Category Archive: Mt. Erebus

Erebus science – thermal imaging

Infrared cameras are a great way to take thermal measurements of a volcano from a distance. A thermal camera has been used at Erebus for several years. There, it provides the opportunity to look not just at changes to heat output, but also at the activity of the lava lake.  Nial Peters, one of the Volcanofiles and a PhD student at Cambridge, has been operating the camera for the past three field seasons and looking at the data from it. Nial first went to Erebus as a field assistant for Aaron Curtis, who we interviewed last season, working in the ice caves – so he knows the volcano well. Here’s his email interview from the 2012-13 field season, telling us about his work.

Volcanofiles: What is a thermal camera?

Nial: Pretty much the same as an ordinary camera, except that the sensor records IR radiation rather than visible. Objects that are radiating a lot of heat show up as bright. Note that is not necessarily the same as saying hot objects show up bright – a high temperature silver object may show up as less bright than a cooler black object!

Volcanofiles: Perhaps it’s fairly obvious why you’d want to use a thermal camera on a volcano, then? What sort of things can you look for in the footage from the Erebus lava lake?

Nial: Well, perhaps not so obvious. Of course you can use a thermal camera to do the obvious things like measure heat output from the lava lake and many people have done such studies in the past. The reason I use a thermal camera is because it is capable of imaging the lake through a far thicker volcanic plume than a normal camera. Even on days when the lake is invisible to the naked eye, you can still record clear IR images. I am not so interested in the actual temperature readings from the camera, I am using the data to look at the surface velocity of the lake as it convects. You can also record the Strombolian eruptions of of the lake and measure things like refill time.

The start of a Strombolian eruption

The thermal camera can reach high time resolutions…

…so it gives a good record of explosions

Volcanofiles: You’ve spent a lot of time building things so that you can collect data with the thermal camera. How do you set up the camera in the field? And what have you been working on these past few months?

Nial: The thermal camera we have does not store images on-board like most cameras do. Instead it is designed to stream images over an Ethernet link, using the GenICam interface. This means that it requires a computer to operate. The first year we used the camera, we set up a microwave Ethernet link to the crater rim and ran the camera from a PC in the hut. However, my goal was to have the camera run year-round and this setup was too power hungry and unreliable for this.

The system this year is totally different. The camera is being controlled by a ARM based single board computer (SBC) (it’s a Blue Chip Technologies RE2 board if anyone is interested) running Ubuntu Linux. I have written some custom control software for the camera based on the open-source GenICam project Aravis.

The camera and its computer (Photo: N. Peters)

The software captures images, does a very limited amount of preprocessing, and then compresses the images into PNG files. The images are stored locally on a solid-state hard-disc. The SBC also runs a server program which can send the images and some environmental data (power consumption, temperature, etc.)  in realtime over the microwave ethernet link (when it is operational – in other words, during the field season) so that we can keep an eye on things while we are here. The whole system is designed to run reliably by itself for an extended period, with lots of error checking and correction built into the software, GPS time synchronisation and a watchdog program to restart the whole system should something go badly wrong.

Nial with the microwave antenna used for transmitting data to the hut.

The weak link in the system is the power supply. In total the camera system uses about 11W, which is generated by a solar array and some wind generators situated 0.5km away (conditions on the rim are too harsh for solar panels and wind generators). An inverter is used to boost the voltage to 230V AC and power is then transmitted up a cable to the rim where it is stepped down and rectified to 12V DC. The whole power system has been replaced this year using low-temperature rated components and tougher cable. Hopefully this will mean that we can sustain power to the rim year round, but this is a challenging environment so we will see!

Most of my work for the past months has been developing and testing the new camera system (both software and hardware). It is probably the most complex thing I have ever made and I am really pleased that so far it has worked flawlessly (over 600,000 images captured so far!).

Mounting the camera on its tripod at the crater rim

Volcanofiles: This is your third season running a thermal camera on Erebus, and there is data from older field seasons too. What have you measured with it in the past?  And what else are you hoping to do with it this year?

