'A wild and wonderful opportunity' – Unexpected eruption enables real-time observation for researchers studying volcanoes in Iceland
It was 9:30 p.m. Iceland time when Christopher Hamilton, a planetary volcanologist, pulled back the curtains and pointed his laptop camera at the window.
"Look at this," he said as he revealed the still-bright night sky.
Hamilton, associate professor in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, and Solange Duhamel, associate professor of molecular and cellular biology, have been abroad since January to conduct research in Iceland, a country dotted with glaciers, lava fields and hundreds of volcanoes.
Working in the land of the midnight sun brings obvious benefits for the husband-and-wife researchers.
So did an unexpected volcanic eruption that has given them a firsthand opportunity that few researchers get to experience.
In February, about a month after Hamilton and Duhamel set up their base in the capital city of Reykjavik, a series of more than 50,000 earthquakes began on the Reykjanes peninsula, about 19 miles away. On March 3, there were strong signs of magma movement in the subsurface, meaning an eruption was imminent.
"We went from being relatively confined over the winter months to springing into action and thinking about how we could potentially study this eruption, and the University was remarkably helpful," Hamilton said.
Hamilton and Duhamel say the Research, Innovation and Impact office provided emergency funding so they could have specialized equipment shipped to Iceland, enabling them to study the early phases of the unfolding volcanic episode. That, in turn, made their proposals for Rapid Response Research funding from the National Science Foundation more competitive. Both researchers were approved for funding just days before the eruption began on March 19 – the first eruption in this particular volcanic system in more than 6,000 years, Hamilton says.
The result is what Hamilton and Duhamel call a "wild and wonderful opportunity" – the chance to study the same event from the perspectives of their separate disciplines.
What does it feel like to stand near a volcano? What does it sound like? What does it smell like? Hamilton and Duhamel describe how the unexpected eruption has provided them with a once-in-a-lifetime research opportunity in this Lo Que Pasa video.
Volcanic research at the ground level
As a planetary volcanologist, Hamilton examines similarities between Earth's volcanic eruptions and those on other planets. He says his work can help provide perspective on whether volcanic regions on other planets in our solar system are habitable or even inhabited.
"My research is focused on how we can do two things," he explained. "The first is how we can understand the fundamental volcanic processes – where is the magma coming from, how rapidly is it coming out of the ground, and what are the potential implications as it moves forward. The second is what we can learn that would help us interpret the origin of similar lava flows on other planets."
Hamilton's research in Iceland is part of the Rover–Aerial Vehicle Exploration Network project that is funded by a $3.1 million NASA grant. The project involves developing a new concept combining rovers and unmanned aerial systems, commonly known as drones, to explore previously inaccessible regions of Mars. Hamilton is testing the RAVEN equipment in Iceland, including the prototype RAVEN Claw, used to scoop up samples. Hamilton says the data his team collects will help determine how volcanic environments on other planets could be explored using robotic or manned systems. Learn more about the RAVEN project in this UANews story.
Duhamel is an environmental microbiologist studying the early colonizers of fresh lava flows.
"You can think of it as a sterile environment, and I'm trying to understand what are the first microbes that are capable of living and flourishing on that substate," she said. "Who are they, what are their functions, and how can they allow other types of microbes to succeed?"
Hamilton and Duhamel have been on their research trip since January. They discuss the sights and tastes of Iceland in this narrated slideshow.
Challenges in the field
While the summer has provided plentiful daylight for the researchers, the weather is anything but consistent. Hamilton recalled the winds being "extraordinary" on the day of the interview with Lo Que Pasa.
"In trying to walk, you would be hit by gusts of wind that were so strong that you just needed to put your back to it and drop to your knees or you'd be blown over," he said. "We've had days with freezing rain, hail, sun, clear skies, wind – all in the span of an hour or two. Even in the summer, you have to be prepared for winter."
The behavior of the volcano itself is inconsistent as well, meaning safety and proximity measures vary depending on the day and the part of the volcano Duhamel and Hamilton are studying. In some areas, they can safely walk across inactive lava flows; in others, fountains of gushing magma spew up to 1,600 feet high, requiring a much wider berth.
Hamilton and Duhamel say they hope to begin analyzing their research data when they return at the end of August. The pair hopes to come back each of the next few years to gather follow-up data.
"Seeing the eruption unfold from the very beginning is a really rare opportunity," Hamilton said. "Now instead of looking at the evidence of the party, we're actually there."