Scientists observe the Earth grow a new layer under an Icelandic volcano

New research into an Icelandic eruption has shed light on how the Earth’s crust forms, according to a paper published today in Nature.

When the Bárðarbunga volcano, which is buried beneath Iceland’s Vatnajökull ice cap, reawakened in August 2014, scientists had a rare opportunity to monitor how the magma flowed through cracks in the rock away from the volcano. The molten rock forms vertical sheet-like features known as dykes, which force the surrounding rock apart.

Study co-author Professor Andy Hooper from the Centre for Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET) at the University of Leeds explained: “New crust forms where two tectonic plates are moving away from each other. Mostly this happens beneath the oceans, where it is difficult to observe.

“However, in Iceland this happens beneath dry land. The events leading to the eruption in August 2014 are the first time that such a rifting episode has occurred there and been observed with modern tools, like GPS and satellite radar.”

Although it has a long history of eruptions, Bárðarbunga has been increasingly restless since 2005. There was a particularly dynamic period in August and September this year, when more than 22,000 earthquakes were recorded in or around the volcano in just four weeks, due to stress being released as magma forced its way through the rock.

Using GPS and satellite measurements, the team were able to track the path of the magma for over 45km before it reached a point where it began to erupt, and continues to do so to this day. The rate of dyke propagation was variable and slowed as the magma reached natural barriers, which were overcome by the build-up of pressure, creating a new segment.

The dyke grows in segments, breaking through from one to the next by the build up of pressure. This explains how focused upwelling of magma under central volcanoes is effectively redistributed over large distances to create new upper crust at divergent plate boundaries, the authors conclude.

As well as the dyke, the team found ‘ice cauldrons’ – shallow depressions in the ice with circular crevasses, where the base of the glacier had been melted by magma. In addition, radar measurements showed that the ice inside Bárðarbunga’s crater had sunk by 16m, as the volcano floor collapsed.

COMET PhD student Karsten Spaans from the University of Leeds, a co-author of the study, added: “Using radar measurements from space, we can form an image of caldera movement occurring in one day. Usually we expect to see just noise in the image, but we were amazed to see up to 55cm of subsidence.”

Like other liquids, magma flows along the path of least resistance, which explains why the dyke at Bárðarbunga changed direction as it progressed. Magma flow was influenced mostly by the lie of the land to start with, but as it moved away from the steeper slopes, the influence of plate movements became more important.

Summarising the findings, Professor Hooper said: “Our observations of this event showed that the magma injected into the crust took an incredibly roundabout path and proceeded in fits and starts.

“Initially we were surprised at this complexity, but it turns out we can explain all the twists and turns with a relatively simple model, which considers just the pressure of rock and ice above, and the pull exerted by the plates moving apart.”

The paper ‘Segmented lateral dyke growth in a rifting event at Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland’ is published in Nature on 15 December 2014.

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme under Grant Agreement No. 308377 (Project FUTUREVOLC)

Icelandic volcano sits on massive magma hot spot

This image shows the Holuhraun fissure eruption on the flanks of the Bárðarbunga volcano in central Iceland on Oct. 4, 2014, showing the development of a lava lake in the foreground. Vapor clouds over the lava lake are caused by degassing of volatile-rich basaltic magma. -  Morten S. Riishuus, Nordic Volcanological Institute
This image shows the Holuhraun fissure eruption on the flanks of the Bárðarbunga volcano in central Iceland on Oct. 4, 2014, showing the development of a lava lake in the foreground. Vapor clouds over the lava lake are caused by degassing of volatile-rich basaltic magma. – Morten S. Riishuus, Nordic Volcanological Institute

Spectacular eruptions at Bárðarbunga volcano in central Iceland have been spewing lava continuously since Aug. 31. Massive amounts of erupting lava are connected to the destruction of supercontinents and dramatic changes in climate and ecosystems.

New research from UC Davis and Aarhus University in Denmark shows that high mantle temperatures miles beneath the Earth’s surface are essential for generating such large amounts of magma. In fact, the scientists found that the Bárðarbunga volcano lies directly above the hottest portion of the North Atlantic mantle plume.

The study, published online Oct. 5 and appearing in the November issue of Nature Geoscience, comes from Charles Lesher, professor of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Davis and a visiting professor at Aarhus University, and his former PhD student, Eric Brown, now a post-doctoral scholar at Aarhus University.

“From time to time the Earth’s mantle belches out huge quantities of magma on a scale unlike anything witnessed in historic times,” Lesher said. “These events provide unique windows into the internal working of our planet.”

Such fiery events have produced large igneous provinces throughout Earth’s history. They are often attributed to upwelling of hot, deeply sourced mantle material, or “mantle plumes.”

Recent models have dismissed the role of mantle plumes in the formation of large igneous provinces, ascribing their origin instead to chemical anomalies in the shallow mantle.

Based on the volcanic record in and around Iceland over the last 56 million years and numerical modeling, Brown and Lesher show that high mantle temperatures are essential for generating the large magma volumes that gave rise to the North Atlantic large igneous provinces bordering Greenland and northern Europe.

Their findings further substantiate the critical role of mantle plumes in forming large igneous provinces.

“Our work offers new tools to constrain the physical and chemical conditions in the mantle responsible for large igneous provinces,” Brown said. “There’s little doubt that the mantle is composed of different types of chemical compounds, but this is not the dominant factor. Rather, locally high mantle temperatures are the key ingredient.”

The research was supported by grants from the US National Science Foundation and by the Niels Bohr Professorship funded by Danish National Research Foundation.

Read the full study at

Four-billion-year-old rocks yield clues about Earth’s earliest crust

University of Alberta Ph.D. student Jesse Reimink studied some of the oldest rocks on Earth to find out how the earliest continents formed. -  Bryan Alary/University of Alberta
University of Alberta Ph.D. student Jesse Reimink studied some of the oldest rocks on Earth to find out how the earliest continents formed. – Bryan Alary/University of Alberta

It looks like just another rock, but what Jesse Reimink holds in his hands is a four-billion-year-old chunk of an ancient protocontinent that holds clues about how the Earth’s first continents formed.

The University of Alberta geochemistry student spent the better part of three years collecting and studying ancient rock samples from the Acasta Gneiss Complex in the Northwest Territories, part of his PhD research to understand the environment in which they formed.

“The timing and mode of continental crust formation throughout Earth’s history is a controversial topic in early Earth sciences,” says Reimink, lead author of a new study in Nature Geoscience that points to Iceland as a solid comparison for how the earliest continents formed.

Continents today form when one tectonic plate shifts beneath another into the Earth’s mantle and cause magma to rise to the surface, a process called subduction. It’s unclear whether plate tectonics existed 2.5 billion to four billion years ago or if another process was at play, says Reimink.

One theory is the first continents formed in the ocean as liquid magma rose from the Earth’s mantle before cooling and solidifying into a crust.

Iceland’s crust formed when magma from the mantle rises to shallow levels, incorporating previously formed volcanic rocks. For this reason, Reimink says Iceland is considered a theoretical analogue on early Earth continental crust formation.

Working under the supervision of co-author Tom Chacko, Reimink spent his summers in the field collecting rock samples from the Acasta Gneiss Complex, which was discovered in the 1980s and found to contain some of the Earth’s oldest rocks, between 3.6 and four billion years old. Due to their extreme age, the rocks have undergone multiple metamorphic events, making it difficult to understand their geochemistry, Reimink says.

Fortunately, a few rocks-which the research team dubbed “Idiwhaa” meaning “ancient” in the local Tlicho dialect-were better preserved. This provided a “window” to see the samples’ geochemical characteristics, which Reimink says showed crust-forming processes that are very similar to those occurring in present-day Iceland.

“This provides the first physical evidence that a setting similar to modern Iceland was present on the early Earth.”

These ancient rocks are among the oldest samples of protocontinental crust that we have, he adds, and may have helped jump-start the formation of the rest of the continental crust.

Reimink, who came to the U of A to work with Chacko, says the university’s lab resources are “second to none,” particularly the Ion Microprobe facility within the Canadian Centre for Isotopic Microanalysis run by co-author Richard Stern, which was instrumental to the discovery.

“That lab is producing some of the best data of its kind in the world. That was very key to this project.”

Hot mantle drives elevation, volcanism along mid-ocean ridges

Scientists have found that temperature deep in Earth's mantle controls the expression of mid-ocean ridges, mountain ranges that line the ocean floor. Higher mantle temperatures are associated with higher elevations. The findings help scientists understand how mantle temperature influences the contours of Earth's crust. -  Dalton Lab / Brown University
Scientists have found that temperature deep in Earth’s mantle controls the expression of mid-ocean ridges, mountain ranges that line the ocean floor. Higher mantle temperatures are associated with higher elevations. The findings help scientists understand how mantle temperature influences the contours of Earth’s crust. – Dalton Lab / Brown University

Scientists have shown that temperature differences deep within Earth’s mantle control the elevation and volcanic activity along mid-ocean ridges, the colossal mountain ranges that line the ocean floor. The findings, published April 4 in the journal Science, shed new light on how temperature in the depths of the mantle influences the contours of the Earth’s crust.

Mid-ocean ridges form at the boundaries between tectonic plates, circling the globe like seams on a baseball. As the plates move apart, magma from deep within the Earth rises up to fill the void, creating fresh crust as it cools. The crust formed at these seams is thicker in some places than others, resulting in ridges with widely varying elevations. In some places, the peaks are submerged miles below the ocean surface. In other places – Iceland, for example – the ridge tops are exposed above the water’s surface.

“These variations in ridge depth require an explanation,” said Colleen Dalton, assistant professor of geological sciences at Brown and lead author of the new research. “Something is keeping them either sitting high or sitting low.”

That something, the study found, is the temperature of rocks deep below Earth’s surface.

By analyzing the speeds of seismic waves generated by earthquakes, the researchers show that mantle temperature along the ridges at depths extending below 400 kilometers varies by as much as 250 degrees Celsius. High points on the ridges tend to be associated with higher mantle temperatures, while low points are associated with a cooler mantle. The study also showed that volcanic hot spots along the ridge – volcanoes near Iceland as well as the islands of Ascension, Tristan da Cunha, and elsewhere – all sit above warm spots in Earth’s mantle.

“It is clear from our results that what’s being erupted at the ridges is controlled by temperature deep in the mantle,” Dalton said. “It resolves a long-standing controversy and has not been shown definitively before.”

A CAT scan of the Earth

The mid-ocean ridges provide geologists with a window to the interior of the Earth. The ridges form when mantle material melts, rises into the cracks between tectonic plates, and solidifies again. The characteristics of the ridges provide clues about the properties of the mantle below.

For example, a higher ridge elevation suggests a thicker crust, which in turn suggests that a larger volume of magma was erupted at the surface. This excess molten rock can be caused by very hot temperatures in the mantle. The problem is that hot mantle is not the only way to produce excess magma. The chemical composition of the rocks in Earth’s mantle also controls how much melt is produced. For certain rock compositions, it is possible to generate large volumes of molten rock under cooler conditions. For many decades it has not been clear whether mid-ocean ridge elevations are caused by variations in the temperature of the mantle or variations in the rock composition of the mantle.

To distinguish between these two possibilities, Dalton and her colleagues introduced two additional data sets. One was the chemistry of basalts, the rock that forms from solidification of magma at the mid-ocean ridge. The chemical composition of basalts differs depending upon the temperature and composition of the mantle material from which they’re derived. The authors analyzed the chemistry of nearly 17,000 basalts formed along mid-ocean ridges around the globe.

The other data set was seismic wave tomography. During earthquakes, seismic waves are sent pulsing through the rocks in the crust and mantle. By measuring the velocity of those waves, scientists can gather data about the characteristics of the rocks through which they traveled. “It’s like performing a CAT scan of the inside of the Earth,” Dalton said.

Seismic wave speeds are especially sensitive to the temperature of rocks. In general, waves propagate more quickly in cooler rocks and more slowly in hotter rocks.

Dalton and her colleagues combined the seismic data from hundreds of earthquakes with data on elevation and rock chemistry from the ridges. Correlations among the three data sets revealed that temperature deep in the mantle varied between around 1,300 and 1,550 degrees Celsius underneath about 61,000 kilometers of ridge terrain. “It turned out,” said Dalton, “that seismic tomography was the smoking gun. The only plausible explanation for the seismic wave speeds is a very large temperature range.”

The study showed that as ridge elevation falls, so does mantle temperature. The coolest point beneath the ridges was found near the lowest point, an area of very deep and rugged seafloor known as the Australian-Antarctic discordance in the Indian Ocean. The hottest spot was near Iceland, which is also the ridges’ highest elevation point.

Iceland is also where scientists have long debated whether a mantle plume – a vertical jet of hot rock originating from deep in the Earth – intersects the mid-ocean ridge. This study provides strong support for a mantle plume located beneath Iceland. In fact, this study showed that all regions with above-average temperature are located near volcanic hot spots, which points to mantle plumes as the culprit for the excess volume of magma in these areas.

Understanding a churning planet

Despite being made of solid rock, Earth’s mantle doesn’t sit still. It undergoes convection, a slow churning of material from the depths of the Earth toward the surface and back again.

“Convection is why we have plate tectonics and earthquakes,” Dalton said. “It’s also responsible for almost all volcanism at the surface. So understanding mantle convection is crucial to understanding many fundamental questions about the Earth.”

Two factors influence how that convection works: variations in the composition of the mantle and variations in its temperature. This work, says Dalton, points to temperature as a primary factor in how convection is expressed on the surface.

“We get consistent and coherent temperature measurements from the mantle from three independent datasets,” Dalton said. “All of them suggest that what we see at the surface is due to temperature, and that composition is only a secondary factor. What is surprising is that the data require the temperature variations to exist not only near the surface but also many hundreds of kilometers deep inside the Earth.”

The findings from this study will also be useful in future research using seismic waves, Dalton says. Because the temperature readings as indicated by seismology were backed up by the other datasets, they can be used to calibrate seismic readings for places where geochemical samples aren’t available. This makes it possible to estimate temperature deep in Earth’s mantle all over the globe.

That will help geologists gain a new insights into how processes deep within the Earth mold the ground beneath our feet.

World’s first magma-enhanced geothermal system created in Iceland

This image shows a flow test of the IDDP-1 well at Krafla. Note the transparent superheated steam at the top of the rock muffler. -  Kristján Einarsson.
This image shows a flow test of the IDDP-1 well at Krafla. Note the transparent superheated steam at the top of the rock muffler. – Kristján Einarsson.

In 2009, a borehole drilled at Krafla, northeast Iceland, as part of the Icelandic Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), unexpectedly penetrated into magma (molten rock) at only 2100 meters depth, with a temperature of 900-1000 C. The borehole, IDDP-1, was the first in a series of wells being drilled by the IDDP in Iceland in the search for high-temperature geothermal resources.

The January 2014 issue of the international journal Geothermics is dedicated to scientific and engineering results arising from that unusual occurrence. This issue is edited by Wilfred Elders, a professor emeritus of geology at the University of California, Riverside, who also co-authored three of the research papers in the special issue with Icelandic colleagues.

“Drilling into magma is a very rare occurrence anywhere in the world and this is only the second known instance, the first one, in 2007, being in Hawaii,” Elders said. “The IDDP, in cooperation with Iceland’s National Power Company, the operator of the Krafla geothermal power plant, decided to investigate the hole further and bear part of the substantial costs involved.”

Accordingly, a steel casing, perforated in the bottom section closest to the magma, was cemented into the well. The hole was then allowed to heat slowly and eventually allowed to flow superheated steam for the next two years, until July 2012, when it was closed down in order to replace some of the surface equipment.

