Tag Archives: fieldwork

Erebus science – carbon dioxide and caves

Hut Cave

Hut Cave

We’re sitting on an airforce Hercules on the way back to Christchurch. An 8-hour flight is an excellent opportunity to catch up on sleep, data processing, and blog posts.

Erebus itself is quite an unusual volcano – it is home to one of the world’s few persistent lava lakes; large crystals, also called megacrysts, of anorthoclase feldspar are found in its lava; and it is one of a handful of ice-covered volcanoes where flank degassing results in the formation of ice caves (other examples include Mt Rainier and Mt St Helens in the US). As we mentioned in a post a few years back, these ice caves are interesting to scientists for a number of reasons.

While we know of active glaciated volcanoes in the present day, there have been times in the past when most of the earth is thought to have been ice-covered. One theory on how the world ‘defrosted’ is that volcanic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions caused warming of the atmosphere. One way to better understand what happens to CO2 coming out of glaciated volcanoes is to measure it at a place like Erebus. Since much of the gas that is escaping seems to be associated with heat and steam, we find steaming warm ground, and ice caves that have been shaped by escaping gases – sometimes together with ice towers from steam freezing around gas vents.

A second reason for our interest in Erebus is more local – how does the flank degassing relate to the activity we see at the summit (which includes the lava lake(s) and a number of fumaroles)? Erebus is in an area where the lithosphere is thinning as it is pulled apart along the West Antarctic Rift system – specifically, it is associated with the Terror Rift – so we might expect to see more gas escaping along fractures related to the rifting. But where is the gas really coming from? Is it escaping at shallow depths from the magma that supplies the lava lake? Or is it sourced at much greater depths, escaping from the mantle and finding pathways directly to the surface? Then, as it approaches the surface, with what else can it interact – is there substantial water underground that adds to the gas emitted at the surface?

Our work in these two field seasons is to start answering some of these questions by collecting and analysing gas samples from different sites around the volcano. We sampled gas from fumaroles near the main crater rim, down through warm ground, to ice caves in the lower part of the summit caldera. These sites span about four or five hundred metres vertically, but will hopefully also give us an idea of how emissions vary with distance  from the lava lake.

Western Crater and Ice Tower Ridge viewed from Side Crater

Western Crater and Ice Tower Ridge viewed from Side Crater – note how the ice towers and the two craters are aligned

We used a number of sampling methods, partly so we could measure different things, and partly to keep our bases covered in case something went wrong! One set-up for gas sampling is a soil probe connected to a series of copper tubes, which in turn connect to a pump. We usually connected the output to a glass vial that can collect another 12 mL of gas. The pump was left running to flush out ambient air, so that the gas we wanted to measure could fill up the tubes. When we returned, it was time to crimp the ends of the copper tubes. This cold welds them shut and stop the gas escaping.

Soil probe with attached copper tubes and pump - the yellow tape is to lay out a grid for a different type of measurement with a CO2 flux meter.

Soil probe with attached copper tubes and pump – the yellow tape is to lay out a grid for a different type of measurement with a CO2 flux meter.

Another type of measurement was carbon dioxide flux. Unlike the copper tube and glass vial samples, which we must analyse back in the lab, this CO2 analyser immediately tells us the concentration and flux of carbon dioxide. The cylindrical chamber is put on the ground and it measures the changing concentration of CO2, using this to calculate flux (i.e. the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of time). By taking flux measurements at points along a grid, we can extrapolate to get an idea of the rate at which CO2 is emitted from the volcano’s flanks more generally. The main technical challenge here was keeping the instrument warm enough to operate. After one incident of emergency rewarming inside Lyra’s jacket, I ended up making it a sort of tea cosy out of two rock bags separated by a layer of bubble wrap.

Here the accumulation chamber is being used to collect gas in a bag, so that it can be taken back to the hut for analysis on the spectrometer.

Here the accumulation chamber is being used to collect gas in a bag, so that it can be taken back to the hut for analysis on the spectrometer (see below).

The CO2 flux meter and soil probe can both be used to collect gas in a vial or in a special plastic bag. The samples in the bags don’t last long, but can be used with an instrument that we were given a last minute opportunity by the DCO to take along with us  – an infrared isotope ratio spectrometer. We set this up in the garage hut and it could, in theory, be used to measure carbon isotope ratios. While a first look suggests some good data, we also had enough technical issues to keep us busy in the garage on bad weather days.

Isotopes are variation on an atom distiguished by the number of neutrons they contain. Having more neutrons does not affect the charge of the atom, but does affect its mass. Carbon has two stable isotopes that occur naturally (as well as carbon 14, which is radioactive). Of the two stable isotopes, carbon 13 has greater mass than carbon 12, because its atoms each contain one more neutron. Carbon from different sources has a different balance of isotopes depending on how and whether it fractionates – that is, how it separates according to mass. Carbon dioxide from deep down in the mantle usually has a relatively heavy isotope ratio, whereas if it undergoes phase changes, such as becoming dissolved and then exolving into a gas again, the heavier isotopes may be separated out. So by looking at the isotope composition of the carbon dioxide, we can start to understand where it has come from and how it has been modified, helping us to address some of those questions I mentioned at the start, about the depths from which the gas is sourced and how it interacts with water.

Also headed back to Christchurch today were a case of copper tubes, glass vials, and sampling bottles. These, we will analyse back in the lab for gas and isotope composition.

Erebus fieldwork – gas sampling

We are now back at McMurdo after two and a half weeks in the field. This post was started partway through our season. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to finish and post it in the few hours that the internet connection was up – apologies to our readers for the delay (it’s a harsh continent!)

Our campsite at Lower Erebus Hut

Our campsite at Lower Erebus Hut

Our field camp was at Lower Erebus Hut (LEH), on the north side of Erebus. Most of our work, however, was a half hour snowmobile drive around the caldera, at Ice Tower Ridge. This is a line of ice towers and caves that extends southwest from an old Erebus caldera rim up to the summit area. We are looking at gas compositions from this area to see how they vary with distance from the main crater – but this first post will focus more on the practicalities of our work.

Ice Tower Ridge, Erebus

Ice Tower Ridge, Erebus

Having spent most of my previous two seasons working at LEH and the summit area, Ice Tower Ridge is still fairly new to me. None of the three members of my team are familiar with the area either, so a large part of a day in the field can be spent driving to the site, trying to find cave entrances, and choosing a good place to position instruments.

It usually falls to our mountaineer, Lyra Pierotti, to make sure we can safely access a cave. She often goes ahead to check whether the ice beneath us is sturdy, and to decide how best to enter – whether we can simply crawl in, or whether crampons or ropes might be required. Having someone to get us to our sites makes it a lot easier for us to focus on getting our science equipment set up!

Heroin Tower: Lyra has set up an anchor above the entrance (the small hole into which the ropes disappear). She has already belayed Tobias into the tower, and I’m about to follow. We climb up to the edge and then in, wearing crampons and using ice axes.

Heroin Tower: Lyra has set up an anchor above the entrance (the small hole into which the ropes disappear). She has already belayed Tobias into the tower, and I’m about to follow. We climb up to the edge and then in, wearing crampons and using ice axes.

Once inside, we must find suitable places to set up our gas sampling equipment and measure carbon dioxide flux. This can involve some exploration – looking for soft ground or a vent to place soil probes for gas sampling, checking soil temperatures, and ensuring the site is safe to access.

Crawling around an ice cave in search of a good sampling location

Crawling around an ice cave in search of a good sampling location

One spot I found was a deep hole with warm air coming out at up to 6 m/s, warmer than the cave air by over ten degrees Celsius.

Anemometer in front of large gas vent

Anemometer in front of large gas vent

It is quite warm in the caves – often above freezing, compared to -20°C or lower outside. This can be nice to work in – except that it is also much more humid in the caves, and all the liquid water dripping on us freezes rapidly when we head back out. Not all of our work is done in the ice caves, either. We are also working outside to take gas measurements in areas of warm ground, where heat and gas move more diffusely through the soil.

The Erebus ice caves and geothermal areas are home to unique micro-organisms. This means we do not enter any caves that are pristine (have not been entered previously) or certain areas of warm ground. We also need to take precautions to reduce contamination that in some sites involve sterilising the instruments that come into contact with the ground, and in others require protective clothing.

