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.

Thanksgiving dinner at the Observatory in 2002. Photo by Rich Esser
 Bill McIntosh works on a wind-power generating station on the Erebus plateau in 2002. Photo by Dawn Sweeney
 Dawn Sweeney pictured in Indigo Cavern in 2002.
 This is one example of an ice tower that geoscientists believe is created when hot gas escapes from vents and freezes. Within the towers are caves or chambers that typically stay at a constant 1 degree Celsius. Photo courtesy of George Steinmetz, www.georgesteinmetz.com
 The accomodations at the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory are "cozy." Scientists sleep in tents unless storms make the climate too unbearable. Hot water bottles make cold sleeping bags a bit more comfortable.

Despite the amenities, no trip to a mountain top in Antarctica can be considered a vacation. The crew endures the hardships of living and working in extreme environments so they can accomplish ground-breaking science.

One reason Curtis came to New Mexico Tech was to study Erebus’ ice caves. He will be conducting geochemical experiments in the iconoclastic ice towers and ice caves of Erebus. As the volcano leaks gases through vents, the vapor freezes as soon as it hits the frigid Antarctic air. Over time, the frozen gases accrete into hollow towers of ice, some as tall as 30 feet.

“The ice towers are incredible structures,” Curtis said. “We’re not sure how directly volcanism interacts with the towers. No one has figured out exactly how they form.”

Curtis will spend much of his research time in the warm environment of the caves – most of which have an interior temperature of 0 to 5 degrees C. As with all experiments, the month in Antarctica is spent mostly gathering data.

Curtis will deploy a variety of sensors in the caves, testing the gas composition, temperatures, wind speed (or air flow) and the chemical compositions of the ice. He will also have some help with remote sensing of the ice towers. Laura Jones, with assistance from Jed Frechette from the University of New Mexico, will use a LiDAR -- or Light Detection and Ranging -- instruments to map Erebus’ lava lake. Jones will also create 3D images of the ice towers.

“Ground-based LiDAR is a new technique,” she said. “It’s an incredibly powerful tool, but it’s in its infancy. People use LiDAR as a mapping tool, but we can also look at how slopes change with time.”

Curtis and Jones hope to scan the towers twice this year and document changes in their size and shape. Over the course of several years, they hope to continue scanning the towers using LiDAR to further understand the geologic and chemical dynamics that affect the towers.

“Ice towers and ice caves are extremely rare,” Kyle said. “This is just the beginning of our study.”

The Tech team will also take ice cores from the towers to study the chemical composition of the ice walls. In coming years, Curtis expects the study of ice caves to involve biologists studying their microbiology.

“It’s worth emphasizing that these caves are a good analog to Mars,” Curtis said. “The biology may be quite interesting. In the long term, microbiology will be important because of the extreme environment and the UV shielding.”

Jones, a graduate of Indiana University, will also gather data from Erebus’ lava lake in an attempt to learn more about the internal processes that control the volcano.

Kyle compared the volcano to a human body, with lava functioning as the “blood” of the mountain. From visual observation, scientists see the lava lake rising and falling with a 10 minute cycle. Kyle notes that the volcano appears to be breathing.  Jones will use LiDAR measurements to systematically monitor the way Erebus’ breathes.

Kyle said, “Our purely scientific objective is to understand the conduit, or feeder pipe, into the lava lake. It’s always convecting and moving. That’s something you don’t usually see at volcanoes.”

Previous expeditions have gathered gas data from the lava lake. This year, Jones will match LiDAR measurements with temperature and gas composition analyses. From Jones’ surface measurements, geoscientists will further gain more understanding of the active processes at work within the conduit that feeds the lava lake. As the years progress, as technology advances and as more scientists conduct new experiments, a vivid picture of Erebus begins to resolve more clearly.

Melissa Kammerer will focus her efforts on the chemistry of Mount Erebus with a special emphasis on a novel type of salt seen nowhere else on Earth.

“The gas from Erebus is very unusual,” she said. “It’s the most active and southernmost volcano. For more than a hundred years, it’s been sitting there, pouring out gasses; environmentally, it’s quite important.”

Erebus emits aerosols that consist of tiny solid particles. These are deposited around the volcano and can be examined to understand the degassing behavior of the volcano.

Most volcanoes emit gas which is mainly water, with smaller amounts of carbon dioxide. Erebus emissions are unusual with equal amounts of water and carbon dioxide, along with significant amounts of carbon monoxide and trace lelvels of acid gases rich in fluorine and chlorine. Compared to other volcanoes Erebus is very poor in emissions of sulfur, which typically is the third most abundant gas at other volcanoes.

“The plume gas contains sodium chloride, potassium chloride and other weird and wonderful things,” Kyle said.

Kammerer will collect samples from salt deposits with a high-tech device found in the kitchen – a teaspoon. She’ll get a little more scientific with plume samples, using a filter pack to collect aerosols. Once back in Socorro, she’ll analyze the samples using five different analytical methods.

The salt deposits are yellow, but contain no sulphur, Kyle said.

“We’re really curious about how the salts form,” Kammerer said. “It’s very reactive. This is a whole story we’ve not looked at. How do acid gases in the plume react with the rocks and how do the salts form? I’d love to be able to identify this salt.”

Kammerer has taken part in research expeditions to volcanoes in Costa Rica and Peru. She volunteered for the Erebus expedition because she loves volcanoes.

Jones came to Tech to study volcanic rocks in New Mexico but was easily attracted to a project on Erebus.

“I have no idea what I’m getting myself into,” she said.

– NMT –

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Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech