The Earth’s Newest Secret: Fundamental Changes to What We Know About How Volcanoes Work

Lead Image: Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland erupting at night.

Recent discoveries from Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall eruptions alter what we know about how volcanoes work.

Learning something that fundamentally changes how we understand our world doesn’t happen very often. But for University of California, Santa Barbara Earth scientist Matthew Jackson and the thousands of volcanologists across the globe, such a revelation has just occurred.

While sampling magma from the Fagradalsfjall volcano in Iceland, Jackson and his colleagues uncovered a process far more dynamic than anyone had assumed in the two centuries that scientists have been studying volcanoes.

“Just when I think we’ve gotten close to figuring out how these volcanoes work, we get a big surprise,” he said.

Fagradalsfjall is a tuya volcano formed in the Last Glacial Period on the Reykjanes Peninsula, around 25 miles (40 km) from Reykjavík, Iceland.

The geologists’ findings were published on September 14 in the journal Nature.

10,000 Years in a Month

Thanks to a sabbatical, a pandemic, and 780 years of melting subterranean rock, Jackson was in the right place and time to witness the birth of Fagradalsfjall, a fissure in the lowlands of southwest Iceland that split and exploded with magma in March 2021. By that time, everyone on the Reykjanes Peninsula was ready for some kind of eruption, he said.

“The earthquake swarm was intense,” he said of the 50,000 or so temblors — some magnitude 4 and higher — that shook the earth for weeks and kept most of Iceland’s population on edge.

However, the sleep deprivation was worth it, and crankiness soon turned into fascination as lava bubbled up and spattered from the hole in the ground of the relatively empty Geldingadalur region. Both scientists and visitors alike flocked to the area to see the newest section of the Earth’s crust form. From the start, they were able to get close enough to sample the lava continuously, due to the lava’s slow flow and ample winds that blew the noxious gases away.

Volcanic eruption of Mount Fagradalsfjall in Iceland.

Led by Sæmundur Halldórsson at the University of Iceland, the geologists were trying to find out “how deep in the mantle the magma originated, how far beneath the surface it was stored before the eruption, and what was happening in the reservoir both before and during the eruption.” Questions like these, though fundamental, are actually some of the biggest challenges for those who study volcanoes. This is due to the unpredictability of the eruptions, the danger and extreme conditions, and the remoteness and inaccessibility of many active sites.

“The assumption was that a magma chamber fills up slowly over time, and the magma becomes well mixed,” Jackson explained. “And then it drains over the course of the eruption.” As a result of this well-defined two-step process, he added, those studying volcanic eruptions do not expect to see significant changes in the chemical composition of the magma as it flows out of the earth.

“This is what we see at Mount Kīlauea, in Hawaii,” he said. “You’ll have eruptions that go on for years, and there will be minor changes over time.

“But in Iceland, there was more than a factor of 1,000 higher rates of change for key chemical indicators,” Jackson continued. “In a month, the Fagradalsfjall eruption showed more compositional variability than the Kīlauea eruptions showed in decades. The total range of chemical compositions that were sampled at this eruption over the course of the first-month span the entire range that has ever erupted in southwest Iceland in the last 10,000 years.”

Night view of a volcanic eruption at Mount Fagradalsfjall in Iceland.

This variability is a result of subsequent batches of magma flowing into the chamber from deeper in the mantle, according to the scientists.

“Picture a lava lamp in your mind,” Jackson said. “You have a hot lightbulb at the bottom, it heats up a blob and the blob rises, cools, and then sinks. We can think of the Earth’s mantle — from the top of the core to under the tectonic plates — operating much like a lava lamp.” He went on to explain that as the heat causes regions of the mantle to rise and plumes form and move buoyantly upward toward the surface, molten rock from these plumes accumulates in chambers and crystallizes, gases escape through the crust, and the pressure builds until the magma finds a way to escape.

“Just when I think we’ve gotten close to figuring out how these volcanoes work, we get a big surprise.” — Matthew Jackson

As described in the paper, what erupted for the first few weeks was the expected “depleted” magma type that had been accumulating in the reservoir, which is located about 10 miles (16 km) below the surface. However, by April, evidence showed that the chamber was being recharged by deeper, “enriched” type melts with a different composition. These were sourced from a different region of the upwelling mantle plume beneath Iceland. This new magma had a less modified chemical composition, with a higher magnesium content and a higher proportion of carbon dioxide gas. This indicated that fewer gases from this deeper magma had escaped. By May, the magma that dominated the flow was the deeper, enriched type. These rapid, extreme changes in magma composition at a plume-fed hotspot, they say, “have never before been observed in near real-time.”

However, Jackson said that these changes in composition may not be so rare. It’s just that opportunities to sample eruptions at such an early stage are not common. For example, prior to the 2021 Fagradalsfjall eruption, the most recent eruptions on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula occurred eight centuries ago. He suspects that this new activity signals the start of a new, possibly centuries-long volcanic cycle in southwest Iceland.

“We often don’t have a record of the first stages of most eruptions because these get buried by lava flows from the later stages,” he said. This project, according to the researchers, allowed them to see for the first time a phenomenon that was thought to be possible but had never been witnessed directly.

For the scientists, this result presents a “key constraint” in how models of volcanoes around the world will be built. However, it is not yet clear how representative this phenomenon is of other volcanoes, or what role it plays in triggering an eruption. For Jackson, it’s a reminder that the Earth still has secrets to yield.

“So when I go out to sample an old lava flow, or when I read or write papers in the future,” he said, “it’ll always be on my mind: This might not be the complete story of the eruption.”

Reference: “Rapid shifting of a deep magmatic source at Fagradalsfjall volcano, Iceland” by Sæmundur A. Halldórsson, Edward W. Marshall, Alberto Caracciolo, Simon Matthews, Enikő Bali, Maja B. Rasmussen, Eemu Ranta, Jóhann Gunnarsson Robin, Guðmundur H. Guðfinnsson, Olgeir Sigmarsson, John Maclennan, Matthew G. Jackson, Martin J. Whitehouse, Heejin Jeon, Quinten H. A. van der Meer, Geoffrey K. Mibei, Maarit H. Kalliokoski, Maria M. Repczynska, Rebekka Hlín Rúnarsdóttir, Gylfi Sigurðsson, Melissa Anne Pfeffer, Samuel W. Scott, Ríkey Kjartansdóttir, Barbara I. Kleine, Clive Oppenheimer, Alessandro Aiuppa, Evgenia Ilyinskaya, Marcello Bitetto, Gaetano Giudice and Andri Stefánsson, 14 September 2022, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04981-x

Kiran Fernandes

Kiran is your friendly neighbourhood tech enthusiast who's passionate about all kinds of tech, goes crazy over 4G and 5G networks, and has recently sparked an interest in sci-fi and cosmology.

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