genetic fingerprint» in the DNA of alpine plants.

During the Ice Ages the European Alps were covered by a thick layer of ice. Climate fluctuations led to great changes in the occurrences of plants: They survived the cold periods in refugia on the periphery of the Alps which they then repopulated after the ice had drawn back. Such processes in the history of the earth can be detected by molecular analysis as «genetic fingerprints»: refugia and colonization routes can be identified as genetic groups within the plant species. Thus, the postglacial colonization history of alpine plants is still borne in plants alive today.

Yellow Bellflower and Creeping Avens


So far, it was unknown if the Ice Ages also affected the structure and growth habit of alpine plants. Prof. Jürg Stöcklin and his colleagues from the Institute of Botany at the University of Basel were now able to proof this phenomenon in two publications. The glacial periods have left marks on the Yellow Bellflower and the Creeping Avens that are visible to the naked eye. The ancestors of these plants survived the Ice Ages in different glacial refugia which led to the fact that today they show genetic differences in their external morphology and in important functional traits.

Notably, the Yellow Bellflower’s inflorescence and timing of flowering differ between plants from the Eastern Alps and plants from the central or western parts of the Alps. Regarding the Creeping Avens, plants from the Western Alps show significantly more offshoots but have fewer flowers than those from the Eastern Alps, while the dissection of the leaves increases from West to East.

Plants are more adaptable than assumed

The Botanists from Basel further discovered that the variations within one species are partly due to natural selection. For example, the timing of flowering in the Yellow Bellflower can be explained with variability in growing season length. Plants shorten their flowering duration as adaptation to the shorter growing seasons at higher elevations.

«The findings are important for understanding the effects that future climate changes may have on plants», says Stöcklin. «The glacial periods have positively affected the intraspecific biodiversity.» Furthermore, the scientists were able to show that plants are more adaptable than has been assumed previously. Climate changes do have an effect on the distribution of species; however, alpine plants also possess considerable skills to genetically adapt to changing environmental conditions.

First evidence that dust and sand deposits in China are controlled by rivers

Northern China holds some of the world's most significant wind-blown dust deposits, known as loess. The origin of this loess-forming dust and its relationship to sand has previously been the subject of considerable debate. -  Royal Holloway University
Northern China holds some of the world’s most significant wind-blown dust deposits, known as loess. The origin of this loess-forming dust and its relationship to sand has previously been the subject of considerable debate. – Royal Holloway University

New research published today in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews has found the first evidence that large rivers control desert sands and dust in Northern China.

Northern China holds some of the world’s most significant wind-blown dust deposits, known as loess. The origin of this loess-forming dust and its relationship to sand has previously been the subject of considerable debate.

The team of researchers led by Royal Holloway University, analysed individual grains of fine wind-blown dust deposited in the Chinese Loess Plateau that has formed thick deposits over the past 2.5 million years. As part of this, they also analysed the Mu Us desert in Inner Mongolia and the Yellow River, one of the world’s longest rivers, to identify links between the dust deposits and nearby deserts and rivers.

The results showed that the Yellow River transports large quantities of sediment from northern Tibet to the Mu Us desert and further suggests that the river contributes a significant volume of material to the Loess Plateau.

“The Yellow River drains the northeast Tibetan plateau and so the uplift of this region and the development of Yellow River drainage seems to control the large scale dust deposits and sand formation in this part of China,” said lead researcher Tom Stevens from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway.

“Identifying how this dust is formed and controlled is important, since it drives climate change and ocean productivity and impacts human health. Its relationship to the river and Tibet implies strong links between tectonics and climate change. This suggests that global climate change caused by atmospheric dust may be influenced by the uplift of Tibet and changes in major river systems that drain this area.”

First evidence that dust and sand deposits in China are controlled by rivers

Northern China holds some of the world's most significant wind-blown dust deposits, known as loess. The origin of this loess-forming dust and its relationship to sand has previously been the subject of considerable debate. -  Royal Holloway University
Northern China holds some of the world’s most significant wind-blown dust deposits, known as loess. The origin of this loess-forming dust and its relationship to sand has previously been the subject of considerable debate. – Royal Holloway University

New research published today in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews has found the first evidence that large rivers control desert sands and dust in Northern China.

Northern China holds some of the world’s most significant wind-blown dust deposits, known as loess. The origin of this loess-forming dust and its relationship to sand has previously been the subject of considerable debate.

