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Permafrost dynamics in the remote Canadian Arctic revealed by high-resolution topographic measurements

Pablo J Gonzalez is a COMET researcher at the University of Liverpool.  He is currently (August 2017) carrying out a field campaign in the Canadian Arctic funded by the NERC British Arctic Office under the UK-Canada bursaries project Ice-landforms characterization due to permafrost dynamics around the Pingo National Landmark, Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada.

Permafrost dynamics, related to ice aggradation and thawing, are effective climatic indicators.  Pingos (conical ice-cored hills, Fig. 1) concentrate large amounts of ice near the surface and, hence are highly sensitive systems to environmental changes.

Figure 1. Pingo National Landmark is a unique area with a high density of ice-landforms in Canada, hosting around 10% of pingos in the world. Credit: Wikipedia

Thus, the morphology and dynamics of pingos can be used to monitor regional effects of climate change over wide regions in the Arctic. However, we can identify two main difficulties in using pingos for environmental monitoring:

  1. The relationship of pingo morphology with its origin and permafrost conditions has not been established quantitatively.
  2. Monitoring pingo dynamics (growth, stability or collapse) has not been possible due to their small size (<300 m) and remote locations.

In this project, we aim to increase our understanding of pingo dynamics to fully exploit their potential as climate indicators. Here, we will apply novel methods to retrieve high spatial resolution (1-m) and very-high precision (<1m) topography based on satellite and drone technology.

The essential field work (late August 2017) is being carried out in collaboration with scientists from the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing, Natural Resources Canada (Dr. Yu Zhang and Dr. Sergey Samsonov), who are currently working in the area under the Polar Knowledge Canada project “Monitoring Land Surface and Permafrost Conditions along the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway Corridor”.

This UK-Canada project will establish, for the first time, new and unique morphometric descriptions of a large number of pingos; conduct an exploratory analysis to establish links between current morphology with respect to genetics (origin), environmental conditions and stage of evolution; and unequivocally demonstrate the systematic decline, stability or growth of pingos in Tuktoyaktuk (Fig. 2), which could be linked to current climate change in the Western Canadian Arctic.

Figure 2. Location of Tuktoyaktuk, Northwestern Territories, Canada. Credit: Google Maps


Intrusive activity at Cerro Azul Volcano, Galápagos Islands (Ecuador)

Cerro Azul is the southernmost active volcano on Isabela Island, Galápagos (Ecuador). On 18-19 March 2017, seismic activity increased on the SE flank of the volcano.

On the same day, the Instituto Geofisico Escuela Politécnica National (IGEPN), the organisation responsible for the monitoring of Ecuadorian volcanoes, issued a warning for a possible imminent eruption.

The recorded seismicity was composed of volcano tectonic (VT) earthquakes, consistent with processes of rock fracturing, with the majority of the events having magnitude ranging between 2.4 and 3.  There were also sporadic events with magnitude up to 3.6 (see the second activity update released by IGEPN on 24 March).

The Sentinel-1 satellite acquired synthetic aperture radar data on 7  and 8 of March, prior to the onset of the seismic activity, and on 19 and 20 March, once seismicity started to exceed background levels both in terms of number of earthquakes and of energy release.

Applying SAR interferometric techniques (e.g. InSAR) showed significant deformation (up to 14 cm) in the region affected by the seismic swarm. More specifically, the InSAR data shows uplift at the southeastern flank of the volcano and contemporary subsidence centered at the summit of the volcano.

Sentinel-1 interferogram showing deformation caused by the magmatic intrusion as of 20 March 2017. Each color fringe corresponds to ~2.8 cm of displacement in the direction between the ground and the satellite.

COMET researcher Marco Bagnardi, working with the IGEPN, carried out a preliminary analysis of the InSAR data and observed that the deformation (at least as of 20 March 2017) can be explained by the intrusion of a 20-40 million cubic meters sill at a depth of ~5 km beneath the surface of the volcano.