Nial: The motion tracking is probably the most important thing that I have done with the data so far. This picks up the periodic behaviour of the lake very well, and shows that the lake has been doing the same thing for as long as we have been measuring it! It also shows the recent decrease in the size of the lake (it is now a quarter of the size it was two years ago). This year will be more of the same, but with a year-round dataset hopefully we can see in more detail how the lake is changing.

Volcanofiles: You’ve had four field seasons on Erebus. Does the novelty start wearing off? How have things changed for you since the first time you were up there?

Nial: Certainly it is not as exciting as it was the first time, but then nothing is, once you have some idea of what to expect. It is still an awesome place to come to though, and I am still thrilled that I get the opportunity to work here.

I guess the biggest change for me since my first season has been the transition from working in the caves to working at the crater rim. I’m still really interested in the work that is being done in the caves, but particularly this year I have not had the time to get involved. Season to season there is always a bit of change as different people come and go, but I suppose that it is more similar than it is different.

Volcanofiles: How’s the season going so far?

Nial: Pretty well I suppose. Everything was up and running in record time this year. Of course no field season would be complete without everything breaking and that has started to happen now with one broken gas sensor, a broken spectrometer and no liquid nitrogen left for the FTIR. But these things are to be expected, most of the equipment is being pushed to its limits here and so some downtime is inevitable. As I already said, the new power system is almost complete and the thermal camera system is working well – I am confident that we will get many more months of data after we leave, even if it doesn’t quite make it through the winter.

Nial with the themal camera in the field

Volcanofiles: Thanks, Nial – we look forward to seeing some winter data from the thermal camera!

When everything’s running during the field season, you can see the most recent thermal camera images on the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory site here.

Erebus science – 3D imaging with LiDAR

Our next interview is about a long running project at Erebus. Three dimensional imaging through LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) terrestrial scanning technology is a useful way to look at changes in the Erebus landscape – within the crater, and around the ice caves. Drea Killingsworth is the latest student to undertake the scanning work, which began with a scan of the Erebus lava lake in 2008.

Drea did her undergraduate degree at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, and is now doing her Masters’ degree at New Mexico Tech. For the past two field seasons at Erebus, she has been working with Jed Frechette, from the LiDAR Guys in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and with Marianne Okal and Brendan Hodge, from UNAVCO. And not only has she been doing her own fieldwork but, as expedition chef, she has also been keeping the team fed!

Drea in Warren Cave

Drea in Warren Cave

Drea’s project on Erebus has included scanning the lava lake, the main crater, and two ice cave systems: Warren, and Mammoth/Cathedral, both from the inside and on the surface. At Warren Cave, by combining her work this year with previous years’ LiDAR scans and a survey carried out by Aaron Curtis and Nial Peters, Drea can get a detailed image of how things have changed over the last four years.

A 3D image of Mammoth Cave produced from this year’s LiDAR scans (D. Killingsworth)

With several years of lava lake and crater data, it is also possible to find out how the lake surface level has fluctuated, to quantify its surface area, and follow changes in the shape of both the lake and the crater. LiDAR allows us to see parts of the crater that aren’t normally visible when walking around the crater rim.

Jed with the Optech at the crater rim (December 2010)

Volcanofiles: How does LiDAR work?

Drea: The instrument fires a laser (either visible green or near-infrared light), which is reflected off surfaces and returns to the scanner. Using the amount of time it takes to receive the reflection (or backscatter) when it returns, and the known speed of the laser, it is possible to map the point on the surface where the reflection occurs. Thousands of such points (about 50,000 per second) form a point cloud in three dimensions over a ~7-minute medium-resolution scan at each scanner position. In the ice caves, scans from over 40 scan positions throughout the cave are registered together, to form a detailed 3D model of the entire accessible portion of the cave.

Scanning in Warren Cave (December 2011; Photo: D. Killingsworth)

Screenshot while scanning in Warren Cave (December 2011; Photo: D. Killingsworth)

Volcanofiles: Can you tell us about the different LIDAR instruments you use? What are some of the features you have to consider when selecting the right instrument for a particular scan?

