UW team explores large, restless volcanic field in Chile

If Brad Singer knew for sure what was happening three miles under an odd-shaped lake in the Andes, he might be less eager to spend a good part of his career investigating a volcanic field that has erupted 36 times during the last 25,000 years. As he leads a large scientific team exploring a region in the Andes called Laguna del Maule, Singer hopes the area remains quiet.

But the primary reason to expend so much effort on this area boils down to one fact: The rate of uplift is among the highest ever observed by satellite measurement for a volcano that is not actively erupting.

That uplift is almost definitely due to a large intrusion of magma — molten rock — beneath the volcanic complex. For seven years, an area larger than the city of Madison has been rising by 10 inches per year.

That rapid rise provides a major scientific opportunity: to explore a mega-volcano before it erupts. That effort, and the hazard posed by the restless magma reservoir beneath Laguna del Maule, are described in a major research article in the December issue of the Geological Society of America’s GSA Today.

“We’ve always been looking at these mega-eruptions in the rear-view mirror,” says Singer. “We look at the lava, dust and ash, and try to understand what happened before the eruption. Since these huge eruptions are rare, that’s usually our only option. But we look at the steady uplift at Laguna del Maule, which has a history of regular eruptions, combined with changes in gravity, electrical conductivity and swarms of earthquakes, and we suspect that conditions necessary to trigger another eruption are gathering force.”

Laguna del Maule looks nothing like a classic, cone-shaped volcano, since the high-intensity erosion caused by heavy rain and snow has carried most of the evidence to the nearby Pacific Ocean. But the overpowering reason for the absence of “typical volcano cones” is the nature of the molten rock underground. It’s called rhyolite, and it’s the most explosive type of magma on the planet.

The eruption of a rhyolite volcano is too quick and violent to build up a cone. Instead, this viscous, water-rich magma often explodes into vast quantities of ash that can form deposits hundreds of yards deep, followed by a slower flow of glassy magma that can be tens of yards tall and measure more than a mile in length.

The next eruption could be in the size range of Mount St. Helens — or it could be vastly bigger, Singer says. “We know that over the past million years or so, several eruptions at Laguna del Maule or nearby volcanoes have been more than 100 times larger than Mount St. Helens,” he says. “Those are rare, but they are possible.” Such a mega-eruption could change the weather, disrupt the ecosystem and damage the economy.

Trying to anticipate what Laguna del Maule holds in store, Singer is heading a new $3 million, five-year effort sponsored by the National Science Foundation to document its behavior before an eruption. With colleagues from Chile, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, and Cornell and Georgia Tech universities, he is masterminding an effort to build a scientific model of the underground forces that could lead to eruption. “This model should capture how this system has evolved in the crust at all scales, from the microscopic to basinwide, over the last 100,000 years,” Singer says. “It’s like a movie from the past to the present and into the future.”

Over the next five years, Singer says he and 30 colleagues will “throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at the problem — geology, geochemistry, geochronology and geophysics — to help measure, and then model, what’s going on.”

One key source of information on volcanoes is seismic waves. Ground shaking triggered by the movement of magma can signal an impending eruption. Team member Clifford Thurber, a seismologist and professor of geoscience at UW-Madison, wants to use distant earthquakes to locate the underground magma body.

As many as 50 seismometers will eventually be emplaced above and around the magma at Laguna del Maule, in the effort to create a 3-D image of Earth’s crust in the area.

By tracking multiple earthquakes over several years, Thurber and his colleagues want to pinpoint the size and location of the magma body — roughly estimated as an oval measuring five kilometers (3.1 miles) by 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

Each seismometer will record the travel time of earthquake waves originating within a few thousand kilometers, Thurber explains. Since soft rock transmits sound less efficiently than hard rock, “we expect that waves that pass through the presumed magma body will be delayed,” Thurber says. “It’s very simple. It’s like a CT scan, except instead of density we are looking at seismic wave velocity.”

As Singer, who has been visiting Laguna del Maule since 1998, notes, “The rate of uplift — among the highest ever observed — has been sustained for seven years, and we have discovered a large, fluid-rich zone in the crust under the lake using electrical resistivity methods. Thus, there are not many possible explanations other than a big, active body of magma at a shallow depth.”

The expanding body of magma could freeze in place — or blow its top, he says. “One thing we know for sure is that the surface cannot continue rising indefinitely.”

Climate capers of the past 600,000 years

The researchers remove samples from a core segment taken from Lake Van at the center for Marine environmental sciences MARUM in Bremen, where all of the cores from the PALEOVAN project are stored. -  Photo: Nadine Pickarski/Uni Bonn
The researchers remove samples from a core segment taken from Lake Van at the center for Marine environmental sciences MARUM in Bremen, where all of the cores from the PALEOVAN project are stored. – Photo: Nadine Pickarski/Uni Bonn

If you want to see into the future, you have to understand the past. An international consortium of researchers under the auspices of the University of Bonn has drilled deposits on the bed of Lake Van (Eastern Turkey) which provide unique insights into the last 600,000 years. The samples reveal that the climate has done its fair share of mischief-making in the past. Furthermore, there have been numerous earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The results of the drilling project also provide a basis for assessing the risk of how dangerous natural hazards are for today’s population. In a special edition of the highly regarded publication Quaternary Science Reviews, the scientists have now published their findings in a number of journal articles.

In the sediments of Lake Van, the lighter-colored, lime-containing summer layers are clearly distinguishable from the darker, clay-rich winter layers — also called varves. In 2010, from a floating platform an international consortium of researchers drilled a 220 m deep sediment profile from the lake floor at a water depth of 360 m and analyzed the varves. The samples they recovered are a unique scientific treasure because the climate conditions, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions of the past 600,000 years can be read in outstanding quality from the cores.

