Edinburgh has lots of great pubs, and we went to one of my favourites, which is Teuchters in the west end. It always has Jarl which is (as we say in Scotland) a good ‘session ale’. I mention this purely in the shameless hope that the bar staff in Teuchters read this and provide me with a free ale or two.
After that sublime first sip of Jarl the Q&A session continued. I have decided to illustrate some of what we chatted about with a few relevant images. You had to be there to appreciate the artistry on the beer mats and scraps of paper….
Q. So why does this dyke intrusion you told me about not just force its way to the surface and erupt? Is something stopping it?
A. Well the magma in the dyke intrusion is quite ‘happy’ where it is. The magma doesn’t actually have a lot of energy to expend in breaking apart the crust. After all isn’t easier to break apart a rock with a sledgehammer than with a bag filled with gloopy concrete?
Q. I don’t know, I’ve never tried it.
A. Ah, sarcasm. Sup your pint and listen quietly.
I like to think of magma as being a lazy beast as it will always move to where it’s easiest to do so. So all things being equal, if there’s no easy pathway to the surface the magma will just sit and stew and solidify within the crust. Nobody knows exactly what the crust above the dyke intrusion is like, but if for example it’s a stack of lava flows, then these horizontal slabs of solid rock form a formidable barrier (or lid) on top of the magma.
But in Iceland we have rifting and this means that the crust splits in a preferred direction. So there is a pervasive weakness in the Icelandic crust that is especially well developed in the active rift zones, and when a weakness develops and a crack happens to connect underlying magma to the surface, then you get an eruption. Driven by gas expanding and accelerating as the magma ascends to shallower crust and lower pressures. Remember bubbles?
Q. Sigh, you and the bubbles again. Why can’t the magma in your dyke intrusion just go where it wants?
A. If the crust near the dyke is weaker in one direction then this is where the magma will go. That’s why the dyke has been moving towards the NE so far. Now what actually happens around dykes in stress and strain terms is a tad complex, but let’s just say that the dyke wouldn’t have been able to form and propagate unless the crust was already weak in this area. And that the presence of the magma-filled dyke will influence the local stress field and favour some further weakening in the vicinity of the dyke. So although the regional stress field will largely dictate where the magma in the dyke intrusion can go, the dyke itself will have some influence in this.
Q. In simple terms now please? You know how garrulous and nerdy you get when you mix ale and enthusiasm.
A. Where the magma in the dyke intrusion goes is largely dependent on weaknesses in the local crust which are either there already and ready to part, or will appear as this event develops. The magma itself has a say in this, arguably a minor one.
Near where the pair of dykes in adjacent image are exposed. High up on Askja’s south caldera wall, looking westwards.
Q. So did you learn about Bárðarbunga from a hurried swotting-up as this event kicked off?
A. I already knew a lot about Bárðarbunga because I did my PhD on the rhyolite-dominated volcano c.100 km to the SW (Torfajökull) where there’s excellent evidence that basalt dyke intrusions in fissures from the NE (i.e. in the direction of Bárðarbunga) had forced their way into Torfajökull and triggered eruptions there of rhyolite (a more viscous and sticky magma type). The last one in c1477 was fairly benign, with minor explosions and two lovely rhyolite lava flows. One of which has a natural hot pool where once can sit and watch the Northern Lights. But I digress. The eruption prior to c.1477 took place in c.874 AD and this led to a powerful and explosive rhyolite eruption. The problem with explosive rhyolite eruptions is that it contains more gas than basalt (hence more bubbles) so it gets blasted apart more. And because rhyolite is less dense than basalt the rhyolite ash is less dense and can get transported further.
The area between Bárðarbunga and Torfajökull is one where massive fissure eruptions have occurred and from where some of the largest flood basalts in Iceland have poured forth. The two recent eruptions (c.1477 and c.874) weren’t as massive, but magma-water interactions with the big braided river to the SW area did produce strings of maars, tuff cones, explosion craters and so on, and consequently lots of fragmented basalt that dammed waterways and created temporary but large lakes.
I’ve also worked at the Askja volcano to the NE of Bárðarbunga, and so have some idea of how a large basalt-dominated volcano with a large caldera like Bárðarbunga may have been constructed.
OK, time for a break while you buy me another ale.
Q. But I bought the first round!
A. Yes, but there’s no such thing as a free tutorial. And remember that my financial prudence has been enhanced considerably after some time living in Yorkshire….