Drea: We used three different scanners on Erebus this field season: the Leica Scanstation C10, which has a class 3R green laser (with 532 nm wavelength), the Riegl VZ400 and the Optech ILRIS-3D, which both use near infrared (with 1535 nm wavelength).

All of the scanners have similar accuracy (to < 1 cm) and cold ratings (functioning in 0° C – 40 °C) but, because of the different wavelengths, power capabilities and designs, they have different ranges and fields of view (FOV). The Leica is very useful for cave mapping because it has a wide FOV of 360° x 270° while its smaller range of < 1 m – 300 m allows for manoeuvrability in tight squeezes.

The Leica scanner inside Warren Cave – that green light it its laser! (Photo: D. Killingsworth)

The Optech has a maximum range of 1200 m but a FOV of only 40° x 40°. In the caves we are scanning entire rooms so a large field of view allows us to use fewer scan positions to scan a given area. For the lava lake, we do a series of scans from a single FOV, so aren’t limited by this smaller area. The longer range of the near infrared scanner is needed to reach the lava lake, which is 300 m down from our scan position at the crater rim.

Volcanofiles: In addition to doing scans of the caves, you have been working on combining GPS data with LIDAR scans, and matching surface features to those underground. Has this been done before? Can you describe your instrument setup for us?

Drea: The GPS does not work beneath the ice of the caves because it cannot receive satellite messages. To accurately locate the caves on the slopes of Erebus, we had to set up known survey positions outside the caves on the surface. Four known surface positions were scanned using LiDAR and a traverse was made down through the cave entrance to four more survey positions set up inside of the cave. By combining the exterior and interior scans, the location of the interior points can be extrapolated from the GPS locations of the exterior points.

Entrance to Warren Cave, through which equipment has to be lowered in (December 2011; D. Killingsworth)

This is not as easy as it sounds! Access to the caves is by rappel and all equipment must be lowered by rope and pulley. To tie the scans together, we had to set up the scanner on a level tripod at the edge of the cave entrance and scan down into the cave to hit an interior target, also on a level tripod. The scanner and target then had to be reversed, carefully lowering the scanner into the cave without moving either of the level tripods.

The LiDAR target at the entrance of Warren Cave (Photo: D. Killingsworth)

The now-known exterior and interior survey points are semi-permanent and can be used for later scans to locate the caves in relation to a coordinate system.

Volcanofiles: You’ve spent quite a bit of time in very different Erebus environments. What are some of the challenges specific to your work on the crater, and in and above the caves?

Drea: In the caves, the biggest issue we face is the change in temperature and humidity between the outside entrance and the inside of the cave. On the surface, the air is very dry and the average temperature is -20°C before wind chill. Inside the caves, temperatures are just above freezing and humidity is extremely high, causing problems with fogging of lenses in the scanners as they are moved from cold to warm areas.

These differences can also cause problems in the opposite direction as water condenses and freezes onto the equipment (and the equipment operators!). The ice caves are not formed completely of ice – the floors of the caves are volcanic rock, covered by a layer of decomposing volcanic glass particles from lava bombs. A day of ice cave scanning involves lugging the scanner, tripods, targets and other equipment through tight squeezes, and navigating and levelling equipment by the light of a headlamp.

The lava lake presents a different set of challenges. The scanners are rated to operate down to 0° C -but the average temperature at the rim, before wind chill, can be around -30° C.

LiDAR gear being carried up to and around the crater rim. (December 2010; L to R: Laura Howald, Kayla, and Jed)

We have had to come up with some very interesting make-shift ‘cosies,’ involving everything from hand warmers to garbage bags, just get our equipment to turn on. Wind and cold makes setting up and levelling tripods difficult.

Scanning the lava lake (L to R: the Riegl, Brendan, and Marianne; Photo: D. Killingsworth)

Despite any difficulties, it is such a privilege to be working on such exciting science in such an amazingly beautiful place.

Volcanofiles: Thanks to Drea for talking about her work, sharing her photos, and for the delicious cooking! To finish, here’s another image from this year to show the kind of results she’s been coming up with.