The team of scientists under the auspices of the University of Bonn has analyzed some 5,000 samples in total. “The results show that the climate over the past hundred thousand years has been a roller coaster. Within just a few decades, the climate could tip from an ice age into a warm period,” says Doctor Thomas Litt of the University of Bonn’s Steinmann Institute and spokesman for the PALEOVAN international consortium of researchers. Unbroken continental climate archives from the ice age which encompass several hundred thousand years are extremely rare on a global scale. “There has never before in all of the Middle East and Central Asia been a continental drilling operation going so far back into the past,” says Doctor Litt. In the northern hemisphere, climate data from ice-cores drilled in Greenland encompass the last 120,000 years. The Lake Van project closes a gap in the scientific climate record.

The sediments reveal six cycles of cold and warm periods


Scientists found evidence for a total of six cycles of warm and cold periods in the sediments of Lake Van. The University of Bonn paleoecologist and his colleagues analyzed the pollen preserved in the sediments. Under a microscope they were able to determine which plants around the eastern Anatolian Lake the pollen came from. “Pollen is amazingly durable and is preserved over very long periods when protected in the sediments,” Doctor Litt explained. Insight into the age of the individual layers was gleaned through radiometric age measurements that use the decay of radioactive elements as a geologic clock. Based on the type of pollen and the age, the scientists were able to determine when oak forests typical of warm periods grew around Lake Van and when ice-age steppe made up of grasses, mugwort and goosefoot surrounded the lake.

Once they determine the composition of the vegetation present and the requirements of the plants, the scientists can reconstruct with a high degree of accuracy the temperature and amount of rainfall during different epochs. These analyses enable the team of researchers to read the varves of Lake Van like thousands of pages of an archive. With these data, the team was able to demonstrate that fluctuations in climate were due in large part to periodic changes in the Earth’s orbit parameters and the commensurate changes in solar insolation levels. However, the influence of North Atlantic currents was also evident. “The analysis of the Lake Van sediments has presented us with an image of how an ecosystem reacts to abrupt changes in climate. This fundamental data will help us to develop potential scenarios of future climate effects,” says Doctor Litt.

Risks of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the region of Van

Such risk assessments can also be made for other natural forces. “Deposits of volcanic ash with thicknesses of up to 10 m in the Lake Van sediments show us that approximately 270,000 years ago there was a massive eruption,” the University of Bonn paleoecologist said. The team struck some 300 different volcanic events in its drillings. Statistically, that corresponds to one explosive volcanic eruption in the region every 2000 years. Deformations in the sediment layers show that the area is subject to frequent, strong earthquakes. “The area around Lake Van is very densely populated. The data from the core samples show that volcanic activity and earthquakes present a relatively high risk for the region,” Doctor Litt says. According to media reports, in 2011 a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in the Van province claimed the lives of more than 500 people and injured more than 2,500.

Publication: “Results from the PALEOVAN drilling project: A 600,000 year long continental archive in the Near East”, Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 104, online publication: (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2014.09.026)

Earth’s magnetic field could flip within a human lifetime

Left to right, Biaggio Giaccio, Gianluca Sotilli, Courtney Sprain and Sebastien Nomade sitting next to an outcrop in the Sulmona basin of the Apennines that contains the Matuyama-Brunhes magnetic reversal. A layer of volcanic ash interbedded with the lake sediments can be seen above their heads. -  Paul Renne, UC Berkeley
Left to right, Biaggio Giaccio, Gianluca Sotilli, Courtney Sprain and Sebastien Nomade sitting next to an outcrop in the Sulmona basin of the Apennines that contains the Matuyama-Brunhes magnetic reversal. A layer of volcanic ash interbedded with the lake sediments can be seen above their heads. – Paul Renne, UC Berkeley

Imagine the world waking up one morning to discover that all compasses pointed south instead of north.

It’s not as bizarre as it sounds. Earth’s magnetic field has flipped – though not overnight – many times throughout the planet’s history. Its dipole magnetic field, like that of a bar magnet, remains about the same intensity for thousands to millions of years, but for incompletely known reasons it occasionally weakens and, presumably over a few thousand years, reverses direction.

Now, a new study by a team of scientists from Italy, France, Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrates that the last magnetic reversal 786,000 years ago actually happened very quickly, in less than 100 years – roughly a human lifetime.

“It’s amazing how rapidly we see that reversal,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Courtney Sprain. “The paleomagnetic data are very well done. This is one of the best records we have so far of what happens during a reversal and how quickly these reversals can happen.”

Sprain and Paul Renne, director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center and a UC Berkeley professor-in- residence of earth and planetary science, are coauthors of the study, which will be published in the November issue of Geophysical Journal International and is now available online.

Flip could affect electrical grid, cancer rates

The discovery comes as new evidence indicates that the intensity of Earth’s magnetic field is decreasing 10 times faster than normal, leading some geophysicists to predict a reversal within a few thousand years.

Though a magnetic reversal is a major planet-wide event driven by convection in Earth’s iron core, there are no documented catastrophes associated with past reversals, despite much searching in the geologic and biologic record. Today, however, such a reversal could potentially wreak havoc with our electrical grid, generating currents that might take it down.

And since Earth’s magnetic field protects life from energetic particles from the sun and cosmic rays, both of which can cause genetic mutations, a weakening or temporary loss of the field before a permanent reversal could increase cancer rates. The danger to life would be even greater if flips were preceded by long periods of unstable magnetic behavior.

“We should be thinking more about what the biologic effects would be,” Renne said.