The team of researchers led by Royal Holloway University, analysed individual grains of fine wind-blown dust deposited in the Chinese Loess Plateau that has formed thick deposits over the past 2.5 million years. As part of this, they also analysed the Mu Us desert in Inner Mongolia and the Yellow River, one of the world’s longest rivers, to identify links between the dust deposits and nearby deserts and rivers.

The results showed that the Yellow River transports large quantities of sediment from northern Tibet to the Mu Us desert and further suggests that the river contributes a significant volume of material to the Loess Plateau.

“The Yellow River drains the northeast Tibetan plateau and so the uplift of this region and the development of Yellow River drainage seems to control the large scale dust deposits and sand formation in this part of China,” said lead researcher Tom Stevens from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway.

“Identifying how this dust is formed and controlled is important, since it drives climate change and ocean productivity and impacts human health. Its relationship to the river and Tibet implies strong links between tectonics and climate change. This suggests that global climate change caused by atmospheric dust may be influenced by the uplift of Tibet and changes in major river systems that drain this area.”

Iron in the Earth’s core weakens before melting

The iron in the Earth’s inner core weakens dramatically before it melts, explaining the unusual properties that exist in the moon-sized solid centre of our planet that have, up until now, been difficult to understand.

Scientists use seismic waves – pulses of energy generated during earthquakes – to measure what is happening in the Earth’s inner core, which at 6000 km beneath our feet is completely inaccessible.

Problematically for researchers, the results of seismic measurements consistently show that these waves move through the Earth’s solid inner core at much slower speeds than predicted by experiments and simulations.

Specifically, a type of seismic wave called a ‘shear wave’ moves particularly slowly through the Earth’s core relative to the speed expected for the material – mainly iron – from which the core is made. Shear waves move through the body of the object in a transverse motion – like waves in a rope, as opposed to waves moving through a slinky spring.

Now, in a paper published in Science, scientists from UCL have proposed a possible explanation. They suggest that the iron in the Earth’s core may weaken dramatically just before melting, becoming much less stiff. The team used quantum mechanical calculations to evaluate the wave velocities of solid iron at inner-core pressure up to melting.

They calculated that at temperatures up to 95% of what is needed to melt iron in the Earth’s inner core, the speed of the seismic waves moving through the inner core decreases linearly but, after 95%, it drops dramatically.

At about 99% of the melting temperature of iron, the team’s calculated velocities agree with seismic data for the Earth’s inner core. Since independent geophysical results suggest that the inner core is likely to be at 99-100% of its melting temperature, the results presented in this paper give a compelling explanation as to why the seismic wave velocities are lower than those predicted previously.

Professor Lidunka Vočadlo, from the UCL department of Earth Sciences and an author of the paper said: “The Earth’s deep interior still holds many mysteries that scientists are trying to unravel.

“The proposed mineral models for the inner core have always shown a faster wave speed than that observed in seismic data. This mismatch has given rise to several complex theories about the state and evolution of the Earth’s core.”

The authors stress that this is not the end of the story as other factors need to be taken into account before a definitive core model can be made. As well as iron, the core contains nickel and light elements, such as silicon and sulphur.

Professor Vočadlo said: “The strong pre-melting effects in iron shown in our paper are an exciting new development in understanding the Earth’s inner core. We are currently working on how this result is affected by the presence of other elements, and we may soon be in a position to produce a simple model for the inner core that is consistent with seismic and other geophysical measurements.

Iron in the Earth’s core weakens before melting

The iron in the Earth’s inner core weakens dramatically before it melts, explaining the unusual properties that exist in the moon-sized solid centre of our planet that have, up until now, been difficult to understand.

Scientists use seismic waves – pulses of energy generated during earthquakes – to measure what is happening in the Earth’s inner core, which at 6000 km beneath our feet is completely inaccessible.

Problematically for researchers, the results of seismic measurements consistently show that these waves move through the Earth’s solid inner core at much slower speeds than predicted by experiments and simulations.

Specifically, a type of seismic wave called a ‘shear wave’ moves particularly slowly through the Earth’s core relative to the speed expected for the material – mainly iron – from which the core is made. Shear waves move through the body of the object in a transverse motion – like waves in a rope, as opposed to waves moving through a slinky spring.

Now, in a paper published in Science, scientists from UCL have proposed a possible explanation. They suggest that the iron in the Earth’s core may weaken dramatically just before melting, becoming much less stiff. The team used quantum mechanical calculations to evaluate the wave velocities of solid iron at inner-core pressure up to melting.

They calculated that at temperatures up to 95% of what is needed to melt iron in the Earth’s inner core, the speed of the seismic waves moving through the inner core decreases linearly but, after 95%, it drops dramatically.

At about 99% of the melting temperature of iron, the team’s calculated velocities agree with seismic data for the Earth’s inner core. Since independent geophysical results suggest that the inner core is likely to be at 99-100% of its melting temperature, the results presented in this paper give a compelling explanation as to why the seismic wave velocities are lower than those predicted previously.

Professor Lidunka Vočadlo, from the UCL department of Earth Sciences and an author of the paper said: “The Earth’s deep interior still holds many mysteries that scientists are trying to unravel.

“The proposed mineral models for the inner core have always shown a faster wave speed than that observed in seismic data. This mismatch has given rise to several complex theories about the state and evolution of the Earth’s core.”

The authors stress that this is not the end of the story as other factors need to be taken into account before a definitive core model can be made. As well as iron, the core contains nickel and light elements, such as silicon and sulphur.

Professor Vočadlo said: “The strong pre-melting effects in iron shown in our paper are an exciting new development in understanding the Earth’s inner core. We are currently working on how this result is affected by the presence of other elements, and we may soon be in a position to produce a simple model for the inner core that is consistent with seismic and other geophysical measurements.

Crystals in Picabo’s rocks point to ‘recycled’ super-volcanic magma chambers

University of Oregon geologist Ilya Bindeman, left, and graduate student Dana Drew, working in Bindeman's stable isotope laboratory say that the composition of zircon bits in igneous rocks in the Yellowstone hotspot track tell a new story on how super volcanoes recycle magma. -  University of Oregon
University of Oregon geologist Ilya Bindeman, left, and graduate student Dana Drew, working in Bindeman’s stable isotope laboratory say that the composition of zircon bits in igneous rocks in the Yellowstone hotspot track tell a new story on how super volcanoes recycle magma. – University of Oregon

A thorough examination of tiny crystals of zircon, a mineral found in rhyolites, an igneous rock, from the Snake River Plain has solidified evidence for a new way of looking at the life cycle of super-volcanic eruptions in the long track of the Yellowstone hotspot, say University of Oregon scientists.

The pattern emerging from new and previous research completed in the last five years under a National Science Foundation career award, said UO geologist Ilya N. Bindeman, is that another super-eruption from the still-alive Yellowstone volcanic field is less likely for the next few million years than previously thought (see related story, “Not in a million years, says Oregon geologist about Yellowstone eruption“). The last eruption 640,000 years ago created the Yellowstone Caldera and the Lava Creek Tuff in what is now Yellowstone National Park.

The Yellowstone hotspot creates a conveyor belt style of volcanism because of the southwest migration of the North American plate at 2-4 centimeters (about .8 to 1.6 inches) annually over the last 16 million years of volcanism. Due to the movement of the North American plate, the plume interaction with the crust leaves footprints in the form of caldera clusters, in what is now the Snake River Plain, Bindeman said.

The Picabo volcanic field of southern Idaho, described in a new paper by a six-member team, was active between 10.4 and 6.6 million years ago and experienced at least three, and maybe as many as six, violent caldera-forming eruptions. The field has been difficult to assess, said lead author Dana Drew, a UO graduate student, because the calderas have been buried by as much as two kilometers of basalt since its eruption cycle died.

The work at Picabo is detailed in a paper online ahead of publication in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The team theorized that basalt from the mantle plume, rocks from Earth’s crust and previously erupted volcanoes are melted together to form the rhyolites erupted in the Snake River Plain. Before each eruption, rhyolite magma is stored in dispersed pockets throughout the upper crust, which are later mixed together, according to geochemical evidence. “We think that this batch-assembly process is an important part of caldera-forming eruptions, and generating rhyolites in general,” Drew said.

In reaching their conclusions, Drew and colleagues analyzed radiogenic and stable isotopic data — specifically oxygen and hafnium — in zircons detected in rhyolites found at the margins of the Picabo field and from a deep borehole. That data, in combination with whole rock geochemistry and zircon uranium-lead geochronology helped provide a framework to understand the region’s ancient volcanic past.

