Antarctic Expedition to Erebus Volcano Examines a Lake of Lava

 SOCORRO, N.M. November 12, 2009 – A team of 12 scientists from around the world are preparing for six weeks of research on the active Erebus volcano at the bottom of the Earth.

The Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory sits at 11,000 feet (foreground, behind snow bank) as the volcano steadily steams just 2 kilometers away. Photo by Dawn Sweeney in 2003.
 An aerial view of Mount Erebus, the home base for New Mexico Tech volcano observation in Antarctica. Photo by Phil Kyle
 Dr. Phil Kyle is leading the Mount Erebus expedition again this year. 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of his first trip to Antarctica.
 The Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory crew endures harsh conditions to collect scientific data related to volcanoes, geology, geochemistry and geophysics.
 Beth Bartel and Phil Kyle at work on the crater rim during the 2002 field season. Photo by Rich Esser

This is the first field season of a four-year New Mexico Tech project recently funded by the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs using $499,991 of federal stimulus money.

New Mexico Tech geochemistry professor Dr. Phil Kyle is the principal investigator for the new grant and is organizing the annual expedition to the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory in Antarctica.

“As usual, the science is diverse and there’s no single highlight,” said Kyle, who will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of his first trip to Antarctica in 1969. “We have a lot going on this year, looking at emissions and behavior of the unique permanent lake of lava in the crater of the 12,500-foot-high volcano.”

The Observatory serves as a base of operations for continuous geologic, geochemical and geophysical research.  The volcano is monitored by seismometers, a video camera, infrasound sensors to record the sound of explosions in the lava lake and other sensors to examine ground deformation and weather. Many of the instruments send data to McMurdo Station year-round, where the data is then sent to Socorro. Much of that data is then available on the Internet at the Observatory’s website, which is currently under reconstruction.

Kyle, gas geochemist Dr. Clive Oppenheimer from Cambridge University and geochemist Dr. Nelia Dunbar and geochronologist Dr. Bill McIntosh from the New Mexico Bureau of Geology are the regulars at the Observatory. McIntosh spends most of his time maintaining and upgrading the instruments, sensors and infrastructure.

“We want to upgrade power to the crater rim,” McIntosh said. “Keeping the instruments running 365 days hasn’t succeeded. The problem is three to four months of darkness when there is no solar charging of batteries.”

Observatory scientists and technicians have employed a variety of power supplies – batteries, solar power and wind generators. McIntosh will lead the effort to install seven new wind generators, but he’s not confident that they will withstand the austral winter.

“Commercial wind turbines are not tough enough for the crater rim,” he said. Mount Erebus is in one of the most extreme environments in the world especially during the cold, windy winter months. “Rime ice accumulates on everything, then the high winds throw them out of balance and the turbines tear themselves up. One of these days they’ll build one that’s tough enough.”

Over the years, in addition to the ongoing research, 25 graduate students have undertaken their thesis research at Erebus.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for graduate students to study a unique volcano and learn to work in a challenging environment,” Kyle said.

This year, three Tech graduate students will begin gathering data for their thesis projects. Aaron Curtis, Melissa Kammerer and Laura Jones are all first-year geochemistry master’s students getting their first experience in Antarctica. Their research projects include an overlapping array of remote sensing, data gathering and instrumentation.

Curtis, whose research emphasis is on cave science, will be studying the ice caves and ice towers of Erebus. Kammerer will be examining salts deposited from the volcano's gas plume and will attempt to identify a salt that seems to be unique to Erebus. Jones will examine the physical and cyclic properties of the volcano’s lava lake.

“Most of the research is interrelated, with a focus directed to understanding the conduit beneath the lava lake,” Kyle said. “The gas and aerosols emitted from the lake and the lake’s motion and behavior give us insight into the deeper hidden parts of the volcano.”

The 2009 expedition includes scientists from England and New Zealand. In addition to the 12-member science team, the expedition will also include a four-person film crew from the BBC that will be filming material for a seven-part series, “Frozen Planet,” that is scheduled to air in 2010 or 2011.

The film crew will focus their efforts on following Curtis’ research project and New Mexico Tech’s ongoing effort at Mount Erebus.

The research team will arrive at McMurdo Station in Antarctica on Monday, Nov. 23. The first-timers will spend the first week at McMurdo in “Happy Camper School,” where they will learn how to drive snowmobiles, and take classes in extreme survival, waste management and general living principles.

Starting Monday, Nov. 30, the team will begin assembling at the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory at 11,000 feet, just a short snowmobile ride and hike from the rim of the volcano crater.

For the next month, the Erebus crew will live and conduct research in average temperatures of -20 to -30 degrees C. The observatory has two 16-foot by 24-foot huts – neither of which have true overnight accommodations. The researchers’ “private quarters” are unheated tents designed to block the wind. Kyle said sleeping in a tent in Antarctica isn’t that terrible.

“The worst part is getting into a cold sleeping bag. Imagine getting into a bed with cold sheets,” Kyle said. “It’s just like that … except 10 times worse.” Over the years hot-water bottles have become the vogue and are used to help warm the sleeping bag and feet. 

When the weather turns especially nasty, they have the option of sleeping on the floor of the “living hut.” December is “summer” in the southern hemisphere, but Antarctica is still at the bottom of the planet and -65 degree C temperatures are not uncommon on the high Antarctic ice sheet.

In addition to conducting science and overseeing the instrumentation, Kyle considers it his responsibility to make sure everyone enjoys their time at Erebus. The observatory is stocked with plenty of food and drink, board games, cards and movies. Everyone also brings plenty of reading material as well.