“In the future, the success of this drilling and research project could lead to a revolution in the energy efficiency of high-temperature geothermal areas worldwide,” Elders said.

He added that several important milestones were achieved in this project: despite some difficulties, the project was able to drill down into the molten magma and control it; it was possible to set steel casing in the bottom of the hole; allowing the hole to blow superheated, high-pressure steam for months at temperatures exceeding 450 C, created a world record for geothermal heat (this well was the hottest in the world and one of the most powerful); steam from the IDDP-1 well could be fed directly into the existing power plant at Krafla; and the IDDP-1 demonstrated that a high-enthalpy geothermal system could be successfully utilized.

“Essentially, the IDDP-1 created the world’s first magma-enhanced geothermal system,” Elders said. “This unique engineered geothermal system is the world’s first to supply heat directly from a molten magma.”

Elders explained that in various parts of the world so-called enhanced or engineered geothermal systems are being created by pumping cold water into hot dry rocks at 4-5 kilometers depths. The heated water is pumped up again as hot water or steam from production wells. In recent decades, considerable effort has been invested in Europe, Australia, the United States, and Japan, with uneven, and typically poor, results.

“Although the IDDP-1 hole had to be shut in, the aim now is to repair the well or to drill a new similar hole,” Elders said. “The experiment at Krafla suffered various setbacks that tried personnel and equipment throughout. However, the process itself was very instructive, and, apart from scientific articles published in Geothermics, comprehensive reports on practical lessons learned are nearing completion.”

The IDDP is a collaboration of three energy companies – HS Energy Ltd., National Power Company and Reykjavik Energy – and a government agency, the National Energy Authority of Iceland. It will drill the next borehole, IDDP-2, in southwest Iceland at Reykjanes in 2014-2015. From the onset, international collaboration has been important to the project, and in particular a consortium of U.S. scientists, coordinated by Elders, has been very active, authoring several research papers in the special issue of Geothermics.

Source of Galapagos eruptions is not where models place it

Birds flock not far from a volcano on Isabella Island, where two still active volcanoes are located. The location of the mantle plume, to the southeast of where computer modeling had put it, may explain the continued activity of volcanoes on the various Galapagos Islands. -  Douglas Toomey
Birds flock not far from a volcano on Isabella Island, where two still active volcanoes are located. The location of the mantle plume, to the southeast of where computer modeling had put it, may explain the continued activity of volcanoes on the various Galapagos Islands. – Douglas Toomey

Images gathered by University of Oregon scientists using seismic waves penetrating to a depth of 300 kilometers (almost 200 miles) report the discovery of an anomaly that likely is the volcanic mantle plume of the Galapagos Islands. It’s not where geologists and computer modeling had assumed.

The team’s experiments put the suspected plume at a depth of 250 kilometers (155 miles), at a location about 150 kilometers (about 100 miles) southeast of Fernandina Island, the westernmost island of the chain, and where generations of geologists and computer-generated mantle convection models have placed the plume.

The plume anomaly is consistent with partial melting, melt extraction, and remixing of hot rocks and is spreading north toward the mid-ocean ridge instead of, as projected, eastward with the migrating Nazca plate on which the island chain sits, says co-author Douglas R. Toomey, a professor in the UO’s Department of Geological Sciences.

The findings — published online Jan. 19 ahead of print in the February issue of the journal Nature Geoscience — “help explain why so many of the volcanoes in the Galapagos are active,” Toomey said.

The Galapagos chain covers roughly 3,040 square miles of ocean and is centered about 575 miles west of Ecuador, which governs the islands. Galapagos volcanic activity has been difficult to understand, Toomey said, because conventional wisdom and modeling say newer eruptions should be moving ahead of the plate, not unlike the long-migrating Yellowstone hotspot. </p

The separating angles of the two plates in the Galapagos region cloud easy understanding. The leading edge of the Nazca plate is at Fernandina. The Cocos plate, on which the islands’ some 1,000-kilometer-long (620-miles) hotspot chain once sat, is moving to the northeast.

