Unique Expedition To Seek Answers About Global Volcanic Gases

Regular updates from the Trail by Fire Team, adapted from their blog.

Regular updates from the Trail by Fire Team, adapted from their blog.

7 February 2017: Embers Alight on the Trail By Fire!

The Trail By Fire crew is at it again!

TBF-1.0 to Chile and Southern Peru was a resounding success, but has only stoked “The Fire”. The Nazca Subduction Zone does not end in Peru, and neither does the TRAIL BY FIRE!

The team couldn’t sit idle, knowing that volatile emissions from Ecuador’s spectacular and highly active volcanoes were going unmeasured. So, haven taken what we learned from our first expedition, and having spent 10 months refining techniques on our local volcanoes, the team is heading back to South America to continue our momentous quest! This time, on Tungurahua, Cotopaxi, Reventador, and Guagua Pichincha, the team will face new challenges in the jungle of the equatorial Andes!

Most of the original team is together again – whether in person or in spirit. Nial and Aaron have sadly been lured by the siren songs of Antarctica and Europa; but Yves, Philipson and Ian will be boots-on-the-ground, with Talfan keeping his watch from above, and new member João representing the Sicilian contingent! The fabled 7th member of our team – Sally the Land Rover – has also moved on to greener paddocks; but with generous support from the Instituto Geofísico de la Escuela Politécnica Nacional (IGEPN) and the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD), we will be mobile once again!

 

All our bags are packed (one of a volcanologist's greatest challenges is fitting the entire chaotic contents of an office into a single piece of checked baggage!) and we’re ready to go. We are equipped once again with DOAS, MultiGAS, UV Cameras, direct sampling tools, and an updated fleet of quadcopters - and we're geared up with kit and clothes from Ocean Optics, Crowcon, and Cactus!

Check in regularly for the all chills, thrills, sulphur burns, and U-turns on the TRAIL BY FIRE!

 

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1 June 2016: Charging up Chaitén

Until 2008, most of Chaitén's residents had no idea they were living in the shadow of an active volcano. On May 2nd, they awoke to an unpleasant surprise: darkened skies and ashfall. Authorities sprung into action and by the end of May 3rd, 4,200 people were evacuated by sea. The eruption intensified over the following days, sending an eruption column 31 km into the sky and a lahar down the valley, laying waste to the town.

The volcano casts a long shadow across the physical and political landscape, even today. According to local volcanologists we talked to, the near disaster at Chaitén served as a wake-up call to the Chilean government, providing impetus for a cash infusion for volcano research. When we visited OVDAS’ gorgeous new headquarters in Temuco, it was clear the money has been well spent. Chile now boasts a vast, cutting-edge monitoring network of seismometers, webcams, and other sensors monitored 24-7 by a team of talented professionals and students in a command center reminiscent of NASA mission control.

 

 

Chaitén was our southernmost target on the Trail by Fire. The journey through the fjords of the Los Lagos district was long but gorgeous. We took two ferries on the way down and three returning.

 

 

The effects of the eruption were still unmistakable eight years later, when we arrived on the scene. Bizarrely, this coastal town isn’t quite on the coast anymore. Lahars from the eruption changed the course of the river and built a new delta, shifting the coastline out into the sea. The harbor and fish market were suddenly 1km inland.

 

 

At the volcano itself, we found an ecosystem in transition and a gargantuan smoldering lava dome inside an even bigger caldera. A new forest is growing up in the midst of thousands of snags – blown down by the eruption in some places, standing in other.

We trekked up to the rim of the caldera and scoped out the dome. Steam streamed out of fumaroles all over the upper half of this obsidan rubble mountain. To reach those hot targets, we’d need to downclimb the muddy, plant-covered cliff of the caldera wall, walk across the moat, and then scale the steep, loose boulder slopes.

 

 

A few hours of adventure later, our multigas was running in a fumarole about halfway up the dome. The gas was dominated by water vapor – a hydrothermal fumarole. Vents higher up might be emitting different gases, but climbing higher up the dome seemed unsafe given the steep slope and frequent rockfalls. We did what we could to measure gases from the inaccessible dome summit, collecting DOAS and UV camera data and flying an airborne gas sensor over the summit.

 

 

For the townspeople's sake, Trail by Fire is glad that Chaiten is quiet for the moment. On the other hand, this volcano sure does produce pretty rocks when it erupts! If you'd like to learn about the details of how they form, have a look at one of TBF team member Ian Schipper's recent papers on the subject.