Spot the scientist: Here, my supervisor Tobias is working on some warm ground just above Ice Tower Ridge. He is wearing a Tyvek suit and setting up a sampling system that he has sterilised using isopropyl alcohol.

Spot the scientist: Here, my supervisor Tobias is working on some warm ground just above Ice Tower Ridge. He is wearing a protective suit and setting up a sampling system that he has sterilised using isopropyl alcohol.

Some of our work doesn’t require so much preparation, however! One of the sites nearby, Hut Cave, is a good place to work during bad weather since it’s just a few minutes’ walk from camp. I made a couple of trips out to place and retrieve a soil probe, with some copper tubes and a pump attached to collect gas.

Skylight in Hut Cave

Skylight in Hut Cave

Carbon dioxide levels can be high inside some of the caves, so it’s good to have a handheld monitor and someone for backup when investigating the smaller passageways and crevices in search of gas vents.

Lyra keeps an eye on carbon dioxide levels in the cave

Lyra keeps an eye on carbon dioxide levels in the cave

We made it into about five cave systems this season, and set up multiple sampling sites in some of them. We also spent time above ground collecting gas in areas of warm ground and around the crater rim. Collecting the samples is just the first step, though – I’ll be writing more about what we’re actually looking for in the next post!

Searching for a gas vent...

Searching for a gas vent…

Fieldwork preparations in Antarctica

As we are just a couple of days out from our planned departure for Erebus, we are finishing off training and testing out some of our equipment to make sure it will work in the field.

On Saturday, we went out for crevasse rescue training, along with another team. They will be working on a glacier, so the training is a useful precaution – in our case, although the upper slopes of Erebus are crevasse-free, our work comes with a small risk of breaking through the top of an ice cave. We may also need to use ropes to access some of the caves.

In the classroom, we went through some knots, principles of crevasse rescue, and self-rescue using prusiks, which are friction hitches tied around a rope. These can attach you securely to the rope when your weight is hanging on them, but slide freely when they are not loaded (usually when your weight is being held by a second prusik). We then headed out to the simulator – an artificial crevasse – a short way by hagglund from McMurdo. Unfortunately, photos are a little scarce as I was busy trying to learn things! We practised self-arrest (to stop ourselves from sliding, or being pulled, into a crevasse) using ice axes, creating anchors to which a rope can be attached and used to rescue a crevasse-fall victim, then put all the elements from our training together to pull either ‘Mr Orange’ or a heavy bag out of the crevasse.

Mr Orange was our unfortunate crevasse-fall victim

‘Mr Orange’ the mannequin, our unfortunate crevasse-fall victim

The first part, which was hard enough, was self-arresting with a bag about half my own weight falling down the crevasse attached to the rope behind me. It was then up to my supervisor to secure a second rope into the snow, set up a pulley system, and rescue the bag (which had, by then, hit the bottom). I am not yet confident that I could rescue anyone from a crevasse or ice cave (unless it were myself), so here’s hoping for a safe field season!

The other team undertook the rescue of Mr Orange - the person on the ground has self-arrested and is holding Mr Orange's weight while the other anchors the rope that will be used to rescue the mannequin.

The other team undertook the rescue of Mr Orange – the person on the ground has self-arrested and is holding Mr Orange’s weight while the other anchors the rope that will be used to rescue the mannequin.

It has been snowing a lot this weekend, so I put off going for a walk (until after I finish this post!) and spent another day in the office today.

USAP shuttles getting covered in snow this morning

USAP shuttles getting covered in snow this morning

Our preparation for fieldwork included putting together the system that we would use for gas sampling. This starts with a soil probe, which will go into a vent. Flexible tubing connects it to a series of copper tubes that will be used to collect gas so that we can measure its composition, and analyse helium and other noble gases. A tiny pump draws air through this system so that the air already inside will slowly be flushed out, and the gas from the vent will fill the tubes. On the other side of the pump, some glass vials will collect the outflowing gas for carbon isotope analysis. All of these samples will need to come back to UNM for analyses.

