Among the unique features of Erebus are the systems of ice caves and towers formed by fumaroles on the volcano. Aaron Curtis is a PhD student at New Mexico Tech., currently in his third Erebus field season studying the ice caves. The research he is undertaking here is the first of this kind to be published since 1976. He tells us about the work he has been doing in the caves over the past few weeks.
Volcanofiles: What is an Erebus ice cave?
Aaron: I’m studying fumarolic ice caves and towers – these caves are more like glacier caves than like limestone caves containing ice. There are similar things at a few other volcanoes – Mt Rainier, Mt Baker in the Cascades of the northwest US, Mt Melbourne in Antarctica and several in Iceland – whenever you get a volcano under a pretty large amount of snow. There’s nothing like Erebus in terms of the number and diversity though.
Volcanofiles: So how are these fumarolic ice caves and towers formed?
Aaron: Well, nobody knows exactly, but that’s what I’m studying. The volcano releases gases and heat from the entire summit caldera area, and the permafrost and perennial snowpack is reshaped by that heat. One of the common results is that you get voids developing at the bottom of the snowpack and some of those are spectacular networks of passages. Some of the cave entrances have towers on them, and are linked up to towers.
Volcanofiles: Are they are all formed in the same way?
Aaron: It seems like there could be two major mechanisms of heat transfer. The first is conduction through the floor. Werner Giggenbach, in the 1980s, wrote about areas of warm rock causing caves to appear above. But what I’ve been finding, which wasn’t reflected in earlier research, is that there are discrete fumaroles that have a huge impact on the cave geometry. I think what the networks we can see are most directly a result of airflow from discrete vents, because there are fractures and shallow structure in the rock that controls where the heat goes and where the cave forms.
Nial: The scalloping on the walls shows that there is hot gas flowing through the cave, rather than just hot ground. (Although Nial is currently doing his own PhD work here, his first Erebus season was as Aaron’s field assistant, so he has spent a lot of time in the caves!)
Aaron: Exactly, and the microclimates of the caves are completely different from the surface. Our average surface temperature is -32.6oC over the year, whereas the cave temperatures are between 0-6oC all year. There is really strong airflow in some caves which indicates that hot air is coming through the bottom and spewing out the top.
Volcanofiles: What about the humidity?
Aaron: It’s pretty close to 100% relative humidity. We see liquid water in some of the caves. The presence of water in environments such as these is a huge deal for biologists – it’s kind of like an oasis in a polar desert. We at the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory are interested in how closely the steam coming out of the vents is linked to the magmatic system – whether it’s degassing directly out of magma, whether it’s recycled melted snow, or whether it reflects a hydrothermal system.
Volcanofiles: So how do you carry out these studies?
Aaron: The main focus in my research for the last couple of years has been fibre optic distributed temperature sensing (DTS) investigation of the cave microclimates. That allows us to see all of the discrete fumarolic vents and compare them to the environment in the rest of the cave.
Volcanofiles: What is DTS and how does it work?
Aaron: The cables are strung out in the cave, and we fire a laser down the cable. This gives us reflections from down the length of the cable. The temperature at every point on the cable affects the spectra that we get back. We send out a specific frequency signal and we get light back at several different frequencies. Some of those frequencies are affected by temperature so we can compare them to get a precise temperature. The electronics allow us to measure very finely the time when the response gets back, which relates to the distance along the cable, so we can measure different temperatures for every metre of cable.
Volcanofiles: How much distance are we talking about?
Aaron: Probably up to 1 km for one of the caves I’m looking at. The large ones are on the order of hundreds of metres, but some of them are barely big enough to get your head into – those ones are a bad idea to put your data loggers into because you don’t tend to get them back!
Volcanofiles: So the caves change a lot?
Aaron: I’ve been astonished by the differences in caves just from one field season to the next. The passages seal off and whole new sections will open up – it’s kind of a weird feeling because the caves are vaguely familiar from last year so it can be quite disorienting. We just finished the first repeat LIDAR 3D scan (which Volcanofiles will be posting more on soon!) of Warren Cave – we mapped it in my first year and did the LIDAR the two following years. Drea Killingsworth will be able to tell you more about that.
Volcanofiles: Are there any other instruments you’ve got in the caves?
Aaron: I’m monitoring about 15 different caves using various data loggers for temperature, windspeed, barometric pressure, and CO2 concentration. Other work I’m doing includes taking a bunch of gas samples and biological samples, and thermal imagery. I also have a multigas meter which I can take in with me, that checks for CO, SO2, H2S and CO2 – primarily for safety, but it gives us a bit of science as well.
Volcanofiles: Can you tell us more about the unusual crystal formations in the caves?
Aaron: They’re spectacular and hugely variable. The cold areas in particular have crystals that can be up to a metre long, and clearly reflect the microclimate in that particular area. They can even tell you the wind direction – some of the hoarfrost grows into the wind. It’s almost like having a vector field mapping out the wind direction – the kind of thing it would take a really advanced instrument to be able to do, but nature does it for us.
Volcanofiles: How accessible are the caves?
Aaron: Access varies from being able to walk in to pretty technical rope setups. Every cave is different. Some caves we have not been able to get into at all.
I feel fortunate because I get to stay down in the nice warm protected environment while other people are up at the rim – but it’s humid down there, and when you come back to the surface, your clothes turn into armour when everything freezes. Snowmobiles don’t have seatbelts so it can be convenient when your butt freezes to the seat…
Volcanofiles: Thanks, Aaron! Good luck with your work down Warren Cave today.
For more about the DTS work Aaron is doing here, here’s the reference for his paper recently published in Geophysical Research Letters:
Curtis, A & Kyle, P., 2011. Geothermal point sources identified in a fumarolic ice cave on Erebus volcano, Antarctica using fiber optic distributed temperature sensing. Geophysical Research Letters 38:L16802.