Modelling results from the inversion of InSAR data. The proposed model is composed of a horizontal sill intrusion at ~5 km depth (black rectangle) fed by a deflating source at ~6 km depth (black star).

Such intrusion is likely to be fed by a 6 km deep reservoir, cantered beneath the summit of the volcano. The location of the intrusion well matches the location of the seismicity recorded by IGEPN.

Earthquake locations between 13 and 25 March 2017. Credit: IGEPN “Informe Especial Cerro Azul No. 2 – 2017”.

Marco Bagnardi said: “Within ten hours from receiving the warning from IGEPN, we were able to get hold of the most recent Sentinel-1 data for the area, process them to form differential interferograms, invert the data to infer the source of the observed deformation, and pass on the information to our Ecuadorian colleagues.”

The seismic activity seems to be continuing today.  IGEPN is currently proposing two possible scenarios for the evolution of this episode of volcanic unrest:

  • the intrusion could reach the surface and feed an effusive eruption in the coming days or weeks, as happened in 1998 and 2008; or
  • seismic activity and deformation could return to background level without the eruption of magma at the surface.

The next Sentinel-1 acquisitions will be on 1 and 2 April.  They will hopefully shed more light on the nature of the magmatic intrusion and on its evolution since 20 March.





Volcanoes of the Ethiopian Rift Valley

Are the volcanoes of the Ethiopian Rift Valley now peaceful, or do they continue to pose a threat to the tens of millions of people who live and work the land across this vast region?

View into the Main Ethiopian Rift Valley, on the descent from Butajira to Ziway. Aluto volcano in the centre distance.
View into the Main Ethiopian Rift Valley, on the descent from Butajira to Ziway. Aluto volcano in the centre distance.

Read COMET scientist David Pyle’s blog post on the work of the NERC-funded RiftVolc consortium, which is carrying out a broad-scale investigation of the past eruptive histories, present status and potential for future activity of the volcanoes of the Central Main Ethiopian Rift.

COMET workshop on the modelling of magmatic processes

Around 20 scientists gathered at the University of Leeds recently to share their knowledge and their views on how magmatic activity can be understood and reproduced by models of volcanic processes.

Fourteen COMET members, including scientists, research staff and students, were joined by experts in various fields of volcanology from other world-leading institutions such as the United States Geological Survey, the University of Geneva and the University of Liverpool.

At the workshop we discussed the numerous challenges we face when we try to experimentally replicate natural processes such as those occurring at volcanoes. The most important limitation is that we can exclusively witness and measure what happens at the surface of the volcanoes, and only indirectly infer what goes on beneath them.

There are many different techniques commonly used to take the pulse of the magmatic activity: we measure how the volcanic edifices deform, we record seismic waves coming from and travelling through the magmatic systems, we collect and analyse lava and ash samples during eruptions, we measure the concentration of gases emitted by volcanic vents etc.

The rapid expansion and improvement of satellite Earth Observation (EO) techniques (such as radar interferometry to measure deformation, infrared atmospheric sounding to measure gas emissions etc.) offers further opportunities to study magmatic processes at a global scale.

Although each technique can shed light on one or more volcanic processes, the highest chance of truly understanding what controls the magmatic activity happens when all the measurements and information are analysed together.

The use of a multi-disciplinary approach was the key element of the COMET workshop and all participants agreed that future research in volcanology must move in this direction. Conceptual and numerical models of how magma is stored beneath the surface must be able to reconcile the observed deformation, the amount of gasses released in the atmosphere and the physical/chemical properties of the erupted products. Models of how magma reaches the surface during eruptions need to explain the seismic signature of magma ascent, be compatible with the mechanical properties of volcanic rocks, and consider magma as a multi-phase fluid containing gas, liquid and crystals.