Dating ash deposits from windward volcanoes

The new finding is based on measurements of the magnetic field alignment in layers of ancient lake sediments now exposed in the Sulmona basin of the Apennine Mountains east of Rome, Italy. The lake sediments are interbedded with ash layers erupted from the Roman volcanic province, a large area of volcanoes upwind of the former lake that includes periodically erupting volcanoes near Sabatini, Vesuvius and the Alban Hills. Italian researchers led by Leonardo Sagnotti of Rome’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology measured the magnetic field directions frozen into the sediments as they accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake.

Sprain and Renne used argon-argon dating, a method widely used to determine the ages of rocks, whether they’re thousands or billions of years old, to determine the age of ash layers above and below the sediment layer recording the last reversal. These dates were confirmed by their colleague and former UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Sebastien Nomade of the Laboratory of Environmental and Climate Sciences in Gif-Sur-Yvette, France.

Because the lake sediments were deposited at a high and steady rate over a 10,000-year period, the team was able to interpolate the date of the layer showing the magnetic reversal, called the Matuyama-Brunhes transition, at approximately 786,000 years ago. This date is far more precise than that from previous studies, which placed the reversal between 770,000 and 795,000 years ago.

“What’s incredible is that you go from reverse polarity to a field that is normal with essentially nothing in between, which means it had to have happened very quickly, probably in less than 100 years,” said Renne. “We don’t know whether the next reversal will occur as suddenly as this one did, but we also don’t know that it won’t.”

Unstable magnetic field preceded 180-degree flip

Whether or not the new finding spells trouble for modern civilization, it likely will help researchers understand how and why Earth’s magnetic field episodically reverses polarity, Renne said.

The magnetic record the Italian-led team obtained shows that the sudden 180-degree flip of the field was preceded by a period of instability that spanned more than 6,000 years. The instability included two intervals of low magnetic field strength that lasted about 2,000 years each. Rapid changes in field orientations may have occurred within the first interval of low strength. The full magnetic polarity reversal – that is, the final and very rapid flip to what the field is today – happened toward the end of the most recent interval of low field strength.

Renne is continuing his collaboration with the Italian-French team to correlate the lake record with past climate change.

Renne and Sprain’s work at the Berkeley Geochronology Center was supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

Living in the shadow of Mauna Loa: A silent summit belies a volcano’s forgotten fury

Earth’s largest active volcano, Mauna Loa on Hawaii’s Big Island, is taking a nap. And after 30 years, no one is sure when the sleeping giant will awaken. Scientists say it’s likely to erupt again within the next couple of decades and, when it does, it will be spectacular – and potentially dangerous.

Although Mauna Loa often takes a back seat to the more famous Kilauea, which has been erupting nearly continuously since 1983, history warns us that Mauna Loa’s current silence is anomalous. Meanwhile, more people and more buildings pack into potentially hazardous areas: locations where Mauna Loa’s lava has reached in the past and likely will reach again. Read more about the steps geologists are already taking – such as upgrading their monitoring tools and talking with the public – to prepare for another eruption of Mauna Loa in the September issue of EARTH Magazine: http://bit.ly/1p1SXiU.

For more stories about the science of our planet, check out EARTH magazine online or subscribe at http://www.earthmagazine.org. The September issue, now available on the digital newsstand, features stories about a new Neanderthal ancestor found in a Spanish cave, the effect of volcanic ash on Southern Ocean plankton, and a tribute to Nereus, the United States’ only full-ocean-depth submersible, which was lost at sea in May, plus much, much more.

Yellowstone supereruption would send ash across North America

An example of the possible distribution of ash from a month-long Yellowstone supereruption. The distribution map was generated by a new model developed by the US Geological Survey using wind information from January 2001. The improved computer model, detailed in a new study published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, finds that the hypothetical, large eruption would create a distinctive kind of ash cloud known as an umbrella, which expands evenly in all directions, sending ash across North America. Ash distribution will vary depending on cloud height, eruption duration, diameter of volcanic particles in the cloud, and wind conditions, according to the new study. -  Credit: USGS
An example of the possible distribution of ash from a month-long Yellowstone supereruption. The distribution map was generated by a new model developed by the US Geological Survey using wind information from January 2001. The improved computer model, detailed in a new study published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, finds that the hypothetical, large eruption would create a distinctive kind of ash cloud known as an umbrella, which expands evenly in all directions, sending ash across North America. Ash distribution will vary depending on cloud height, eruption duration, diameter of volcanic particles in the cloud, and wind conditions, according to the new study. – Credit: USGS

In the unlikely event of a volcanic supereruption at Yellowstone National Park, the northern Rocky Mountains would be blanketed in meters of ash, and millimeters would be deposited as far away as New York City, Los Angeles and Miami, according to a new study.

An improved computer model developed by the study’s authors finds that the hypothetical, large eruption would create a distinctive kind of ash cloud known as an umbrella, which expands evenly in all directions, sending ash across North America.

A supereruption is the largest class of volcanic eruption, during which more than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of material is ejected. If such a supereruption were to occur, which is extremely unlikely, it could shut down electronic communications and air travel throughout the continent, and alter the climate, the study notes.

A giant underground reservoir of hot and partly molten rock feeds the volcano at Yellowstone National Park. It has produced three huge eruptions about 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago. Geological activity at Yellowstone shows no signs that volcanic eruptions, large or small, will occur in the near future. The most recent volcanic activity at Yellowstone-a relatively non-explosive lava flow at the Pitchstone Plateau in the southern section of the park-occurred 70,000 years ago.

Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey used a hypothetical Yellowstone supereruption as a case study to run their new model that calculates ash distribution for eruptions of all sizes. The model, Ash3D, incorporates data on historical wind patterns to calculate the thickness of ash fall for a supereruption like the one that occurred at Yellowstone 640,000 years ago.