The sampling setup on a lab bench, with water at the intake end to help us estimate how long it takes to fill the system with new gas

It turns out gas geochemistry is really all about finding the right size of tubing to fit all the other tubing

We tried testing the system with the soil probe in a beaker of water. We wanted to find out how long it took for the air in the system to be flushed out, which in this case would be when it filled up with water. It’s much harder for the pump to draw up water than air, though, so while we found a few leaks to deal with, we didn’t manage to time the flushing. Instead, we found the volume of the sampling train by filling it with water. It’s about 120 mL so, at a pumping rate of 10 mL air/min, it would take (in theory) 12 minutes to flush the system. In practise, we think that flushing for a couple of hours should be enough to ensure that we are measuring gas from the vent and not the ambient air.

After dinner, I went back to pack things up…

Two of the three cases full of equipment that are coming up to Erebus with us

Two of the three cases full of equipment that are coming up to Erebus with us

…and finally, I can head out into the sunshine for a walk, before a busy day tomorrow – getting our cargo ready to fly, more snowmobile training, and packing up our personal gear.

View from lab window

Tantalising view from lab window

McMurdo station, Antarctica: 2015-16 Erebus field season

The Volcanofiles have had a long break between fieldwork posts, and there are a few more days to come before I get into the field, so this season’s blog posts will start with today’s non-scientific update on our trip thus far, and some photos from Ross Island, where we are based.

It’s exciting to be back on Ross Island after four years. A few things are different this time around. Instead of working on gas emissions from Erebus lava lake, we are collecting gas samples in the ice caves. Last time, with G-081, (who will also be heading up in January this season) I was in a group of about twelve. Now, I’m part of a much smaller group (event number G-411) – just me, my supervisor, and a mountaineer to help us in the field. This means I’m much more involved in planning our fieldwork, and realising just how much effort goes into supporting Antarctic science.

Since arriving, we’ve had meetings and training to cover several topics, including communications, field safety, working at altitude, and our environmental responsibilities. I’ll go into more detail on the Antarctic Specially Protected Area, or ASPA, and environmental concerns around the ice caves, in a later post.

We completed our food pull today with the help of field centre staff here, so that we have supplies both for the acclimatisation camp at Fang glacier, and for Lower Erebus Hut, or LEH. We also went through the camping and caving equipment that we are borrowing for the trip. For those who didn’t follow our previous trips to Erebus, we spend a couple of nights at an intermediate altitude, in order to help us acclimatise to the lower oxygen availability. Fang is a tent camp, with no buildings, so people from here at McMurdo have to go and set it up every season before science events like ours start coming through. LEH has two huts – one where we cook and work, and a ‘garage hut’ with tools and storage. We can set up our own tents when we arrive.

Now we’re hoping for good weather on Monday, so that Fang camp can be put in. Apparently this was due to happen last week, but weather conditions have intervened. Once Fang is in, we can head up – in the meantime, the carpenters will be opening up Lower Erebus Hut. As you’ve probably gathered, there are a lot of people working hard to make the research down here happen.

Tomorrow, we are planning some crevasse rescue training to prepare for our work in the ice caves. This is weather dependent, of course – as I write this I can see the islands of the Ross Archipelago to the south appearing and disappearing due to what I think is snow! An update on our training will follow, but in the meantime, here are a few photos from our trip so far.

We travelled from Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the USA, where I started a postdoctoral research position in August, to Christchurch, New Zealand, where we were issued clothing and waited for our flight south.

Clothing issue in Christchurch: The parka is called a 'Big Red' and identifies us quite clearly as being with the US Antarctic Program. Although other boots are available, I asked for the blue boots as I've used them before (in fact, I haven't used them since arriving in McMurdo). My favourite item is the wind pants, which are both comfortable and excellent against the wind.

Clothing issue in Christchurch. Wind pants are my favourite items: both comfortable and excellent wind protection.

After an early morning start the next day, we got on a C-17 at Christchurch airport, and spent a few hours getting to Ross Island.

Sea ice from C-17 window

Sea ice viewed from from C-17 airplane window
(Christchurch – Ross Island flight 16 November 2015)

One difference from my previous seasons is that we landed out at Pegasus air field, an hour’s drive from McMurdo on ‘Ivan the Terrabus’, as opposed to the sea ice runway that we used in the past, which was much closer to McMurdo.

Disembarking the C-17 at Pegasus airfield. Those in red parkas are US Antarctic program participants; those in orange and black parkas are from Antarctica New Zealand, who share our flights

Disembarking the C-17 at Pegasus airfield. Those in red parkas are US Antarctic program participants; those in orange and black parkas are from Antarctica New Zealand, who share our flights.