 

 

 

Well, dear reader, that’s the last volcano we have to share with you on this blog. The drive back to Santiago went by all too quickly, and team members flew back to our home countries. Sally (as we came to know our Defender, whose VIN begins with SALL), hopped on a cruise back to Blighty to be admired at an exhibition.

 

There’s certainly more to tell, but we’ll be sharing the rest through papers in scientific journals and hopefully a TV show or two. Stay tuned on our Facebook or Twitter and we'll make sure you don't miss any of it. Thanks for joining us on the Trail!

 

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25 May 2016: The long way to Copahue

From the summits of Nevados de Chillán and Villarica we could see Copahue on the horizon, enticing us with its dark ash rich plume. This three-kilometre-high stratovolcano sits on the Chilean – Argentinean border and is capped by a line of craters with a busy record of activity dating back to ~6820 BCE. The easternmost crater has been the focus of four eruptions this century alone, and is currently the source of an ongoing eruption that started in October 2015. Between eruptions this crater has hosted an acid lake with a pH below 0.3, and material blasted out in 2012 suggests a submerged lake of liquid sulphur may lie beneath the water. In fact, Copahue means sulphurous waters in the Mapuche language.  Access is easy from the Argentinian side with metalled roads and ski resorts right up to the eastern flank. However, we were not keen on explaining to customs what a Delta Ray is again, and on the Trail by Fire, we don't like to make life too easy for ourselves. So we took the longer, harder route from the Chilean side. We would not get anywhere near the summit, but given the acid lake was probably gone, and our grandmothers were not there to rescue us if it wasn't, this was no great loss.

 

 

The approach from the Chilean side put our vehicle through its paces after a long time on asphalt. The gravel road winds through forests and is cut high in the vertiginous mountainside above deep reservoirs, ringed by pale scars where the water level rises and falls. It's a long drive too, and fortunately for us a friendly farmer let us camp on his land to break the trip. We put up the tent, broke out the sausage and mash, and ate under the stars for the first time since Lastarria. The next day as we climbed higher towards the volcano the track narrowed and became boulder strewn and criss-crossed by glacial streams. All of a sudden we were back to our Eastnor training - probing water with sticks to estimate the depth and guiding our differential hump around obstacles. The forests turned into groves of Araucaria araucana (also known as Monkey Puzzle), tall Jurassic Park-esque trees noted for their love of volcanic soil. We were getting close. Finally we reached a torrential glacial stream that gave us pause. We could cross it, but with bad weather moving in, would we be able to cross back? We were agonisingly close, and could see the plume drifting above the final ridge between us and the volcano flank.

 

 

 Eventually common sense prevailed and we called a halt. Yves and Philipson put the coffee on, and Aaron took off for a quick flight to check out the area. We sat and glumly watched the plume being emitted in the distance with an eerie silence, disapointed this was as close as we could get.

 

 

So was this the first defeat for Trail by Fire? Well, not quite. In collaboration with our friends at JPL and NASA we've tracked our progress along the Andes using two satellites, Earth Observing 1 (EO-1) and Terra. In particular, we've been interested in two sensors; Hyperion to monitor the thermal power output of the volcanoes to tell us how much new hot material is being erupted, and ASTER to measure the amount of sulfur dioxide in the volcanic plumes.  The challenge here has been logistical as well as scientific – we had to somehow get the Landrover and the satellites in the same place at the same time within the confines of orbital parameters, permitted satellite manoeuvres and the sequence of volcanoes we were visiting, all the while knowing that a spot of cloud in the wrong place would render the image useless. One day a mathematician will win a Fields medal for solving the travelling volcanologist problem, but in the mean time we did a pretty good job. By providing a rolling best guess of our itinerary to our colleagues a week in advance, we were able to time satellite acquisitions as close as possible with field visits. And using the images these satellites produced, we can peak over that final ridge and have a look. By day, in the Hyperion images below, we can see the plume drifitng south in the visible image on the left, and in the short wave infrared on the right perhaps the hint of a dull red glow at the vent, partially obscured by the plume:

 

 

But by night we can get a better sense of what's hot and what's not. In the short wave infrared, the ground surface is too cool to emit much radiation, and at night there is no reflected solar radiation either. This means that all the satellite 'sees' is thermal emission from (very) hot material, less that absorbed by the atmosphere. Here Hyperion comes into its own, taking an image at 220 wavelengths from the visible through the short wave.