The suspected plume’s location is closer to Isabella and Floreana islands. While a dozen volcanoes remain active in the archipelago, the three most volatile are Fernandina’s and the Cerro Azul and Sierra Negra volcanoes on the southwest and southeast tips, respectively, of Isabella Island, the archipelago’s largest landmass.

The plume’s more southern location, Toomey said, adds fuel to his group’s findings, at three different sites along the globe encircling mid-ocean ridge (where 85 percent of Earth’s volcanic activity occurs), that Earth’s internal convection doesn’t always adhere to modeling efforts and raises new questions about how ocean plates at the Earth’s surface — the lithosphere — interact with the hotter, more fluid asthenosphere that sits atop the mantle.

“Ocean islands have always been enigmatic,” said co-author Dennis J. Geist of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Idaho. “Why out in the middle of the ocean basins do you get these big volcanoes? The Galapagos, Hawaii, Tahiti, Iceland — all the world’s great ocean islands – they’re mysterious.”

The Galapagos plume, according to the new paper, extends up into shallower depths and tracks northward and perpendicular to plate motion. Mantle plumes, such as the Galapagos, Yellowstone and Hawaii, generally are believed to bend in the direction of plate migration. In the Galapagos, however, the volcanic plume has decoupled from the plates involved.

“Here’s an archipelago of volcanic islands that are broadly active over a large region, and the plume is almost decoupled from the plate motion itself,” Toomey said. “It is going opposite than expected, and we don’t know why.”

The answer may be in the still unknown rheology of the gooey asthenosphere on which the Earth’s plates ride, Toomey said. In their conclusion, the paper’s five co-authors theorize that the plume material is carried to the mid-ocean ridge by a deep return flow centered in the asthenosphere rather than flowing along the base of the lithosphere as in modeling projections.

“Researchers at the University of Oregon are using tools and technologies to yield critical insights into complex scientific questions,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation and dean of the UO Graduate School. “This research by Dr. Toomey and his team sheds new light on the volcanic activity of the Galapagos Islands and raises new questions about plate tectonics and the interaction between the zones of the Earth’s mantle.”

Co-authors with Toomey and Geist were: doctoral student Darwin R. Villagomez, now with ID Analytics in San Diego, Calif.; Emilie E.E. Hooft of the UO Department of Geological Sciences; and Sean C. Solomon of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

The National Science Foundation (grants OCE-9908695, OCE-0221549 and EAR-0651123 to the UO; OCE-0221634 to the Carnegie Institution of Washington and EAR-11452711 to the University of Idaho) supported the research.

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.

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.

Geologists get unique and unexpected opportunity to study magma

This is a view of the exploratory geothermal well during flow testing. -  Bjarni Palssen.
This is a view of the exploratory geothermal well during flow testing. – Bjarni Palssen.

Geologists drilling an exploratory geothermal well in 2009 in the Krafla volcano in Iceland encountered a problem they were simply unprepared for: magma (molten rock or lava underground) which flowed unexpectedly into the well at 2.1 kilometers (6,900 ft) depth, forcing the researchers to terminate the drilling.

“To the best of our knowledge, only one previous instance of magma flowing into a geothermal well while drilling has been documented,” said Wilfred Elders, a professor emeritus of geology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, who led the research team. “We were drilling a well that was designed to search for very deep – 4.5 kilometers (15,000 feet) – geothermal resources in the volcano. While the magma flow interrupted our project, it gave us a unique opportunity to study the magma and test a very hot geothermal system as an energy source.”

Currently, a third of the electric power and 95 percent of home heating in Iceland is produced from steam and hot water that occurs naturally in volcanic rocks.

“The economics of generating electric power from such geothermal steam improves the higher its temperature and pressure,” Elders explained. “As you drill deeper into a hot zone the temperature and pressure rise, so it should be possible to reach an environment where a denser fluid with very high heat content, but also with unusually low viscosity occurs, so-called ‘supercritical water.’ Although such supercritical water is used in large coal-fired electric power plants, no one had tried to use supercritical water that should occur naturally in the deeper zones of geothermal areas.”

Elders and colleagues report in the March issue of Geology (the research paper was published online on Feb. 3) that although the Krafla volcano, like all other volcanoes in Iceland, is basaltic (a volcanic rock containing 45-50 percent silica), the magma they encountered is a rhyolite (a volcanic rock containing 65-70 percent silica).

“Our analyses show that this magma formed by partial melting of certain basalts within the Krafla volcano,” Elders said. “The occurrence of minor amounts of rhyolite in some basalt volcanoes has always been something of a puzzle. It had been inferred that some unknown process in the source area of magmas, in the mantle deep below the crust of the Earth, allows some silica-rich rhyolite melt to form in addition to the dominant silica-poor basalt magma.”

Elders explained that in geothermal systems water reacts with and alters the composition of the rocks, a process termed “hydrothermal alteration.” “Our research shows that the rhyolite formed when a mantle-derived basaltic magma encountered hydrothermally altered basalt, and partially melted and assimilated that rock,” he said.

Elders and his team studied the well within the Krafla caldera as part of the Iceland Deep Drilling Project, an industry-government consortium, to test whether geothermal fluids at supercritical pressures and temperatures could be exploited as sources of power. Elders’s research team received support of $3.5 million from the National Science Foundation and $1.5 million from the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program.

In the spring of 2009 Elders and his colleagues progressed normally with drilling the well to 2 kilometers (6,600 feet) depth. In the next 100 meters (330 feet), however, multiple acute drilling problems occurred. In June 2009, the drillers determined that at 2104 meters (6,900 feet) depth, the rate of penetration suddenly increased and the torque on the drilling assembly increased, halting its rotation. When the drill string was pulled up more than 10 meters (33 feet) and lowered again, the drill bit became stuck at 2095 meters (6,875 feet). An intrusion of magma had filled the lowest 9 meters (30 feet) of the open borehole. The team terminated the drilling and completed the hole as a production well.

“When the well was tested, high pressure dry steam flowed to the surface with a temperature of 400 Celsius or 750 Fahrenheit, coming from a depth shallower than the magma,” Elders said. “We estimated that this steam could generate 25 megawatts of electricity if passed through a suitable turbine, which is enough electricity to power 25,000 to 30,000 homes. What makes this well an attractive source of energy is that typical high-temperature geothermal wells produce only 5 to 8 megawatts of electricity from 300 Celsius or 570 Fahrenheit wet steam.”

Elders believes it should be possible to find reasonably shallow bodies of magma, elsewhere in Iceland and the world, wherever young volcanic rocks occur.

“In the future these could become attractive sources of high-grade energy,” said Elders, who got involved in the project in 2000 when a group of Icelandic engineers and scientists invited him to join them to explore concepts of developing geothermal energy.

The Iceland Deep Drilling Project has not abandoned the search for supercritical geothermal resources. The project plans to drill a second deep hole in southwest Iceland in 2013.

Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud

After seismic activity in late 2009, Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland began to erupt on 20 March 2010. On 14 April 2010, an eruption under the ice cap created a plume of ash which rose to altitudes used by jet aircraft. Beginning on 15 April 2010 the plume caused the closure of airports and major disruption to air travel across NW Europe and between Europe and N. America. The Special Session will discuss the volcanological setting, atmospheric transport and use of predictive modeling of the ash plume, and the palaeorecord of Icelandic eruptions affecting Europe’s climate and economy. A panel discussion will explore the implications and precautionary lessons for Iceland and Europe.


Thor Thordason on Eyjafjallajökull Volcanology;

Andreas Stohl and the NILU flexpart team on Eyjafjallajökull Ash Plume Transport;

Fred Prata on Wider implications for the airline industry of the Eyjafjallajökull event.

There is also a tentative talk, Iceland’s impact on Europe, now and in the recent past.

In addition to an hour of experts speaking, there will be a panel discussion on “Europe’s vulnerability to volcanic events”