Image of the lava lake from the 2012-13 field season. One of the interesting results of this year’s LiDAR work is finding out the size of those spatter ramparts – they’re over 5 m high! (D. Killingsworth)

Update from Erebus: First “real science” of the Season

Just a quick update before I go up to the crater to “supervise” the air-drop of all the drums of our new power cable. It’s blowing 20-25 knots at the moment, so we will have to wait and see if the pilot is willing to attempt it today or not.

The team lands at Fang camp ready for a few days of acclimatisation. The weather was perfect, and the views were stunning!

So, after a few days of being delayed at McMurdo due to bad weather, we made it into our acclimatisation camp at Fang Ridge last Friday. Saturday was thanksgiving, so we all walked up to LEH (Lower Erebus Hut – our main field camp) for dinner, then drove back to Fang in order to sleep at lower altitude again. Sunday morning, we all drove up to LEH and started unpacking. The conditions looked pretty good for spectroscopy and we managed to get a couple of instruments up and running. Unfortunately, there were too many ice crystals floating around in the air, and so we ended up recording negative gas amounts in the plume!

A vertically rising plume and no humidity made for a perfect spectroscopy day. Here and AvoScanner outside the garage at LEH scans horizontally accross the plume.

After that, we gave up on spectroscopy for a bit and concentrated on setting stuff up. The microwave ethernet link to the crater rim is up and running, as is the old crater rim power system. The thermal camera is almost ready to be deployed, just awaiting some final tests to make sure it doesn’t overheat in its box!

Aaron checks out the entrance to Kachina cave during our trip to Cones. This was the entrance that we used last year to access the cave, but this year it has completely closed up. Another entrance further downslope can still be used to get into the cave.

Yesterday was the first “real science” day. Conditions were perfect, with very little humidity and a vertically rising plume. After setting up an AvoScanner to measure Sulphur Dioxide amounts in the plume, I went out to Cones (the communications repeater station on the McMurdo side of Erebus) with Aaron to try and fix the seismic station data feed from LEH. We also met up with some Alt. Energy technicians from McMurdo to discuss power systems for LEH, Cones and the crater rim. After that, we teamed up with Clive and took the FTIR spectrometer into Warren Cave. The FTIR measures absorption of infra-red light by different gas species, and can identify the relative amounts of many different gas species. We are hoping to identify the species responsible for the hydrocarbon smell around the entrance to Warren – watch this space for the results!

Clive pours liquid Nitrogen into the FTIR to cool the detector during our trip to Warren cave. Carrying the (very fragile!) spectrometer and all the batteries, tripods, computers etc. into the cave was hard work - even though we were very close to the entrance.

In other news – the rest of the G081 team have all arrived safe and sound in McMurdo now and will be heading to Fang camp at the weekend. We expect to see them at LEH next Monday.

Update from Antarctica: Preparing for Erebus

Nial Peters is officially On The Ice, with Clive Oppenheimer closely behind him. While making preparations in McMurdo, he’s taken some time out to send us some updates about this year’s exciting new projects including sending mains power to the crater rim for year-round science obs — a first at Erebus!

I’ve been run off my feet doing all the training courses and trying to sort gear ready for next week, so I don’t have any good photos yet (I haven’t left the Crary lab!). I’ve attached a few pics of the field preparations for you.

So for now it is just Aaron Curtis and I in McMurdo. We are due to head up to our acclimatisation camp, Fang, next Wednesday, and then up to Lower Erebus Hut (LEH) on Friday. Clive and Co. are arriving on the ice on Monday and then coming up to Fang on Friday. Lots to do before then!

Aaron working on a new webcam for the Erebus hut in our office in the Crary Lab. This is going to be mounted inside a dome on the roof of the garage hut and will be controllable by the public over the internet.

Charging new lead-acid batteries before they are flown up to LEH. These are going to provide extra storage capacity for the winter-over power system for the hut. This will allow us to maintain an internet connection at the hut year-round, giving access to instruments located at the hut (just webcams for now, but with plans for more in the future!).