The new study provides the first quantitative estimates of the thickness and distribution of ash in cities around the U.S. if the Yellowstone volcanic system were to experience this type of huge, yet unlikely, eruption.

Cities close to the modeled Yellowstone supereruption could be covered by more than a meter (a few feet) of ash. There would be centimeters (a few inches) of ash in the Midwest, while cities on both coasts would see millimeters (a fraction of an inch) of accumulation, according to the new study that was published online today in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. The paper has been made available at no charge at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2014GC005469/abstract.

The model results help scientists understand the extremely widespread distribution of ash deposits from previous large eruptions at Yellowstone. Other USGS scientists are using the Ash3D model to forecast possible ash hazards at currently restless volcanoes in Alaska.

Unlike smaller eruptions, whose ash deposition looks roughly like a fan when viewed from above, the spreading umbrella cloud from a supereruption deposits ash in a pattern more like a bull’s eye – heavy in the center and diminishing in all directions – and is less affected by prevailing winds, according to the new model.

“In essence, the eruption makes its own winds that can overcome the prevailing westerlies, which normally dominate weather patterns in the United States,” said Larry Mastin, a geologist at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington, and the lead author of the new paper. Westerly winds blow from the west.

“This helps explain the distribution from large Yellowstone eruptions of the past, where considerable amounts of ash reached the west coast,” he added.

The three large past eruptions at Yellowstone sent ash over many tens of thousands of square kilometers (thousands of square miles). Ash deposits from these eruptions have been found throughout the central and western United States and Canada.

Erosion has made it difficult for scientists to accurately estimate ash distribution from these deposits. Previous computer models also lacked the ability to accurately determine how the ash would be transported.

Using their new model, the study’s authors found that during very large volcanic eruptions, the expansion rate of the ash cloud’s leading edge can exceed the average ambient wind speed for hours or days depending on the length of the eruption. This outward expansion is capable of driving ash more than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) upwind – westward — and crosswind – north to south — producing a bull’s eye-like pattern centered on the eruption site.

In the simulated modern-day eruption scenario, cities within 500 kilometers (311 miles) of Yellowstone like Billings, Montana, and Casper, Wyoming, would be covered by centimeters (inches) to more than a meter (more than three feet) of ash. Upper Midwestern cities, like Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Des Moines, Iowa, would receive centimeters (inches), and those on the East and Gulf coasts, like New York and Washington, D.C. would receive millimeters or less (fractions of an inch). California cities would receive millimeters to centimeters (less than an inch to less than two inches) of ash while Pacific Northwest cities like Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, would receive up to a few centimeters (more than an inch).

Even small accumulations only millimeters or centimeters (less than an inch to an inch) thick could cause major effects around the country, including reduced traction on roads, shorted-out electrical transformers and respiratory problems, according to previous research cited in the new study. Prior research has also found that multiple inches of ash can damage buildings, block sewer and water lines, and disrupt livestock and crop production, the study notes.

The study also found that other eruptions – powerful but much smaller than a Yellowstone supereruption — might also generate an umbrella cloud.

“These model developments have greatly enhanced our ability to anticipate possible effects from both large and small eruptions, wherever they occur,” said Jacob Lowenstern, USGS Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory in Menlo Park, California, and a co-author on the new paper.

Jeju Island is a live volcano

These are pictures of the sedimentary layer containing charcoal found on a stony mountain developing site in Sangchang-ri, and the carbonized wood sample used for the radiocarbon dating. Thick lava covers the upper gravel layer. -  KIGAM
These are pictures of the sedimentary layer containing charcoal found on a stony mountain developing site in Sangchang-ri, and the carbonized wood sample used for the radiocarbon dating. Thick lava covers the upper gravel layer. – KIGAM

In Jeju, a place emerging as a world-famous vacation spot with natural tourism resources, a recent study revealed a volcanic eruption occurred on the island. The Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources (KIGAM) indicated that there are the traces that indicated that a recent volcanic eruption was evident 5,000 years ago. That is the first time to actually find out the date when lava spewed out of a volcano 5,000 years ago in the inland part of the island as well as the one the whole peninsula.

The research team led by Dr. Jin-Young Lee confirmed in results from radiocarbon dating for carbonized wood (charcoal) found below the basaltic layer located in Sangchang-ri, Seogwipo-si, Jeju-do it dated back to 5,000 years ago; which means the time when the basalt on the upper layer was formed took place relatively recently, i.e. 5,000 years ago, and which demonstrates that the island has experienced a volcanic eruption fairly recently.

The latest volcanic eruption occurring on Jeju Island was volcanic activity known to have spewed around 7,000 years ago at Mt. Songak. The basaltic layer in Sangchang-ri is known to be formed due to the eruption in the vicinity of Byeongak Oreum 35,000 years ago; though, this study revealed that the layer is a product of the most recent volcanic activity among those known ever. Volcanic activity at Mt. Songak was limited hydro volcanic activity out of which a great deal of volcanic ash was released while it is evident that Sangchang-ri was a dynamic active volcano out of which lava was spewed and then flowed down in all directions along the inland slope.

It is also remarkable that the research team enhanced the accuracy of the findings in the radiocarbon dating technique using carbonized wood, consequently raising the reliability of the findings. Until now, previous research used the dating method for rocks covering the upper sedimentary layer, in which such dating method with the relatively longer half-life period shows limitations in determining the time the basalt was formed about 10,000 years ago.


In order to overcome the limitations of the dating method for the rocks covering the upper sedimentary layer, the research team led by Dr. Jin-Young Lee concurrently used radiocarbon dating and optically stimulated luminescence dating (OSL), using such cross-validation of which raised the accuracy of tracing the past volcanic activities.

Judging from the findings, Jeju Island is not an extinct volcano, but seems to rather be a potentially live volcano because a volcano that has erupted within 10,000 years is defined to be a live volcano on a geological basis.

Not remaining complacent for the findings, the research team plans to continuously conduct the studies on the time the volcanic rocks were formed in several regions on the island in order to identify the latest volcanic activity.

New view of Rainier’s volcanic plumbing

This image was made by measuring how the ground conducts or resists electricity in a study co-authored by geophysicist Phil Wannamaker of the University of Utah Energy & Geoscience Institute. It  shows the underground plumbing system that provides molten and partly molten rock to the magma chamber beneath the Mount Rainier volcano in Washington state. The scale at left is miles depth. The scale at bottom is miles from the Pacific Coast. The Juan de Fuca plate of Earth's Pacific seafloor crust and upper mantle is shown in blue on the left half of the image as it dives or 
'subducts' eastward beneath Washington state. The reddish orange and yellow colors represent molten and partly molten rock forming atop the Juan de Fuca plate or 'slab.' The image shows the rock begins to melt about 50 miles beneath Mount Rainier (the red triangle at top). Some is pulled downward and eastward as the slab keeps diving, but other melts move upward to the orange magma chamber shown under but west of Mount Rainier. The line of sensors used to make this image were placed north of the 14,410-foot peak, so the image may be showing a lobe of the magma chamber that extends northwest of the mountain. Red ovals on the left half of the page are the hypocenters of earthquakes. -  R Shane McGary, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
This image was made by measuring how the ground conducts or resists electricity in a study co-authored by geophysicist Phil Wannamaker of the University of Utah Energy & Geoscience Institute. It shows the underground plumbing system that provides molten and partly molten rock to the magma chamber beneath the Mount Rainier volcano in Washington state. The scale at left is miles depth. The scale at bottom is miles from the Pacific Coast. The Juan de Fuca plate of Earth’s Pacific seafloor crust and upper mantle is shown in blue on the left half of the image as it dives or
‘subducts’ eastward beneath Washington state. The reddish orange and yellow colors represent molten and partly molten rock forming atop the Juan de Fuca plate or ‘slab.’ The image shows the rock begins to melt about 50 miles beneath Mount Rainier (the red triangle at top). Some is pulled downward and eastward as the slab keeps diving, but other melts move upward to the orange magma chamber shown under but west of Mount Rainier. The line of sensors used to make this image were placed north of the 14,410-foot peak, so the image may be showing a lobe of the magma chamber that extends northwest of the mountain. Red ovals on the left half of the page are the hypocenters of earthquakes. – R Shane McGary, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

By measuring how fast Earth conducts electricity and seismic waves, a University of Utah researcher and colleagues made a detailed picture of Mount Rainier’s deep volcanic plumbing and partly molten rock that will erupt again someday.

“This is the most direct image yet capturing the melting process that feeds magma into a crustal reservoir that eventually is tapped for eruptions,” says geophysicist Phil Wannamaker, of the university’s Energy & Geoscience Institute and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “But it does not provide any information on the timing of future eruptions from Mount Rainier or other Cascade Range volcanoes.”

The study was published today in the journal Nature by Wannamaker and geophysicists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, the College of New Jersey and the University of Bergen, Norway.

In an odd twist, the image appears to show that at least part of Mount Rainier’s partly molten magma reservoir is located about 6 to 10 miles northwest of the 14,410-foot volcano, which is 30 to 45 miles southeast of the Seattle-Tacoma area.

But that could be because the 80 electrical sensors used for the experiment were placed in a 190-mile-long, west-to-east line about 12 miles north of Rainier. So the main part of the magma chamber could be directly under the peak, but with a lobe extending northwest under the line of detectors, Wannamaker says.

The top of the magma reservoir in the image is 5 miles underground and “appears to be 5 to 10 miles thick, and 5 to 10 miles wide in east-west extent,” he says. “We can’t really describe the north-south extent because it’s a slice view.”

Wannamaker estimates the reservoir is roughly 30 percent molten. Magma chambers are like a sponge of hot, soft rock containing pockets of molten rock.

The new image doesn’t reveal the plumbing tying Mount Rainier to the magma chamber 5 miles below it. Instead, it shows water and partly molten and molten rock are generated 50 miles underground where one of Earth’s seafloor crustal plates or slabs is “subducting” or diving eastward and downward beneath the North America plate, and how and where those melts rise to Rainier’s magma chamber.

The study was funded largely by the National Science Foundation’s Earthscope program, which also has made underground images of the United States using seismic or sound-wave tomography, much like CT scans show the body’s interior using X-rays.

The new study used both seismic imaging and magnetotelluric measurements, which make images by showing how electrical and magnetic fields in the ground vary due to differences in how much underground rock and fluids conduct or resist electricity.

Wannamaker says it is the most detailed cross-section view yet under a Cascades volcanic system using electrical and seismic imaging. Earlier seismic images indicated water and partly molten rock atop the diving slab. The new image shows melting “from the surface of the slab to the upper crust, where partly molten magma accumulates before erupting,” he adds.

Wannamaker and Rob L. Evans, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, conceived the study. First author R Shane McGary – then at Woods Hole and now at the College of New Jersey – did the data analysis. Other co-authors were Jimmy Elsenbeck of Woods Hole and Stéphane Rondenay of the University of Bergen.

Mount Rainier: Hazardous Backdrop to Metropolitan Seattle-Tacoma

Mount Rainier, the tallest peak in the Cascades, “is an active volcano that will erupt again,” says the U.S. Geological Survey. Rainier sits atop volcanic flows up to 36 million years old. An ancestral Rainier existed 2 million to 1 million years ago. Frequent eruptions built the mountain’s modern edifice during the past 500,000 years. During the past 11,000 years, Rainier erupted explosively dozens of times, spewing ash and pumice.

Rainier once was taller until it collapsed during an eruption 5,600 years ago to form a large crater open to the northeast, much like the crater formed by Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption. The 5,600-year-old eruption sent a huge mudflow west to Puget Sound, covering parts or all of the present sites of the Port of Tacoma, Seattle suburbs Kent and Auburn, and the towns Puyallup, Orting, Buckley, Sumner and Enumclaw.

Rainier’s last lava flows were 2,200 years ago, the last flows of hot rock and ash were 1,100 years ago and the last big mudflow 500 years ago. There are disputed reports of steam eruptions in the 1800s.

Subduction Made Simple – and a Peek beneath a Peak

The “ring of fire” is a zone of active volcanoes and frequent earthquake activity surrounding the Pacific Ocean. It exists where Earth’s tectonic plates collide – specifically, plates that make up the seafloor converge with plates that carry continents.

From Cape Mendocino in northern California and north past Oregon, Washington state and into British Columbia, an oceanic plate is being pushed eastward and downward – a process called subduction – beneath the North American plate. This relatively small Juan de Fuca plate is located between the huge Pacific plate and the Pacific Northwest.

New seafloor rock – rich with water in cracks and minerals – emerges from an undersea volcanic ridge some 250 miles off the coast, from northern California into British Columbia. That seafloor adds to the western edge of the Juan de Fuca plate and pushes it east-northeast under the Pacific Northwest, as far as Idaho.

The part of the plate diving eastward and downward is called the slab, which ranges from 30 to 60 miles thick as it is jammed under the North American plate. The part of the North American plate above the diving slab is shaped like a wedge.

When the leading, eastern edge of the diving slab descends deep enough, where pressures and temperatures are high, water-bearing minerals such as chlorite and amphibole release water from the slab, and the slab and surrounding mantle rock begin to melt. That is why the Cascade Range of active volcanoes extends north-to-south – above the slab and parallel but about 120 miles inland from the coast – from British Columbia south to Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak in northern California.

In the new image, yellow-orange-red areas correspond to higher electrical conductivity (or lower resistivity) in places where fluids and melts are located.

The underground image produced by the new study shows where water and molten rock accumulate atop the descending slab, and the route they take to the magma chamber that feeds eruptions of Mount Rainier:

– The rock begins to melt atop the slab about 50 miles beneath Mount Rainier. Wannamaker says it is best described as partly molten rock that contains about 2 percent water and “is a mush of crystals within an interlacing a network of molten rock.”

– Some water and partly molten rock actually gets dragged downward atop the descending slab, to depths of 70 miles or more.

– Other partly molten rock rises up through the upper mantle wedge, crosses into the crust at a depth of about 25 miles, and then rises into Rainier’s magma chamber – or at least the lobe of the chamber that crosses under the line of sensors used in the study. Evidence suggests the magma moves upward at least 0.4 inches per year.

– The new magnetotelluric image also shows a shallower zone of fluid perhaps 60 miles west of Rainier and 25 miles deep at the crust-mantle boundary. Wannamaker says it is largely water released from minerals as the slab is squeezed and heated as it dives.

The seismic data were collected during 2008-2009 for other studies. The magnetotelluric data were gathered during 2009-2010 by authors of the new study.

Wannamaker and colleagues placed an east-west line of magnetotelluric sensors: 60 that made one-day measurements and looked as deep as 30 miles into the Earth, and 20 that made measurements for a month and looked at even greater depths.

The Atlantic Ocean dances with the sun and volcanoes

Imagine a ballroom in which two dancers apparently keep in time to their own individual rhythm. The two partners suddenly find themselves moving to the same rhythm and, after a closer look, it is clear to see which one is leading.

It was an image like this that researchers at Aarhus University were able to see when they compared studies of solar energy release and volcanic activity during the last 450 years, with reconstructions of ocean temperature fluctuations during the same period.

The results actually showed that during the last approximately 250 years – since the period known as the Little Ice Age – a clear correlation can be seen where the external forces, i.e. the Sun’s energy cycle and the impact of volcanic eruptions, are accompanied by a corresponding temperature fluctuation with a time lag of about five years.

In the previous two centuries, i.e. during the Little Ice Age, the link was not as strong, and the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean appears to have followed its own rhythm to a greater extent.

The results were recently published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

In addition to filling in yet another piece of the puzzle associated with understanding the complex interaction of the natural forces that control the climate, the Danish researchers paved the way for linking the two competing interpretations of the origin of the oscillation phenomenon.

Temperature fluctuations discovered around the turn of the millennium

The climate is defined on the basis of data including mean temperature values recorded over a period of thirty years. Northern Europe thus has a warm and humid climate compared with other regions on the same latitudes. This is due to the North Atlantic Drift (often referred to as the Gulf Stream), an ocean current that transports relatively warm water from the south-west part of the North Atlantic to the sea off the coast of Northern Europe.

Around the turn of the millennium, however, climate researchers became aware that the average temperature of the Atlantic Ocean was not entirely stable, but actually fluctuated at the same rate throughout the North Atlantic. This phenomenon is called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), which consists of relatively warm periods lasting thirty to forty years being replaced by cool periods of the same duration.

The researchers were able to read small systematic variations in the water temperature in the North Atlantic in measurements taken by ships during the last 140 years.

Although the temperature fluctuations are small – less than 1°C – there is a general consensus among climate researchers that the AMO phenomenon has had a major impact on the climate in the area around the North Atlantic for thousands of years, but until now there has been doubt about what could cause this slow rhythm in the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean. One model explains the phenomenon as internal variability in the ocean circulation – somewhat like a bathtub sloshing water around in its own rhythm. Another model explains the AMO as being driven by fluctuations in the amount of solar energy received by the Earth, and as being affected by small changes in the energy radiated by the Sun itself and the after-effects of volcanic eruptions. Both these factors are also known as ‘external forces’ that have an impact on the Earth’s radiation balance.

However, there has been considerable scepticism towards the idea that a phenomenon such as an AMO could be driven by external forces at all – a scepticism that the Aarhus researchers now demonstrate as unfounded.

“Our new investigations clearly show that, since the Little Ice Age, there has been a correlation between the known external forces and the temperature fluctuations in the ocean that help control our climate. At the same time, however, the results also show that this can’t be the only driving force behind the AMO, and the explanation must therefore be found in a complex interaction between a number of mechanisms. It should also be pointed out that these fluctuations occur on the basis of evenly increasing ocean temperatures during the last approximately fifty years – an increase connected with global warming,” says Associate Professor Mads Faurschou Knudsen, Department of Geoscience, Aarhus University, who is the main author of the article.

Convincing data from the Earth’s own archives

Researchers have attempted to make computer simulations of the phenomenon ever since the discovery of the AMO, partly to enable a better understanding of the underlying mechanism. However, it is difficult for the computer models to reproduce the actual AMO signal that can be read in the temperature data from the last 140 years.

Associate Professor Knudsen and his colleagues instead combined all available data from the Earth’s own archives, i.e. previous studies of items such as radioactive isotopes and volcanic ash in ice cores. This provides information about solar energy release and volcanic activity during the last 450 years, and the researchers compared the data with reconstructions of the AMO’s temperature rhythm during the same period.

“We’ve only got direct measurements of the Atlantic Ocean temperature for the last 140 years, where it was measured by ships. But how do you measure the water temperature further back in time? Studies of growth rings in trees from the entire North Atlantic region come into the picture here, where ‘good’ and ‘bad’ growth conditions are calibrated to the actual measurements, and the growth rings from trees along the coasts further back in time can therefore act as reserve thermometers,” explains Associate Professor Knudsen.

The results provide a new and very important perspective on the AMO phenomenon because they are based on data and not computer models, which are inherently incomplete. The problem is that the models do not completely describe all the physical correlations and feedbacks in the system, partly because these are not fully understood. And when the models are thus unable to reproduce the actual AMO signal, it is hard to know whether they have captured the essence of the AMO phenomenon.

Impact of the sun and volcanoes

An attempt to simply explain how external forces such as the Sun and volcanoes can control the climate could sound like this: a stronger Sun heats up the ocean, while the ash from volcanic eruptions shields the Sun and cools down the ocean. However, it is hardly as simple as that.

“Fluctuations in ocean temperature have a time lag of about five years in relation to the peaks we can read in the external forces. However, the direct effect of major volcanic eruptions is clearly seen as early as the same year in the mean global atmospheric temperature, i.e. a much shorter delay. The effect we studied is more complex, and it takes time for this effect to spread to the ocean currents,” explains Associate Professor Knudsen.

“An interesting new theory among solar researchers and meteorologists is that the Sun can control climate variations via the very large variations in UV radiation, which are partly seen in connection with changes in sunspot activity during the Sun’s eleven-year cycle. UV radiation heats the stratosphere in particular via increased production of ozone, which can have an impact on wind systems and thereby indirectly on the global ocean currents as well,” says Associate Professor Knudsen. However, he emphasises that researchers have not yet completely understood how a development in the stratosphere can affect the ocean currents on Earth.

Towards a better understanding of the climate

“In our previous study of the climate in the North Atlantic region during the last 8,000 years, we were able to show that the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean was presumably not controlled by the Sun’s activity. Here the temperature fluctuated in its own rhythm for long intervals, with warm and cold periods lasting 25 years. The prevailing pattern was that this climate fluctuation in the ocean was approximately 30󈞔% faster than the fluctuation we’d previously observed in solar activity, which lasted about ninety years. What we can now see is that the Atlantic Ocean would like to – or possibly even prefer to – dance alone. However, under certain circumstances, the external forces interrupt the ocean’s own rhythm and take over the lead, which has been the case during the last 250 years,” says Associate Professor Bo Holm Jacobsen, Department of Geoscience, Aarhus University, who is the co-author of the article.

“It’ll be interesting to see how long the Atlantic Ocean allows itself to be led in this dance. The scientific challenge partly lies in understanding the overall conditions under which the AMO phenomenon is sensitive to fluctuations in solar activity and volcanic eruptions,” he continues.

“During the last century, the AMO has had a strong bearing on significant weather phenomena such as hurricane frequency and droughts – with considerable economic and human consequences. A better understanding of this phenomenon is therefore an important step for efforts to deal with and mitigate the impact of climate variations,” Associate Professor Knudsen concludes.

Giant mass extinction may have been quicker than previously thought

The largest mass extinction in the history of animal life occurred some 252 million years ago, wiping out more than 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of life on land – including the largest insects known to have inhabited the Earth. Multiple theories have aimed to explain the cause of what’s now known as the end-Permian extinction, including an asteroid impact, massive volcanic eruptions, or a cataclysmic cascade of environmental events. But pinpointing the cause of the extinction requires better measurements of how long the extinction period lasted.

Now researchers at MIT have determined that the end-Permian extinction occurred over 60,000 years, give or take 48,000 years – practically instantaneous, from a geologic perspective. The new timescale is based on more precise dating techniques, and indicates that the most severe extinction in history may have happened more than 10 times faster than scientists had previously thought.