During our workshop, we identified several potential research projects that will be developed in the coming months and that will imply the use of information from different disciplines of volcanology. For example, we aim to globally classify active volcanoes on the basis of their behaviours in terms of deformation and gas emissions. Much effort will also be put in understanding the characteristics of magma reservoirs, moving from conceptual models of simple liquid-filled cavities to complex, multi-phase, dynamic systems.

Finally, specific volcanoes where COMET scientists already have access to long records of geophysical, geochemical and petrological data (for example Soufriere Hills Volcano in Montserrat or Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii) will be used as natural laboratories. At these locations, we will test models that try to reproduce processes ranging from specific eruptive behaviours to long-term magma supply to the volcanoes.

For further information, contact Dr Marco Bagnardi

Multiple techniques shed light on the August 2014 Murmuri, Iran earthquake sequence

COMET researchers have unravelled a complex seismic sequence using a combination of techniques, explaining not only the earthquake sequence itself but also the formation of the mountain range where it occurred.

On August 18 2014, an Mw 6.2 earthquake struck Murmuri, near Dehloran in the Zagros Mountains of South West Iran (Figure 1), and was followed by five aftershocks of Mw of at least 5.4.  The largest of these was a Mw 6.0 aftershock which took place 16 hours after the main event.

These were the first large seismic events in the region since important developments in satellite Earth Observation (EO) have allowed us to study earthquakes in unprecedented detail, providing the potential to combine  a range of satellite-based and seismological approaches.

The study team, which included COMET scientists from Cambridge and Oxford along with colleagues from Iran, Colorado, and Canada, saw this as an opportunity to shed light not only on the Murmuri earthquake but also on how the Zagros Mountains themselves are evolving.

Figure 1 below shows the distribution of earthquakes in the region along with the 2014 Murmuri event.

Figure 1: Earthquakes and topography of the Zagros Mountains. White circles show events of magnitude 5.0 and larger (Nissen et al., 2011). The red star shows the Murmuri mainshock.
Figure 1: Earthquakes and topography of the Zagros Mountains. White circles show events of magnitude 5.0 and larger (Nissen et al., 2011). The red star shows the Murmuri mainshock.

The depth of the earthquake-generating thrust faults in the Zagros Mountains has been the subject of debate for some time.  Previous studies have disagreed on whether the faults break a thick sequence of sedimentary layers, or are confined to the underlying crystalline rocks.

Importantly, rather than using a single technique, the team combined satellite-based EO techniques with studies of the seismic waves generated by the earthquake and aftershocks.  The first step was to identify their locations, which was crucial to understanding the relationship between the ground motions detected by InSAR and the fault planes that caused the earthquakes.  They then used the results to generate models of the faults.

Modelling the seismic waves showed that all except one of the events were caused by thrust faults.  The smooth signals in the InSAR interferograms meanwhile showed that the faulting which led to the earthquake was buried deep under the surface.

Figure 2: Interferograms of the 18 August 2014 earthquake.  Each interferogram is labelled with the dates of the two SAR acquisitions in the format YYYYMMDD, and the background shading is the topography.
Figure 2: Interferograms of the 18 August 2014 earthquake.  Each interferogram is labelled with the dates of the two SAR acquisitions in the format YYYYMMDD, and the background shading is the topography.

The next question was whether the earthquakes had been caused by a single or multiple faults.  The interferograms showed distinct lobes extending to the east and southeast of the main affected area, suggesting that the displacements on the surface were caused by two if not three separate faults.

COMET’s Alex Copley, from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, explained: “ We found that a single-fault model couldn’t reproduce the deformation patterns shown by the interferograms, so we investigated by applying multiple-fault models instead.”

The team modelled the faults to establish characteristics including their direction, length and angle.  When they used the interferograms alone there were a wide range of different fault parameters that could produce models that matched the data, but by including the seismic data the team could narrow down these characteristics.

Dr Copley added: “The only way we managed to work out what actually happened was by using seismological techniques, and then using these results  to interpret the satellite measurements.”