Some of the parts for the new Erebus rim power system. The orange peli case houses the 12V power supply that will be stationed at the rim. To the right of that is the new low-temperature inverter which will convert the 12V supply from the battery banks at Nausea Knob (the power generation site) to 240V before it is sent up the volcano to the summit (a distance of about 0.5 km). The items in the foreground are some of the junction boxes and a short section of the cable which we are going to lay between Nausea Knob and the crater rim. The cable has been split into 10 sections, each weighing ~40 kg. This will all have to be laid by hand! However, it will be worth the effort - this will be the first year that we have year-round mains power at the crater rim, allowing us to run instruments over the winter. This is a huge step! Previously we have only been able to collect 2-3 weeks of data per year, now we will be collecting 52 weeks of data per year.

And, the fieldwork season begins…

2012 is coming to a close, and all of the Volcanofiles are itching to get back into the field.

Nial has already headed south. We received word from him that he landed in McMurdo station, Antarctica today and is headed up to Mount Erebus soon!

Made it to McMurdo a few hours ago. Weather is good down here, although it looks bad up on Erebus.
–Nial

Kelby is headed west. He arrived in Mexico a few days ago. Later this week, the Cities on Volcanoes 7 conference kicks off, and Kelby will be there to update us on all the fun that we’re missing. After conference time, it’s fieldwork time on Colima.

Plans are then to take equipment up to the ‘cano starting right after the conference. Then likely make a summit climb which will take 3-4 days depending on the road. Then back to Colima to leave the next day for 10 days at my monitoring site. Busy, busy!
–Kelby

Watch this space for more updates from the field-bound team and lots of pictures, too!

VIDEO: Eruption from Erebus Lava Lake in Infrared

Watch the awesome power of an explosive Strombolian eruption in the otherwise effusive lava lake at Erebus volcano, Antarctica. This particular clip was captured by a FLIR infrared camera in 2010 and is slowed to show detail. The lake is about 30 meters across, and we are viewing it from about 300 meters away.

As the clip is in the infrafred (IR), colors correspond to temperature (although note that the absolute scale shown on the side of the clip is not accurate, but relative temperatures are correct). The brightest spots are the hottest spots.

These eruptions can occur up to several times per day at Erebus, and their exact origins are not totally understood. The current thinking is that hot, gaseous magma ascends from deep within the magmatic plumbing system every so often and manifests as a burst of energy from the lake.

To learn more about Erebus and her lava lake, check out these scientific journal articles:
Ground-based thermal imaging of lava lakes at Erebus volcano, Antarctica (Calkins et al., 2008)

Pulsatory magma supply to a phonolite lava lake (Oppenheimer et al., 2009)

Probing the magma plumbing of Erebus volcano, Antarctica, by open-path FTIR spectroscopy of gas emissions (Oppenheimer & Kyle, 2008)

Amazing View of the Erebus Lava Lake

Erebus lava lake, 2011-2012 field season

This most recent image of the Erebus lava lake was taken just days ago from the crater rim, some 340 meters line-of-sight to the lake. The lake has been shrinking in size, and at this point is about 30 meters across. Photo: Clive Oppenheimer

Erebus science – dating lava flows

The sampling that is being carried out this year at Erebus also includes work on lava flows around the volcano. Dave Parmelee is a Masters student at New Mexico Tech., and over the past month he has been travelling all around the Erebus caldera by snowmobile and foot to collect samples from lava flows.

Dave completed his undergraduate study at the University of Connecticut in 2006. He worked for a large environmental consulting company, doing fieldwork in and around Connecticut. Dave and his girlfriend, Danielle, have done a lot of climbing and hiking around the USA, as well as spending some time in Guatemala. In 2010 they went to Peru, where they worked as volunteer scientists at a national park.

Earlier this week, Dave let me accompany him on one of his sampling trips. It was one of the highlights of this field season for me, to get out to one of the more remote areas of the volcano and see what he does. We walked around the Side Crater and down to the southern flanks of Erebus, where Dave collected some lava samples for Helium dating.

Dave searching for good outcrop on the southern slopes of Erebus, with Mount Terror in the distance.

