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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My preparations for a second round of fieldwork are finally finished. I’m being optimistic this period will be more successful than the last.
Geologically: volcanic activity is currently considerably reduced; Technically: complex and fancy new equipment difficult to master; Metrologically: a hurricane and unusually cloudy ‘dry’ season plus a family emergency have all conspired against me. Their combined efforts have reduced my in-field season from eight weeks to four and a half. One mustn’t be discouraged and forge onwards into the darkness. My weather karma needs to brew up an exceptional period of clear skies for the next 16-18 days.
Wisdom acquired during previous field experience means I’m bringing better supplies to isolate myself from the high altitude sunshine – base camp is at 2554 m (8379 ft). Simple things like extra tarps, an umbrella and bandannas are all essential. My main concern is stocking up on enough food. I refuse to again allow myself the miserable experience of eating tuna and tortillas for lunch and beans or pasta for dinner, every day. For 16 days.. If you’ve never done it, it gets old. Trust me. The plan now includes eggs, bacon, steaks, something sweet, fruit and of course ample Geologist ‘brain juice’.
Maybe I should explain the purpose of this self-imposed isolation. I’m measuring the cycles of sulfur dioxide (SO2) degassing from the summit lava dome and fumarole fields of Volcán de Colima, México (3850m asl) aka Volcán Fuego. Specifically, I’m deploying two EnviCAM 1 UV cameras and a FLYSPEC UV spectrometer. The data being collected is a part of my wider project examining the use of multiparameter monitoring on active volcanoes.
Stay tuned for my next update after returning mid-December from field work!