“We’ve got the extinction nailed in absolute time and duration,” says Sam Bowring, the Robert R. Shrock Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at MIT. “How do you kill 96 percent of everything that lived in the oceans in tens of thousands of years? It could be that an exceptional extinction requires an exceptional explanation.”

In addition to establishing the extinction’s duration, Bowring, graduate student Seth Burgess, and a colleague from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology also found that, 10,000 years before the die-off, the oceans experienced a pulse of light carbon, which likely reflects a massive addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This dramatic change may have led to widespread ocean acidification and increased sea temperatures by 10 degrees Celsius or more, killing the majority of sea life.

But what originally triggered the spike in carbon dioxide? The leading theory among geologists and paleontologists has to do with widespread, long-lasting volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps, a region of Russia whose steplike hills are a result of repeated eruptions of magma. To determine whether eruptions from the Siberian Traps triggered a massive increase in oceanic carbon dioxide, Burgess and Bowring are using similar dating techniques to establish a timescale for the Permian period’s volcanic eruptions that are estimated to have covered over five million cubic kilometers.

“It is clear that whatever triggered extinction must have acted very quickly,” says Burgess, the lead author of a paper that reports the results in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “fast enough to destabilize the biosphere before the majority of plant and animal life had time to adapt in an effort to survive.”

Pinning dates on an extinction


In 2006, Bowring and his students made a trip to Meishan, China, a region whose rock formations bear evidence of the end-Permian extinction; geochronologists and paleontologists have flocked to the area to look for clues in its layers of sedimentary rock. In particular, scientists have focused on a section of rock that is thought to delineate the end of the Permian, and the beginning of the Triassic, based on evidence such as the number of fossils found in surrounding rock layers.

Bowring sampled rocks from this area, as well as from nearby alternating layers of volcanic ash beds and fossil-bearing rocks. After analyzing the rocks in the lab, his team reported in 2011 that the end-Permian likely lasted less than 200,000 years. However, this timeframe still wasn’t precise enough to draw any conclusions about what caused the extinction.

Now, the team has revised its estimates using more accurate dating techniques based on a better understanding of uncertainties in timescale measurements.

With this knowledge, Bowring and his colleagues reanalyzed rock samples collected from five volcanic ash beds at the Permian-Triassic boundary. The researchers pulverized rocks and separated out tiny zircon crystals containing a mix of uranium and lead. They then isolated uranium from lead, and measured the ratios of both isotopes to determine the age of each rock sample.

From their measurements, the researchers determined a much more precise “age model” for the end-Permian extinction, which now appears to have lasted about 60,000 years – with an uncertainty of 48,000 years – and was immediately preceded by a sharp increase in carbon dioxide in the oceans.

‘Spiraling toward the truth’


The new timeline adds weight to the theory that the extinction was triggered by massive volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps that released volatile chemicals, including carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere and oceans. With such a short extinction timeline, Bowring says it is possible that a single, catastrophic pulse of magmatic activity triggered an almost instantaneous collapse of all global ecosystems.

To confirm whether the Siberian Traps are indeed the extinction’s smoking gun, Burgess and Bowring plan to determine an equally precise timeline for the Siberian Traps eruptions, and will compare it to the new extinction timeline to see where the two events overlap. The researchers will investigate additional areas in China to see if the duration of the extinction can be even more precisely determined.

“We’ve refined our approach, and now we have higher accuracy and precision,” Bowring says. “You can think of it as slowly spiraling in toward the truth.”

Ground-breaking work sheds new light on volcanic activity

Factors determining the frequency and magnitude of volcanic phenomena have been uncovered by an international team of researchers.

Experts from the Universities of Geneva, Bristol and Savoie carried out over 1.2 million simulations to establish the conditions in which volcanic eruptions of different sizes occur.

The team used numerical modelling and statistical techniques to identify the circumstances that control the frequency of volcanic activity and the amount of magma that will be released.

The researchers, including Professor Jon Blundy and Dr Catherine Annen from Bristol University’s School of Earth Sciences, showed how different size eruptions have different causes. Small, frequent eruptions are known to be triggered by a process called magma replenishment, which stresses the walls around a magma chamber to breaking point. However, the new research shows that larger, less frequent eruptions are caused by a different phenomenon known as magma buoyancy, driven by slow accumulation of low-density magma beneath a volcano.

Predictions of the scale of the largest possible volcanic eruption on earth have been made using this new insight. This is the first time scientists have been able to establish a physical link between the frequency and magnitude of volcanic eruptions and their findings will be published today in the journal Nature Geoscience.

“We estimate that a magma chamber can contain a maximum of 35,000 km3 of eruptible magma. Of this, around 10 per cent is released during a super-eruption, which means that the largest eruption could release approximately 3,500 km3 of magma”, explained lead researcher Luca Caricchi, assistant professor at the Section of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva and ex-research fellow at the University of Bristol.

Volcanic eruptions may be frequent yet their size is notoriously hard to predict. For example, the Stromboli volcano in Italy ejects magma every ten minutes and would take two days to fill an Olympic swimming pool. However, the last super-eruption of a volcano, which occurred over 70,000 years ago, spewed out enough magma to fill a billion swimming pools.

This new research identifies the main physical factors involved in determining the frequency and size of eruptions and is essential to understanding phenomena that effect human life, such as the 2010 ash cloud caused by the eruption of Eyjafallajökull in Iceland.

Professor Jon Blundy said: “Some volcanoes ooze modest quantities of magma at regular intervals, whereas others blow their tops in infrequent super-eruptions. Understanding what controls these different types of behaviour is a fundamental geological question.

“Our work shows that this behaviour results from interplay between the rate at which magma is supplied to the shallow crust underneath a volcano and the strength of the crust itself. Very large eruptions require just the right (or wrong!) combination of magma supply and crustal strength.”