Previous research on the related Heise volcanic field east of Picabo yielded similar results. “There is a growing database of the geochemistry of rhyolites in the Yellowstone hotspot track,” Drew said. “Adding Picabo provides a missing link in the database.

Drew and colleagues, through their oxygen isotope analyses, identified a wide diversity of oxygen ratios occurring in erupted zircons near the end of the Picabo volcanic cycle. Such oxygen ratios are referred to as delta-O-18 signatures based on oxygen 18 levels relative to seawater. (Oxygen 18 contains eight protons and 10 neutrons; Oxygen 16, with eight protons and eight neutrons, is the most commonly found form of oxygen in nature)

The approach provided a glimpse into the connection of surface and subsurface processes at a caldera cluster. The interaction of erupted rhyolite with groundwater and surface water causes hydrothermal alteration and the change in oxygen isotopes, thereby providing a fingerprinting tool for the level of hydrothermal alteration, Drew said.

“Through the eruptive sequence, we begin to generate lower delta-O-18 signatures of the magmas and, with that, we also see a more diverse signature,” Drew said. “By the time of the final eruption there is up to five per mil diversity in the signature recorded in the zircons.” The team attributes these signatures to the mixing of diverse magma batches dispersed in the upper crust, which were formed by melting variably hydrothermally altered rocks — thus diverse delta-O-18 — after repeated formation of calderas and regional extension or stretching of the crust.

When the pockets of melt are rapidly assembled, the process could be the trigger for caldera forming eruptions, Bindeman said. “That leads to a homogenized magma, but in a way that preserves these zircons of different signatures from the individual pockets of melt,” he said. This research, he added, highlights the importance of using new micro-analytical isotopic techniques to relate geochemistry at the crystal-scale to processes occurring at the crustal-wide scale in generating and predicting large-volume rhyolitic eruptions.

“This important research by Dr. Bindeman and his team demonstrates the enormous impact an NSF CAREER award can have,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation and dean of the graduate school at the University of Oregon. “The five-year project is providing new insights into the eruption cycles of the Yellowstone hotspot and helping scientists to better predict future volcanic activity.”

Crystals in Picabo’s rocks point to ‘recycled’ super-volcanic magma chambers

University of Oregon geologist Ilya Bindeman, left, and graduate student Dana Drew, working in Bindeman's stable isotope laboratory say that the composition of zircon bits in igneous rocks in the Yellowstone hotspot track tell a new story on how super volcanoes recycle magma. -  University of Oregon
University of Oregon geologist Ilya Bindeman, left, and graduate student Dana Drew, working in Bindeman’s stable isotope laboratory say that the composition of zircon bits in igneous rocks in the Yellowstone hotspot track tell a new story on how super volcanoes recycle magma. – University of Oregon

A thorough examination of tiny crystals of zircon, a mineral found in rhyolites, an igneous rock, from the Snake River Plain has solidified evidence for a new way of looking at the life cycle of super-volcanic eruptions in the long track of the Yellowstone hotspot, say University of Oregon scientists.

The pattern emerging from new and previous research completed in the last five years under a National Science Foundation career award, said UO geologist Ilya N. Bindeman, is that another super-eruption from the still-alive Yellowstone volcanic field is less likely for the next few million years than previously thought (see related story, “Not in a million years, says Oregon geologist about Yellowstone eruption“). The last eruption 640,000 years ago created the Yellowstone Caldera and the Lava Creek Tuff in what is now Yellowstone National Park.

The Yellowstone hotspot creates a conveyor belt style of volcanism because of the southwest migration of the North American plate at 2-4 centimeters (about .8 to 1.6 inches) annually over the last 16 million years of volcanism. Due to the movement of the North American plate, the plume interaction with the crust leaves footprints in the form of caldera clusters, in what is now the Snake River Plain, Bindeman said.

The Picabo volcanic field of southern Idaho, described in a new paper by a six-member team, was active between 10.4 and 6.6 million years ago and experienced at least three, and maybe as many as six, violent caldera-forming eruptions. The field has been difficult to assess, said lead author Dana Drew, a UO graduate student, because the calderas have been buried by as much as two kilometers of basalt since its eruption cycle died.

