If you can believe it, we’re now in the fourth month for the Icelandic eruption that started north of the Bárðarbunga caldera in Iceland. The world watched and waited for this eruption after weeks of intense earthquakes, but since the eruption began in late August, we’ve had a nearly constant stream of basaltic magma eruption from the fissures in the Holuhraun lava fields between Bárðarbunga and Askja. This eruption has drifted from the headlines because the eruptive activity itself has been fairly tame — no giant ash plumes to disrupt air travel across Europe, but instead just a steady flow of lava creating a new lava field that covers over 72 square kilometers (~17,700 acres; see below). You can watch some great slow-motion footage of the lava erupting at one of the main vents, taken October 27 by Karl Neusinger – it really shows the constant influx of lava from below that creates the impressive lava flow field. This eruption at Holuhraun now has the distinction of being the largest (by volume) in Iceland since the massive 1783-4 eruption of Laki (although Holuhraun trails Laki by “only” 16 cubic kilometers of lava!)
The NASA Earth Observatory recently posted an image of the plume from the Holuhraun fissure that shows how the plume itself might interact with the clouds around the eruption. More likely than not, eruption plumes can play a role in cloud formation and distribution around a volcano.
I apologize for being missing for the last week. The big Geological Society of America meeting is next week in Vancouver BC and not only am I giving a talk and co-chairing a session, but two of my students are presenting posters. Needless to say, things have been busy. My talk centers on what zircon can tell us about the storage conditions and source magmas across the Cascade Range. I have zircon data from four Cascade volcanoes: St. Helens, Hood, South Sister and Lassen, it is a great chance to see how the differences in different parts of the Cascade arc might influence the composition of zircon. My two students are both presenting on their pieces of the Lassen Volcanic Center project, so we’ll be presenting over 800,000 years of zircon data.
In case you missed it, be sure to read David Wolman’s coverage of the appeal for the Italian geologists convicted in the aftermath of the L’Aquila earthquake. It still amazes me how much the Italian judicial system is willing to believe in charlatans and find scapegoats for an act of nature.
Quick post before I take off for the Department of Geosciences Fall Field Trip. If you’re looking for the current status of the eruption in Iceland, be sure to check out the Icelandic Meteorological Office.
However, today’s post is about the renewed activity at Mayon in the Philippines. It appears that lava is now actively extruding at the summit of the volcano, producing rock falls of incandescent blocks of lava. Seismic activity has increased dramatically over the last week and the style of earthquakes suggests to geologists at PHIVOLCS that magma is ascending inside the volcano. They have increased the alert status at Mayon from 2 to 3 (on a 5 level scale) and say that the potential for a “hazardous eruption” within weeks is high.
As I mentioned with the eruption of Rabaul, this activity at Mayon has the potential to have much more direct consequences on people than the activity in Iceland. In the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia, hundreds of thousands of people live within a few tens of kilometers of these potentially highly explosive volcanoes. At Mayon, that number is over 250,000 people within 10 kilometers! Keeping a close eye on these eruptions is definitely a necessity to protect those lives.
* AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article from the Philippine Star quotes a PHIVOLCS volcanologist as saying that Mayon is “overdue” for a large explosive eruption. This is based on a grand total for 2 prior eruptions in 1814 and 1897. I wouldn’t believe this sort of talk as 2 data points cannot be used to set such a pattern, even if it existed.
Two updates for today, dominated by action at the two most famous hotspots on the planet:
A new fissure started erupting this morning to the south of the current activity in the Holuhraun lava fields in Iceland. These two new fissures are closer to the Vatnajökull ice cap (just 2 km north of its edge), so concern is growing larger than the eruption will start happening subglacially, potentially causing jökulhlaups (glacial outburst floods) as the lava erupts under the ice. The Icelandic Meteorological Office is also reporting that the cauldron (depression) in Dyngjujökull, the northern part of the ice cap, is getting larger and more pronounced, both of which are signs that more heat is being felt at the bottom of the ice (possibly caused by eruptions under the ~300-350 meters of ice). Check out these images of the cauldron on the ice surface. The most serious ramification is the potential for more explosive style of eruption if water can mix with the lava.
The steam plume from the eruption is reaching 4.5 km (15,000 feet) and the sulfur dioxide plume is beginning to spread beyond the region right around Iceland. Changes in the weather patterns around the island suggest that the plume may spread enough to reach Europe, although the only possible ramifications of that might be some sulfur odor across the British Isles.
Two volcanoes that get the interwebs all hot and bothered have made the news in the last week. First, Katla in Iceland produced some glacial flooding (jökulhlaups) that followed some earthquakes. Second, over at everyone’s favorite caldera, Yellowstone, there has been a lot of buzz over roads melting due to heat from the volcano. Now, as odd as it might seem, these two events are connected by the same process: geothermal (and hydrothermal) activity. When it comes down to it, most volcanoes are sitting on big heat sources. One way to lose the heat is by erupting, but probably the most important way to lose the heat is by the circulation of water in the crust. This water help keep things hot by efficiently moving heat generated by the magma that might be 5-6 kilometers (or more) below the surface and bringing it up to the surface — all of this happening when there is no threat of an eruption.