Previous studies of Erebus lavas by Chris Harpel have involved Argon dating (see the reference below and the previous post for more information), which gives a possible age range for the flows; Dave is collecting samples for Helium (3He) and Chlorine (36Cl) dating on the same flows. Argon dating at Erebus has high uncertainties, resulting in overlap of the possible ages of different lava flows, so it’s hard to tell which order the flows were emplaced in. In addition to this, excess argon found in Erebus rocks can cause ages to appear higher than they actually are. Excess argon can be cleaned out in the lab, but the results from Argon dating at Erebus are considered maximum possible ages.

The isotopes used in 3He and 36Cl dating are formed when an outcrop is exposed to cosmic rays – so by measuring these isotopes, it is possible to calculate the length of time for which the lava flows have been exposed to the surface. Snow cover around Erebus this year is greater than usual, but this is helpful for Dave’s sampling, as those locations currently exposed are likely to be the same ones that are usually exposed.

There are many challenges in sampling from these lava flows. Snow and ice cover change from year to year. It takes two metres of snow cover to completely shield a rock from cosmic rays, so Dave has to make a judgement on whether a flow is likely to have been exposed constantly. Not all of the flows marked in the published map are well exposed. Dave uses a combination of this map and aerial photographs to identify sample locations.

Near the summit cone, there are large volcanic bombs in addition to the lava flows, so Dave has to distinguish between the two before he can select a place to sample. The location must be relatively flat, to ensure that there is little shielding from cosmic rays and that the production of cosmogenic isotopes will have been at the highest rate possible. He has to avoid locations with steep slopes or topography that may have blocked the outcrop from exposure to cosmic rays – the more open the area is, the better. Samples have to come from the top few centimetres, also to ensure exposure.

Another requirement for 3He dating is the abundance of suitable crystals: He isotopes for dating are, at Erebus, mainly found in a mineral called pyroxene. This tends to occur as small crystals, often incorporated into larger crystals of Erebus anorthoclase. Helium 3 occurs naturally, before exposure to cosmic rays, so the helium inherited from eruption needs to be isolated from that which is produced cosmogenically. By contrast, 36Cl is only produced by cosmic rays.

Once he has found a suitably flat area on the flow (with visible pyroxenes if the samples are to be used for 3He dating) Dave can take notes and photos of the sample location. Things he has to consider include whether the rocks are still in their original location; usual extent of snow cover; the shielding from the horizon, which he measures by taking the inclination of the topography above the flat horizon at different points; and the extent to which the rocks have been eroded.

Taking GPS measurements on lavas on the southwestern side of the caldera. Photo: Drea Killingsworth

At this stage, Dave gets to work with a hammer and chisel. Although the rock can be difficult to break up, it also requires some precision to avoid losing any pyroxenes for 3He dating. A minimum of 300 milligrams of pyroxene are required, which may mean carrying back a couple of kilograms of rock. Chlorine sampling, on the other hand, requires a bulk sample of rock, so can be slightly quicker. It can be several hours work to drive and then walk out to a sample location, find a good site, and get enough sample.

Over the next few months, Dave will be isolating the isotopes that are of interest – the 36Cl at New Mexico Tech., and the 3He at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. The amounts of Cl and He isotopes can then be measured. The production rate for the cosmogenic isotopes is calculated, using published equations, from measurements of the isotopes in the lab combined with the field notes, but the result is an ideal production rate – in reality there may have been shielding from topography and snow which is no longer present. As a consequence the age calculated from the ideal production rate may well be younger than the actual age. Combined with the argon dates, this gives a better constraint on the ages of the flows and we can start to understand how periodic the eruptive behaviour of the volcano has been.

Despite all his experience in the outdoors, spending a month on a volcano has been a new and exciting experience for Dave. He has learned to drive a snowmobile on technical terrain and travelled out to parts of the caldera that have not been visited in a long time.

Dave had driven out to sample the Upper Tramways flow when I took this photo from the crater rim.

Thanks to Dave for the information and a great afternoon out in the field!

For the paper on Argon dating of Erebus lava flows: Harpel, C.J., Kyle, P.R., Esser, R.P., McIntosh, W.C., Caldwell, D.A., 2004. 40Ar/ 39Ar dating of the eruptive history of Mount Erebus, Antarctica: summit flows, tephra, and caldera collapse. Bulletin of Volcanology, 66(8): 687-702.