The work at Picabo is detailed in a paper online ahead of publication in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The team theorized that basalt from the mantle plume, rocks from Earth’s crust and previously erupted volcanoes are melted together to form the rhyolites erupted in the Snake River Plain. Before each eruption, rhyolite magma is stored in dispersed pockets throughout the upper crust, which are later mixed together, according to geochemical evidence. “We think that this batch-assembly process is an important part of caldera-forming eruptions, and generating rhyolites in general,” Drew said.

In reaching their conclusions, Drew and colleagues analyzed radiogenic and stable isotopic data — specifically oxygen and hafnium — in zircons detected in rhyolites found at the margins of the Picabo field and from a deep borehole. That data, in combination with whole rock geochemistry and zircon uranium-lead geochronology helped provide a framework to understand the region’s ancient volcanic past.

Previous research on the related Heise volcanic field east of Picabo yielded similar results. “There is a growing database of the geochemistry of rhyolites in the Yellowstone hotspot track,” Drew said. “Adding Picabo provides a missing link in the database.

Drew and colleagues, through their oxygen isotope analyses, identified a wide diversity of oxygen ratios occurring in erupted zircons near the end of the Picabo volcanic cycle. Such oxygen ratios are referred to as delta-O-18 signatures based on oxygen 18 levels relative to seawater. (Oxygen 18 contains eight protons and 10 neutrons; Oxygen 16, with eight protons and eight neutrons, is the most commonly found form of oxygen in nature)

The approach provided a glimpse into the connection of surface and subsurface processes at a caldera cluster. The interaction of erupted rhyolite with groundwater and surface water causes hydrothermal alteration and the change in oxygen isotopes, thereby providing a fingerprinting tool for the level of hydrothermal alteration, Drew said.

“Through the eruptive sequence, we begin to generate lower delta-O-18 signatures of the magmas and, with that, we also see a more diverse signature,” Drew said. “By the time of the final eruption there is up to five per mil diversity in the signature recorded in the zircons.” The team attributes these signatures to the mixing of diverse magma batches dispersed in the upper crust, which were formed by melting variably hydrothermally altered rocks — thus diverse delta-O-18 — after repeated formation of calderas and regional extension or stretching of the crust.

When the pockets of melt are rapidly assembled, the process could be the trigger for caldera forming eruptions, Bindeman said. “That leads to a homogenized magma, but in a way that preserves these zircons of different signatures from the individual pockets of melt,” he said. This research, he added, highlights the importance of using new micro-analytical isotopic techniques to relate geochemistry at the crystal-scale to processes occurring at the crustal-wide scale in generating and predicting large-volume rhyolitic eruptions.

“This important research by Dr. Bindeman and his team demonstrates the enormous impact an NSF CAREER award can have,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation and dean of the graduate school at the University of Oregon. “The five-year project is providing new insights into the eruption cycles of the Yellowstone hotspot and helping scientists to better predict future volcanic activity.”

3D model reveals new information about iconic volcano

The volcano on the Scottish peninsula Ardnamurchan is a popular place for the study of rocks and structures in the core of a volcano. Geology students read about it in text books and geologists have been certain that the Ardnamurchan volcano have three successive magma chambers. However, an international group of researchers, lead from Uppsala University, Sweden, has now showed that the volcano only has one single magma chamber.

The new study is published in Scientific Reports, the new open access journal of the Nature Publishing Group.

The 58 million year old Ardnamurchan volcano is an iconic site for the study of rocks and structures in the core of a volcano, which is why thousands of geology students from all over the world visit Ardnamurchan every year. Since the early days of modern geology the Ardnamurchan volcano is believed to have had three successive magma chambers (or centres) that fed hundreds of thin arcuate basalt intrusions, so-called cone sheets, that are exposed all over the peninsula.

The researchers from the universities of Uppsala (Sweden), Quebec (Canada), Durham and St. Andrews (UK), challenges the 3-centre concept using a 3D model of the subsurface beneath today’s land surface. According to this model, the Ardnamurchan volcano was underlain by a single but elongate magma chamber.

Studying extinct volcanoes is a way for geologists to understand the interior of volcanic edifices and to gain knowledge on the processes that occur within active volcanoes today. It is therefore that the volcanic centres of western Scotland and northeastern Ireland were intensely studied by British geologists in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was in these eroded volcanoes that the foundation for modern volcanology was laid. Ardnamurchan in particular has an iconic status among geologists everywhere in the world. Geology students read about it in text books and visit it during field excursions.

“It came as a bit of a surprise to us that there is still so much to learn from a place that has received so much attention by geologists, in particular since we used the original data collected in 1930 by Richey and Thomas.” said Dr Steffi Burchardt, senior lecturer at Uppsala University.

“Modern software allows visualizing field measurements in 3D and opens up a range of new perspectives. After projecting hundreds of cone sheets in the computer model, we were unable to identify three separate centres. The cone sheets instead appear to originate from a single, large, and elongate magma chamber about 1.5 km below today’s land surface.”

This magma chamber beneath Ardnamurchan was up to 6 km long and has the shape of an elongate saucer.

“These types of magma chambers are known to exist for example within volcanoes in Iceland have have been detected in the North Sea bedrock. Ardnamurchan’s new magma chamber is hence much more realistic considering everything we have learned about Ardnamurchan and other extinct and active volcanoes since the time of Richey and Thomas” said Prof. Valentin Troll, chair in petrology at Uppsala University.

Water and lava, but — curiously — no explosion

Researchers say pillars like these were formed when lava and water met on land without exploding. -  Tracy Gregg
Researchers say pillars like these were formed when lava and water met on land without exploding. – Tracy Gregg

Rocky pillars dotting Iceland’s Skaelingar valley were projectiles tossed into the fields by warring trolls. That, at least, is the tale that University at Buffalo geologist Tracy Gregg heard from a tour guide and local hiker when she visited the site on two occasions.

But Gregg and a colleague have a new explanation for the presence of the lava formations – this one also unexpected.

In the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, she and former UB master’s student Kenneth Christle report that the pillars, hollow and made from basalt, likely formed in a surprising reaction where lava met water without any explosion occurring. Their findings appeared online Aug. 15 and will be published in a forthcoming print edition of the journal.

“Usually, when lava and water meet in aerial environments, the water instantly flashes to steam,” said Gregg, a UB associate professor of geology. “That’s a volume increase of eight times – boom.”

“Formations like the ones we see in Iceland are common in the ocean under two miles of water, where there’s so much pressure that there’s no explosion,” she said. “They’ve never been described on land before, and it’s important because it tells us that water and lava can come together on land and not explode. This has implications for the way we view volcanic risk.”

Deep-sea basalt pillars form when columns of super-heated water rise between pillows of lava on the ocean floor, cooling the molten rock into hollow, pipe-like minarets. The structures grow taller as lava levels rise, and remain standing even after volcanic eruptions end and lava levels fall again.

Gregg and Christle propose that the same phenomenon sculpted the land-based lava pillars in Iceland.

It happened in the 1780s, when lava from a nearby eruption entered the Skaelingar valley, which Gregg theorizes was covered by a pond or was super-swampy. She thinks one reason no explosion occurred was because the lava was moving so slowly – centimeters per second – that it was able to react with the water in a “kinder, gentler” manner.

“If you’re driving your car at 5 miles per hour and you hit a stop sign, it’s a lot different than if you hit that same stop sign at 40 miles an hour,” she said. “There’s a lot more energy that will be released.”

The Iceland formations, some over 2 meters tall, display telltale features that hint at how they were created. For example:

  • They are hollow on the inside.

  • Their rocky exteriors bear vertical scars – scratches where pieces of floating crust may have rammed into the pillars and scraped the surface as lava levels in the valley declined.

  • The skin of the towers isn’t smooth, but gnarled with shiny drips of rock. The glassy texture suggests that the lava hardened quickly into rock, at a pace consistent with non-explosive water-lava interactions. Had the lava cooled more slowly in air, it would have formed crystals.

Each of these distinctive characteristics is also prevalent in deep-ocean pillars, said Gregg, who first saw the Icelandic formations in the mid-1990s while hiking in the valley with her husband.

“I knew as soon as I saw them what they were,” she said. “I had, at that time, been on submarine cruises and seen these things deep under the sea, so I was just hysterical, saying, ‘Look at these!’ So I ran around and started taking pictures until the light started running out.”

She didn’t have the chance to return to the site until 2010, when Christle received a student research grant from the Geological Society of America to do field work in Iceland. The two spent four days studying the pillars in detail, confirming Gregg’s original suspicions.

In the future, scientists could hunt for land-based lava pillars near oceans to learn about the height of ancient seas, or search for such formations on Mars and other planets to determine where water once existed.