Unfortunately, I was so disoriented on getting off the plane that I’m not actually sure which direction Erebus is in relative to anything else in these photos!

Ivan the Terrabus takes us back to McMurdo station (and drops the Kiwis off at Scott Base en route).

Ivan the Terrabus takes us back to McMurdo station (and drops the Kiwis off at Scott Base en route).

McMurdo is as built up as ever. We sleep in dorm buildings, work in the Crary lab where we have lab and office space, go to the ‘galley’ for meals, with visits to places like the Science Support Centre for training, or the Berg Field Centre for our field gear. We spend most of our time indoors – but if you remember to look up (provided the visibility is not too bad) it still looks like Antarctica.

Looking south from McMurdo towards the continent.

Looking south from McMurdo

When the weather is good, it’s easy enough to take a walk out of town. Last night I visited Scott Base, which was a chance to meet some fellow Kiwis.

IMGP0081

Scott Base viewed from the road to McMurdo. The interesting ice formations behind the base are the pressure ridges formed at the boundary between the sea and shelf ice.

The main reason for the walk, though, was to get outside and find some nice views…

South from Scott Base - pressure ridges in the foreground, where sea ice and shelf ice meet; probably White Island in the background.

South from Scott Base – pressure ridges in the foreground; probably White Island in the background.

…including a first look at Erebus.

Erebus from Scott Base road

Erebus from Scott Base road

If you squint, you may be able to see the summit cone and a tiny plume coming out of it…but in any case, please keep an eye on the blog. We hope to be reporting from up there in a week or so.

Epic Journey to Paektu volcano, North Korea: Or, How to Service a Seismometer in -12 °C

Just two months ago this August, Volcanofile Kayla ventured along with volcanologist (and Volcanofile PhD supervisor) Dr. Clive Oppenheimer and seismologist Dr. James Hammond to a remote volcano that straddles the North Korea-China political border.

IMG_1207
Peering into the caldera of Mt. Paektu this August (photo credit: Kayla Iacovino/The Volcanofiles)

The gigantic 7 km-wide caldera that hosts a deep Lake Chon was created about a century ago in one of the largest volcanic eruptions to occur on Earth in the last 2,000 years. A few years ago, the volcano started acting up after decades of quiescence. It awoke with a seismic crisis that lasted from 2002-2005. The new rumblings caused anxiety in the region, since little was known about the slumbering giant Paektu.

So, the Mount Paektu Geoscientific Experiment, a UK-US-DPRK collaboration, was born, and after two years of bureaucracy, the international team made it to the DPRK along with a set of seismometers and empty sample bags. The trip was a great success, thanks to extensive support from North Korean scientists and officials. Not too long after the team’s return, however, it was discovered that some of the seismometers were acting up.

“We only have these seismometers for a year,” says Kayla Iacovino, Volcanofile and PhD student working at Paektu, “so, it’s imperative that we get as much data as possible from all of the stations.” Just this month, seismologist James Hammond set off on an epic adventure to service those stations. Why so epic? Paektu, while temperate and quite agreeable in August, is known for some of the most extreme weather on Earth. What was a picturesque, lush area in summer quickly became a white, frozen mountain peak only passable with the right gear.

Paektu_crater_winter
James Hammond’s view of the Paektu crater covered in fresh October snow (photo credit: James Hammond)

“I am back in Pyongyang after a trip that can only be described as epic,” Hammond wrote in an email to his UK-based team. “It was very challenging both physically and mentally, but the good news is that all our stations are now working.”

Paektu_winter
(photo credit: James Hammond)

The project was made possible with help from AAAS, the Royal Society in London, the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP), and Pyongyang International Information of New Technology and Economy Center (PIINTEC), a DPRK non-governmental and non-profit organization that organizes international exchanges and cooperation.

Follow the team on twitter:
James Hammond @joshammond
Kayla Iacovino @kaylai
Clive Oppenheimer @ultraplinian
The Volcanofiles @TheVolcanofiles

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.