Erebus science – tephra sampling

Tephra sampling has the widest spatial range of any Erebus project this year. Nels Iverson is a postgraduate student at New Mexico Tech. studying towards his Masters in Geology, and his fieldwork in Antarctica has taken him from the top of Erebus volcano to the sea ice, and out to the Polar Plateau over 200 kilometres away.

Nels did his undergraduate degree at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, and has also worked in Washington and Oregon, mapping basaltic rock. Although he has spent a lot of time in the field, this is his first project in tephra and geochemistry. He is in his second Erebus field season.

Volcanofiles: What is tephra, and why are you sampling it?

Nels: Tephra is anything that erupts from a volcano from the size of ash to blocks the size of cars. We are sampling it to look at Erebus’ past geochemistry and to date it, to better understand the volcano’s past eruptive activity.

Volcanofiles: How do you collect tephra samples? Do you find any blocks the size of cars?

Nels: Fly around in helicopters ‘til we see black stripes on glaciers! We use satellite imagery first to scope out spots, do reconnaissance by helicopter, then sample via chainsaw. The tephra grainsizes here range from less than 30 microns (a micron is a thousandth of a millimetre), to one millimetre.

The black layer in the ice is tephra trapped in Erebus Ice Tongue Glacier. Photo: Nels

Volcanofiles: How exactly does the chainsawing and collection work?

Nels: Each one of the black layers is hopefully an ash layer, so we cut a block of ice out of the glacier, then trim it up to just get the black layer. We throw them in coolers, take them back and melt the ice blocks to extract the tephra.

Nels cutting tephra-bearing ice with a chainsaw. Photo: Meghan Seifert

Loading coolers of ice onto the helicopter. Photo: Nels

This set of coolers was full of ice and tephra from the Terra Nova Saddle, between Erebus and Mount Terror to the east. After melting the ice in big stockpots, Nels pours out the excess water.

Volcanofiles: Is a black layer always ash?

Nels: We also get windblown sediment.  Some places it’s easy to tell because there are melt pits of gravel on the glacier, and it’s not glassy like tephra would be. We have also found places where one ash layer has contaminated another layer, with three chemical signatures in one place.

Volcanofiles: Are these layers only found in glaciers?

Nels: No, there are also layers in the Dry Valleys on the Antarctic continent but it’s much easier to spot tephra in glaciers. Some of these areas will have forty ash layers in one section of blue (glacial) ice, compared to maybe two layers in an equivalent area of the Dry Valleys. The tephra layers in the glaciers are found where ablation (removal of ice from the surface) has brought the ash up from depth.

Travelling by helicopter to the sampling locations have allowed for some spectacular views. This is Victoria Valley in the Dry Valleys. Photo: Nels

 Volcanofiles: Is all the tephra you find from Erebus, and how can you tell?

Nels: All but two ashes we have found are from Erebus. We use an electron microprobe to do chemical analysis of major elements, from which we can discern whether the ash is from Erebus or not. We have two ashes that are not of the normal Erebus lineage. Possible sources are the Pleiades (northwest of us), or West Antarctica (to the east of us).

Volcanofiles: How do you do the dating?

Nels: We use the 40Ar – 39Ar method. It is a proxy for the K-Ar system. In order to use it, we have to irradiate the samples in a nuclear reactor.

Volcanofiles: The quick version: K-Ar dating method relies on the slow natural decay of a radioactive form of potassium, Potassium-40 (40K), into Argon-40 (40Ar) over time. It takes about 1.3 billion years for half of the total amount of 40K to decay (this is the ‘half-life’ of 40K). So, assuming that no new argon can get into the mineral sample, the amount of 40Ar can indicate how much time has passed since the potassium-bearing mineral was formed.

40Ar – 39Ar dating involves irradiating the samples in order to convert the 39K (which is stable and does not decay under normal conditions) to 39Ar, which does not occur naturally. This argon isotope indicates the amount of 39K originally in the sample. Since the usual ratios of different potassium isotopes are known, the amount of 39Ar can also be used to indicate the amount of 40K originally present – so just by measuring the ratios of different argon isotopes, a relative age can be found for the sample.