The results showed that the 18 August 2014 event involved significant slip on two planes, which produced a complex displacement pattern in the InSAR, and that there were two separate events big enough to produce surface deformation signals, hence the two lobes on the interferograms.

It also became clear that most if not all of the faulting took place in the sedimentary layers rather than the igneous rocks below, at depths of 3-9km.  The faults were also found to be longer than they were deep, which is relatively unusual – most faults tend to be more or less equal in length and depth.  This could be because changes in the mechanical properties of the rocks below stop the faults from extending any deeper.

As well as explaining the events at Murmuri, the results throw light on the large scale tectonics of the Zagros Mountains, showing which combination of tectonic forces and material properties of the rocks can give rise to the shape and deformation pattern of the mountain range.

Dr Copley summarised: “If we had used seismology or satellite measurements alone we would have failed to learn much that was new about this earthquake sequence.  Instead, our approach allowed us to shed light not only on the formation of the Zagros, but also how similar fold-thrust belts form across the globe.”

The full paper is: Copley, A., Karasozen, E., Oveisi, B., Elliott, J.R., Samsonov, S., Nissen, E.  Seismogenic faulting of the sedimentary sequence and laterally-variable material properties in the Zagros Mountains (Iran) revealed by the August 2014 Murmuri (E. Dehloran) earthquake sequence, Geophysical Journal International, 2015 doi: 10.1093/gji/ggv365



Sentinel-1A’s TOPS explains the 2014-15 Fogo eruption

COMET researchers have used the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1A satellite to shed light on the 2014-15 eruption at Fogo, the most active volcano in the Cape Verde archipelago.

Their paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters, investigates the eruption using Sentinel-1A’s new radar acquisition mode, Terrain Observation by Progressive Scans (TOPS).

Fogo has erupted at least 26 times in the last 500 years, and this particular event lasted 81 days from November 2014 to February 2015.  It had devastating consequences for the island. Fast lava flows destroyed the villages of Portela and Bangaeria in early December 2014.

As the satellite had only been operating for a few weeks when the eruption began, this is the first study to use Sentinel-1A TOPS to investigate surface deformation associated with volcanic activity.

Lead author Dr Pablo J. González, from the University of Leeds, explained: “the study has given us a real insight into the inner workings of Fogo volcano.  It also shows the potential of Sentinel-1’s TOPS mode for monitoring volcanic activity in the future acheter du viagra.

Up until recently, the volcano had mostly been monitored by a GPS network with limited spatial coverage.  In comparison, the wide area and high spatial resolution of Sentinel-1A’s satellite images allowed the team, which included researchers from Norway, The Netherlands and Canada, to monitor ground deformation across Fogo.

Using the TOPS data, they found that during the eruption the ground surface had changed in a “butterfly” shape, characteristic for a dike intrusion (where the magma intrudes into a fissure, shouldering aside other the existing layers of rock).

Sentinel-1A ascending interferogram spanning the onset of the2014-2015 Fogo eruption (3 – 27 November 2014). Each colour fringe represents ~3 cm of ground displacement.  
Sentinel-1A ascending interferogram spanning the onset of the2014-2015 Fogo eruption (3 – 27 November 2014). Each colour fringe represents ~3 cm of ground displacement.

Models created to reproduce the observed data then showed that first of all the magma moved rapidly from depths of more than ten kilometres below the volcano’s summit.  It then moved along the dike to feed the eruption at a fissure on the southwestern flank of the volcano’s summit cone, rather than from its top.

This was backed up by the satellite data showing a lack of deformation across the whole island during the eruption, which would have suggested that it was instead being fed by an inflating/deflating magma reservoir directly beneath.

The findings will now set the direction for further research aimed at understanding the pattern of eruptions on the island, as well as assessing the stability of the entire volcanic structure.

Dr Marco Bagnardi, COMET researcher, and also co-author in this paper, added: “Our results not only show the importance of near-real time ground deformation monitoring at Fogo, they also demonstrate the potential of Sentinel-1A’s TOPS mode for monitoring geohazards more widely.”