Villarrica day 3 – First Summit day

Wednesday February 8th was the day that the first group would summit Villarrica. The plan: Summit Team (Kayla, Kelby, and Tehnuka) would leave the house early and ascend to the top of the volcano carrying a filterpack, traversing DOAS, and sun photometer, along with our guide, Tomas. The Ground Team (Nial and Yves) would be stationed at Los Crateres gathering data with a UV camera, scanning DOAS, stationary DOAS, and HD video camera.

The summit to the crater is a 2-4 hour hike (depending on how fast you can go up a steep slope) and requires a ski lift followed by a long slog up a rocky slope, then about an hour hiking up the icy glaciers with crampons and ice axes. We began early in the morning, arriving at the bottom of the ski lift at about 8am packed down with gear, helmets, gas masks, and climbing equipment. The hike was much less strenuous than any of us anticipated, and it offerred an astouding view of the surrounding lowlands.

The ski lift saves about an hour of hiking time at the beggining of the ascent

The summit team made it to the top in about 3 hours time and began setting up equipment. Due to park regulations, we could only remain at the rim until 3pm, so we had to work fast. Tehnuka got to work setting up her filter pack. This instrument collects particles and acid gasses direction from the plume. The H2S from Villarrica is quite strong, and sitting directly in the plume for a few hours requires the use of full face gas masks.

Tehnuka measuring windspeed at the filter pack site on the crater rim

The filter pack set up in the plume

Kelby started by doing walking traverses with a DOAS beneath the volcanic plume. The night before, we rigged up what we call the DOAS helmet. We strapped a spectrometer to the back of Nial´s caving helmet, and kelby wore that atop his head while holding the laptop collecting the data and walking beneath the plume. It makes the rocky hike a bit exciting when you are not able to move your head — this meant stumbling over rocks (can´t look down) and blanking random passerbys asking what we were up to (can´t stop moving or look to the side to say hello).

Kelby doing a DOAS traverse beneath the plume

Meanwhile, Kayla was moving around on the crater rim gathering sun photometer measurements. This instrument looks at the incoming light from the sun and how it is scatterred by the plume. By looking at the change in irradiance of sunlight in 5 different wavelengths, you can back out information on particle and aerosol size distribution within the plume.

The Ground Team stayed at the Los Crateres site all day and got what might just be some stunning data. The conditions from that site were good for several hours. Now, we have to combine all of our data to see how it matches up!

Villarrica day 1 – First data day

Monday was “Day One” on Villarrica – time to collect some good data! We woke up early to a nice view of the volcano from the observatory and split off into two groups: Kelby & Yves were the Los Crateres group and Tehnuka, Nial, & Kayla were the Glaciar Turbio group.

Glaciar Turbio

Since the Glaciar Turbio site was inaccessible the day before, Kayla acted as a Spanish interpreter and talked with one of the vertedero workers (see “Day 0” post) to sort out exactly where we were meant to be going. The route was to be down an unmarked trail through some stunning waterfalls. The worker pointed us in the right direction, but the trip ended up being somewhat of a bushwhacking adventure that Kelby might classify as a “boondoggle”.

Map of our field site locations

The road leading to the trailhead quickly turned too rough for our low clearance Hyundai 5-door to handle, so we parked the car and began our hike down the road. By the time we reached our parking spot, we had already passed several junctions not marked on our map. Hopefully we were in the right place. The plume was straight overhead – a good place for it to be for our scans – and the sky was clear, so we decided to take some measurements even though we were quite far (5 km or so) from the volcano.

Morning DOAS site looking for SO2 in the volcanic plume

After a half hour of scans we walked along what appeared to be a logging road for a while until we decided that we should simply head towards the volcano. We knew where we wanted to end up, and we had our GPS and map in hand. No problem. We soon found ourselves at the edge of a steep cliff overlooking a gorgeous view of Villarrica towering over a gorge filled with large cascades. What a sight!

A truly gorgeous fieldwork site!

The problem? The Glaciar Turbio site was at the bottom of said cliff and up the river. Time to begin bushwhacking our way through some bamboo forest and down an arroyo leading to the river at the bottom of the gorge. With some time and effort, we made it. We had an absolutely incredible view of the amazing landscape. Down by the river, we set up the DOAS for more scans while we ate lunch.

This would be a good site to scan the plume for now, but we still were not at our intended Glaciar Turbio site. And we still hadn’t found the unmarked trail shown on our trekking map. We left the DOAS to scan away for a bit while we scouted out how to get further up river.

We quickly found that there was no way to get up river on the side we were currently on, and we hadn’t seen anywhere to cross – at all spots, the river was much too wide and fast. Heading back down river, we were quickly dead-ended again with no way to cross the river. Surely, the unmarked trail was on the far side of the river, but we had no way to get to it.

By mid-afternoon, we decided that it was time to start heading back, so we packed our gear and bushwhacked our way back to the logging road. We never made it to Glaciar Turbio in the end (our best guess one possible wrong turn on the way to the trail head), but we did get a bit of good data and saw an amazing place!

Los Crateres

After hauling and stashing two car batteries and some tripods at the Los Crateres site, the hike up was much more enjoyable this time around. Kelby and Yves brought up the UV camera and two DOAS spectrometers with them to the site. With a nice view of the pume all day long, it looks like Los Crateres will be a permanent base camp for us.

Yves with a mass of cables for setting up instrumets at Los Crateres

Over the next few days, someone will be stationed at Los Crateres while another group either goes on more recon near Glaciar Turbio or up to the crater rim.

Afar and Erta ‘Ale: about to leave!

A quick update before we head north today. We’ve spent the last three days in Addis Ababa, attending the Magmatic Rifting and Active Volcanism conference. It is a milestone for the Afar Rift consortium, of which the Volcanofiles’ fellow PhD student and officemate, Talfan Barnie, is a member. We’ll be posting more on his work later. For the Volcanofiles, it has been exciting to hear so much about a region in which none of us have worked previously.

In between conference events and travelling around the city, we have been getting together our equipment for the fieldwork on Erta ‘Ale. We’ll go into more detail on the instruments in later posts, but they include a thermal and a video camera, both of which will be pointed at the lava lake; a filter pack for capturing gas and particle information; and a UV spectrometer which is primarily for sulphur dioxide measurements. The field trip schedule gives us two nights and a day at the top of the volcano, so we are more likely to run out of batteries than to run out of time!

We are unlikely to have any internet access for the next nine days, but will be putting up photos and blog posts when we get back.

Return from 17 days alone on Fuego

I left for camp on November 30th with the assistance of two “volunteers”, Momo and Szabolcs. I’m quite sure they only agreed to help because I may not have fully explained the work to be accomplished. 😉 We carried three jugs of water (20L each) plus two UV cameras and all of my food and supplies for 18+ days. You always pack more food and water than necessary to plan for emergencies and/or changes of plan. After several hours and roundtrips, we successfully moved all the equipment 600 meters from the truck to base camp. You’re probably thinking: “600 meters? That’s not very far!”. Ask those guys if it’s far. They spent the evening camping with me before departing the next morning for civilization. Lucky them, because I see no one for the next 16 days.

Over the next day, I setup base camp and situate the cameras in a slightly different location than before. I need to consider my movement around camp and avoid tripping hazards. It would be difficult to explain how an expensive piece of equipment broke because I fell on it… I kept imaging tripping over a UV camera and ending up at the bottom of the canyon that covers the northern side of my camp.

Over the coming days, I proceeded to collect data on the SO2 degassing regime. Unfortunately, due to the reduced activity, the amount of data isn’t as robust as anticipated. This is how field science works. We plan, collect supplies and execute an expedition to the best of our abilities. But, no matter how superb our best laid plans, the weather and the volcano always holds the joker. My weather karma held with only a few days of cloudy/wet weather but my volcano karma must be weak. What the local residents of Colima are thankful for (a quite volcano) drives us scientists a bit batty. Reduced activity, and therefore reduced monitoring signals, makes it significantly more difficult to decipher the signs potentially heralding the onset of another eruption phase.

On the 16th of December Szabolcs, Jamie and several Colima students arrived to help me carry the equipment back to the truck staging area. Unfortunately, this time we couldn’t leave any equipment. All five truck batteries, five tripods, five solar panels, three large waterproof containers, two UV cameras plus all of my personal equipment were carried down without too much grumbling and only one near mutiny. At least it was downhill..

I’ve now returned to Great Britain to recuperate and begin working on my copious amounts of data. I’ll also be working on final planning for our research group’s trip to Chile in January. Stayed tuned for updates on my data processing and of course Chile!