Volcanofiles: What other sorts of geochemical analysis do you do?

Nels: We do Laser Ablation ICP-MS to look at trace elements, which is another way to understand the evolution of the volcano. Erebus is very stable geochemically – at least over the past 30 000 years it has been fairly chemically stable.

Volcanofiles: What kind of evolution are you expecting to find?

Nels: There is a time where the composition changed from a tephriphonolite to a phonolite. The main part of the project is to date the ash layers – we already know about the different layers but we can constrain them in time.

Volcanofiles: Why is it important to study tephrochronology and tephrostratigraphy?

Nels: It’s important because these ash layers can be traced over large areas and can have large effects on snowmelt. Tephra layers can be used to correlate ice cores and their ages. Erebus doesn’t have any known tephra layers in ice cores, but other volcanoes in Antarctica can be traced across several difference ice cores.

Volcanofiles: So how far away are you finding these Erebus layers?

Nels: We have one layer 200 kilometres away in Manhaul Bay in the Allan Hills, and one in Mount Dewitt which is about 39 000 years old.

Mackay Glacier on the Antarctic continent, with Erebus in the distant background. Photo: Nels

Volcanofiles: This is your second field season here – what were your fieldwork goals  for last year and this year?

Nels: Last year we sampled many different locations to get a good spatial coverage. This year is for collecting more samples to get more dates. We did sample a few new spots that were either previously covered by snow and are now uncovered and locations we didn’t get to last year. There were some this year which we wanted to sample but were covered by snow.

Once most of the melted ice has been poured out, Nels washes the tephra into sample bags

Volcanofiles: How have you found the transition to working in Antarctica and geochemistry, after your work in Hawi’i with lava flows?

Nels: I love it. It’s such a treat to come down here and work. It’s been the experience of a lifetime. It’s a whole different ballgame flying around looking for black spots in the ice and chainsawing them out. You’re only working with a few grams of ash – you have to be a lot more careful. It’s meticulous work. It’s very interesting – it’s a different side of a volcano that I was never exposed to before this.

And finally...tephra samples!

For a published study on Erebus tephrostratigraphy: Harpel, C.J., Kyle, P.R., Dunbar, N.W., 2008. Englacial tephrostratigraphy of Erebus volcano, Antarctica. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 177(3): 549-568.

Erebus science – ice caves

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.

Aaron at work in Cathedral Cave last week. Photo: Nial Peters

Aaron at work in Cathedral Cave last week. Photo: Nial Peters

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.

Ice Tower Ridge on the western side of Erebus.

Ice Tower Ridge on the western side of Erebus - an accessible and concentrated group of ice caves and towers.

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.

Aaron at Sauna cave in 2010

Aaron at Sauna Cave in 2010. Sauna is the warmest of the Erebus caves that Aaron has worked in, at about 40 degrees Celsius. Photo: Nial Peters

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!)

Scalloping at the entrance to Warren Cave. Photo: Nial Peters

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.

Gases coming out of a tower on Ice Tower Ridge. Photo: Nial Peters

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.

Some of the icicles are pretty unusual in shape! Photo: Nial Peters

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.

Aaron, Tehnuka, and the DTS cable in Cathedral. Photo: Nial Peters

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!

Aaron in Cathedral. Photo: Nial Peters

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.

Among the crystals found in the ice caves are hexagonal crystals that can grow up to about 15 cm across. Photo: Nial Peters

An example of needle-like crystals that also occur in some caves – these can be up to a metre in length. Photo: Nial Peters

Directional hoar in Periscope cave. Photo: Aaron Curtis.

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.

Aaron (and his pack) abseiling into Cathedral. Photo: Nial Peters

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…

Aaron about to head back to the camp after an evening working down Cathedral

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.

The light in some of these caves is amazing. Shooting Gallery visit - from left, Clive, Meghan, Aaron, Paige, Nial, Tehnuka. Photo: Nial Peters