When you examine the history of a volcano, you’ll quickly see it spends much of its existence not erupting. However, during those periods of quiet between eruptions, there is plenty going on beneath the volcano. The magma is cooling and releasing heat and fluids in the surrounding rocks, causing the development of a hydrothermal system above the cooling magma. This is usually the top 5 kilometers of crust above the magma, where cracks in the rocks can help hot fluids rise from the magma and cool fluids (like rainwater or snowmelt) percolate down into the crust and heat up. So, how hot does it get under a volcano? Well, by examining the exposed innards of extinct volcanoes, we can see how much alteration the rocks and minerals have experienced. This is an important step in understand how certain valuable ore deposits, like porphyry copper, form above bodies of magma under volcanoes.
Looking at these zones of hydrothermal alteration, it is clear that the subsurface temperatures get hot — upwards of 300-500°C even multiple kilometers above any cooling magma body. Now, that heat isn’t getting there by conduction alone. Rock isn’t a very good conductor, so heat won’t travel far. However, if you heat up water traveling through cracks in the rock, you can transport a lot of heat upwards. That’s because water has a high heat capacity – think about how the Gulf Stream brings warm water from the tropics to the North Atlantic to keep Europe warm. That is what allows all the alteration to occur and for hydrothermal systems to form. These hydrothermal systems are constantly changing based on the seasons (thanks to changing access to water percolating into the crust), seismicity that opens and closes cracks and yes, even magma moving. However, most of the time, the changes in the system are merely due to new routes these hot fluids take to reach the surface.
What are the manifestations of these hydrothermal fluids? You see some of them at most active volcanoes: steam vents (fumaroles), hot springs, geysers, mud pots. Each is a different way heat escapes the ground. Steam vents tend to be the hottest, releasing steam (with other volcanic gases) at temperatures of 300-500°C. Geysers are explosions of superheated water, so they will be ~100°C. Hot springs and mud pots tend to be much cooler, with temperatures usually 20-70°C, depending of the vigor of the spring or geyser.
So, even moving water through the crust can bring a lot of heat upwards and that is common at most volcanoes — as are changes in the hydrothermal system over time. So, what is happening at Katla and Yellowstone?First, at Katla, the hydrothermal system works underneath a large ice cap (Mýrdalsjökull). Especially during warmer months, more water can percolate into the crust, causing changes in the hydrothermal system (which, by itself, can generate earthquakes). If more heated water and steam is allowed to reach the surface, then more ice can melt and pond until it is catastrophically released as a flood. Reports from the Iceland Met Office support this idea – the waters are warm as they come out from under the glacier. However, unlike an eruption-driven event, the melting isn’t accompanied by a continuously increasing number of earthquakes that would betray magma moving. So, the most likely explanation for these floods is increasing melting due to changes in the hydrothermal (geothermal) system, not an eruption. These sorts of floods have happened before during this time of year at Katla, sometimes more dramatic than others.
Now, at Yellowstone, we have a different manifestation of the same thing. The news has splashed images of melting roads on Firehole Lake Drive in an area with intense hydrothermal activity. The usual suspects (e.g., the Yellowstone disaster groupies) want to say this is evidence that an eruption is in the works. Well, again, sorry to disappoint the lunatic fringe, but it isn’t. Instead, this is a sign that the hydrothermal system under Firehole Lake Drive has shifted some — maybe due to the constant seismicity that gently shakes Yellowstone, maybe due to the water table, maybe even due to the road itself — and now heat is coming up directly under the road. Now, asphalt like that can melt at temperatures as low at ~50-70°C, so well within the range of most hydrothermal features. Measures of the road surface by NPS workers are ~70°C, so we’re well within the range of temperatures needed to melt the road. Just move where that hot spring or fumarole is coming up and boom, you have heat under the road, melting it.
I’ve seen roads get damaged or destroyed by changing hydrothermal vent locations around Lassen Peak (see above) and in Rotorua in New Zealand — both places with active hydrothermal systems and shockingly, no giant eruption following the damage to the road. There are many places in Yellowstone itself where parking lots have been closed due to changes in the location of hydrothermal vents, causing them to melt and collapse due to the increased heat. This is by no means a harbinger of doom but rather exactly what we might expect in a place with an vigorous hydrothermal system. In a sense, Yellowstone is less of a “supervolcano” than a “super plumbing system” moving fluids around the crust.