The full paper, The 2014-2015 eruption of Fogo volcano: geodetic modelling of Sentinel-1 TOPS interferometry, is available now in Geophysical Research Letters.

Icelandic volcano’s toxic gas is treble that of Europe’s industry

A huge volcanic eruption in Iceland emitted on average three times as much of a toxic gas as all European industry combined, a new study has revealed.

Bárðarbunga eruption. Credit: John Stevenson.
Bárðarbunga eruption. Credit: John Stevenson.

Discharge of lava from the eruption at Bárðarbunga volcano, starting in August 2014, released a huge mass – up to 120,000 tonnes per day – of sulphur dioxide gas.  You can watch a video of the eruption here.

These emissions can cause acid rain and respiratory problems.

Researchers hope that their study, published by the Journal of Geophysical Research, will aid understanding of how such eruptions can affect air quality in the UK.

Dr Anja Schmidt, a COMET Associate from the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, who led the study, said: “The eruption discharged lava at a rate of more than 200 cubic metres per second, which is equivalent to filling five Olympic-sized swimming pools in a minute. Six months later, when the eruption ended, it had produced enough lava to cover an area the size of Manhattan.

“In the study, we were concerned with the quantity of sulphur dioxide emissions, with numbers that are equally astonishing: in the beginning, the eruption emitted about eight times more sulphur dioxide per day than is emitted from all man-made sources in Europe per day.”

The eruption last year was the biggest in Iceland for more than 200 years. It released a river of lava across northern Iceland, and lasted for six months.

The team, which also included COMET members Tamsin Mather, Elisa Carboni and Don Grainger from the University of Oxford, used data from satellite sensors to map sulphur dioxide pollution from the eruption. These were reproduced by computer simulations of the spreading gas cloud.

As well as being given off by volcanoes, sulphur dioxide is also produced by burning fossil fuels and industrial processes such as smelting. Man-made sulphur dioxide production has been falling since 1990, and was recorded at 12,000 tonnes per day in 2010.

Further information

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The study, ‘Satellite detection, long-range transport and air quality impacts of volcanic sulfur dioxide from the 2014-2015 flood lava eruption at Bárðarbunga (Iceland)’, is published by the Journal of Geophysical Research.


The 2013 Mw 7.7 Balochistan earthquake in Pakistan: Not so unusual

In 2013, a MW7.7 earthquake struck Balochistan, caused a huge surface offset and triggered a small tsunami in the Arabian Sea.

The apparently strange fault behaviour attracted the attention of scientists worldwide and discussion is still ongoing.

This an interesting case for paleoseismologists, not only because of the cascading earthquake effects, but also because of the surface rupture distribution, from which we might learn some important lessons.

COMET student Yu Zhou and his colleagues from Oxford University have published a new paper on this event, arguing that it might be not as unusual as it seems. Their research is based on the analysis of Pleiades stereo satellite imagery, which has proven to be a very useful data source.

You can read Yu’s blog on the website.

Sentinel maps Nepal earthquake

On 25 April, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, claiming over 8,000 lives and affecting millions of people.

Images from ESA’s Sentinel-1A satellite clearly showed the effects of the earthquake, including the maximum land deformation only 17km from Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.  This explains the extremely high damage to the area.

Nepal earthquake April 2015.  Credit: Copernicus data (2015)/ESA/Norut/PPO.labs/COMET–ESA SEOM INSARAP study
Nepal earthquake April 2015. Credit: Copernicus data (2015)/ESA/Norut/PPO.labs/COMET–ESA SEOM INSARAP study

By combining Sentinel-1A imagery from before and after the quake, COMET scientists have been able to interpret the rainbow-coloured interference patterns in the image (known as an interferogram), and interpret them as changes on the ground.  COMET scientists have also been analysing the 12 May aftershock.  You can read more here.