Now, the real hazard from changing hydrothermal systems at Yellowstone is not a giant “super-eruption”, but rather much more dangerous (because they are far more likely) hydrothermal explosions. These are caused by superheated water and steam getting trapped and then releasing catastrophically. These can happen without warning and if you’re too close, you’ll be covered with boiling water and debris from the explosion. As usual, the place to look for the most accurate information about potentially hazards at Yellowstone is the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. If they’re worried, so should you. They monitor the temperatures of these hydrothermal features across the caldera and if there are widespread changes, they examine them to see if they could be related to magma moving (least likely) or merely the shifting of the hydrothermal system (most likely).
So, remember, the increasing heat at the surface near a volcano isn’t always from magma — it can merely be caused by changes in how hot water and steam move through the crust. It is one of the ways that volcanoes can dissipate the heat released by magma cooling underground and more importantly, it doesn’t have to be magma that is trying to erupt.
By now, news has reached every end of the globe of the 8.2 magnitude earthquake in northern Chile last night (North American time). Chilean coastal cities were on tsunami alert, as there was detection of an ocean wave generated – but those warnings have now been lifted.
The epicenter of the earthquake affected fault lines in a “Ring of Fire” of volcanoes. Southwestern Peru was also affected by the earthquake and one volcano started to spew ash on Tuesday.
Ubina has not exploded in forty years, but signs of spewing ash skyward caused authorities to evacuate villagers as a precaution
The volcano in southwestern Peru blasted back to life causing about 60 villagers from Querapi, near its base, to be relocated Saturday, Ubinas town mayor Pascual Coaquira said.
“We are readying a shelter for refugees from the blasts,” he added Tuesday, noting that the whole Moquegua region was on alert.
The mayor said that the ash had been raining all day on Tuesday, and residents were having trouble breathing. The ones struggling with respiratory distress were given masks to help breathe.
The geological and mining agency for Peru noted unusual lava build-up in recent days and warned that local residents should prepare for more evacuations.
Over the weekend, Pacaya in Guatemala got everyone’s attention with a moderate explosive eruption. This explosion was nothing compared to the really big bang we saw last month at Indonesia’s Kelud, but it was enough to cause some real concern in Guatemala. The March 2 eruption produced a fire fountain that reached 800 meters tall at the summit (check out the image below) and an ash plume that topped out at ~3 km (10,000 feet) above the sea level (so ~2.4 km / 8,000 feet above the volcano). The day was clear, so we got a nice shot of the eruption on the Terra (see above), with the dark brown plume of ash spreading in a narrow band to the west.
From the looks of the images and descriptions, this eruption is another energetic strombolian eruption typical for Pacaya. It is a volcano that behaves is ways very similar to Italy’s Etna, where basaltic lava eruptions as fire fountains or lava flows. This new eruption is part of a period of activity that began in March 2013, but this explosion was larger than what had been seen so far. However, the previous period of activity from 2004-10 did feature some eruptions as vigorous as the March 2 event.
As a sidenote, I did notice that CONRED includes this sentence at the bottom of their statement on the eruption: “The general population is advised to be alert to indications that authorities release through the media, avoid spreading rumors, avoid risking your life, take the directions of the authorities…” (emphasis mine). I think this is an especially important message to get across in this age of social media.
The opening salvo of the eruption at Poás in Costa Rica, captured on the crater webcam. Image: OVSICORI webcam capture.
Earlier this week, Poás in Costa Rica had a small eruption likely related to water flashing to steam in the heating crater lake area. This eruption ended up being the largest so far in 2014, but these types of explosion are fairly common at the Costa Rican volcano. That being said, María Martínez Cruz (OVSICORI) said that the size of this eruption, with a plume that reached 300-meters, is not too common at Poás. This could suggest that more heat is being fed into the upper reaches of the volcano. The webcam at Poás captured the eruption as it occurred, spreading ash mainly within the crater area. If check out the webcam at night, you can see some intense incandesce that betrays the magma just beneath the surface at the volcano. Not surprisingly, the volcano is off-limits to tourists.
The sulfur dioxide plume from the Kelud eruption, seen at 0637 UTC on February 14, 2014 via OMI. Image: OMI/NASA-NOAA
The PVMBG has said that they were surprised how quickly the volcano went from having shallow earthquakes to a full-on eruption. Normally, they expect at least 6 hours between the onset of earthquakes before an eruption at Kelud, but in the February 14 eruption, it was only ~2 hours. This meant that implementing the evacuation after raising the alert status was very difficult for Indonesian disaster relief agencies.
Activity at Kelud tends to be punctuated — at least looking at past eruptions — where an explosive event occurs and then the volcano settles. However, it is unclear from any of the reports I’ve seen whether the PVMBG thinks that new eruptions are coming soon. Based on the evacuation that is occurring, my guess is that they think that the volcano will be restless for the foreseeable future. I haven’t seen any news about lahars generated by the eruption so far, but they are a major hazard with any activity at Kelud. Most volcanologists I’ve heard from about the February 14 eruption say it looks to be on scale with the 1990 eruption, which was a VEI 4.