 

Instead of just recording color, each pixel in the image records a spectrum, like the one shown above.

 

This gives us the emission spectrum for the hot material, which is a function of the distribution of temperatures at the surface. We can use these spectra to get a sense of how hot the erupting material is, without having to get within quadcopter range, or clamber up and peer in ourselves, and there's no risk of falling in any acid lakes.

Addendum: But what about the gas? Well, we can see that from space as well. We’ve talked before about how we use the absorption of ultra violet light by volcanic plumes to measure their sulphur dioxide content – the passage of UV light through the plume leaves a characteristic fingerprint in the spectrum. It turns out SO2 leaves a fingerprint in the thermal infrared as well, and ASTER takes pictures at the right wavelengths to see it. Using sophisticated models, we can simulate the complex processes of emission, absorption, reflection and scattering of thermal radiation in the column of air between the ground and the satellite to convert this fingerprint into an amount of SO2. Below is an example ASTER image from 23 January – like the Hyperion images above, it was taken from ~700 km altitude, looking down. This is a false colour image in the visible and near infrared, so vegetation appears red, open water appears black, the bare rock of the mountains appears grey, and the condensed water (or cloud) in the plume appears white. But is there any SO2 in there?

 

 

Using the thermal infrared, we can calculate an image showing where the SO2 fingerprint is present. The resulting image is a little noisy, but you can clearly make out the absorption feature in the plume.

 

 

So there you have it, temperature and gas from satellites – not bad from 700 km away.

 

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23 March 2016: Home Sweet Villarrica!

 

Driving to Villarrica felt like coming home. A few years back, several TBF members spent a month here studying the behaviour of its lava lake. Back then we had to face a series of storms and found ourselves working under the snow and having to dig out our instruments from piles of ice every other morning. The lake level was very low, the gas emissions barely above detection limit and the resulting data not amazing.

 

 

This time we were welcomed with a pure blue sky, little wind and a beautiful high stand of the lava lake! Spattering could be seen from the rim. Using quadcopters, we collected gas composition information, put together 3D models, and filmed the extremely dynamic lake.

 

 

 

Our colleague Ashley Davies at JPL acquired a satellite image using the NASA Volcano Sensor Web looking straight down the barrel of the vent. On the left, an image taken using visible light reveals a regular looking cloudy and snow capped volcano. But on the right, the shortwave infrared reveals the glow of the lake at the summit.

 

EO-1 image acquires on the 16th Januray 2016. The Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) spacecraft is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. EO-1 is the satellite remote-sensing asset used by the EO-1 Volcano Sensor Web (VSW), developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, which is being used to monitor volcanic eruptions around the world.

 

Quite a few things had changed since our last visit. In March 2015 a very impressive eruption shook the volcano, with lava fountains higher than a kilometre. As a result, the summit area is quite different, breached by a new, still steaming lava flow. The walk up over the glacier however has remained unchanged, and so has the way down, sliding on custom-made cardboard sledges!

 

 

Driving south from Nevados de Chillán, we followed Pan America Highway - Ruta 5 - down the Chilean central valley between the Andes and a second parallel range of mountains along the coast, the Cordillera de la Costa. The valley and coastal mountains exist partly due to the weight of the Andes flexing the Earth’s crust, and partly due to marine sediments being scraped off the Nazca plate as it slides into the Peru Chile Trench. Luckier sediments make it down the trench and are squeezed and baked until they release their volatiles which work their way up and out of the bowels of the Earth and into our Delta Ray. Other sediments have to settle for becoming mountains instead. Villarrica lies at the northern end of the Chilean ‘Lake District’, a region of towering snow capped mountains, dense forests and crystal clear lakes. These lakes increase in size and frequency heading south, until the valley runs out of land altogether and becomes the floor of the fjords of Patagonia. But more on that later. By this point we had been on asphalt so long that our Land Rover started complaining of the lack of challenges… We eventually took it back on some dirt track on the volcano flank until we found the best place to deploy our remote sensing gear.    

 

 

Villarrica is one of only five lava lakes world-wide. Lava lakes are in some sort our team’s sub specialty -- TBF members have nearly all done their thesis on Lava lakes, in Ethiopia (Erta Ale), Antarctica (Erebus) and Vanuatu (Ambrym). Lava Lakes always feel special for us and we decided to spend a bit longer at Villarrica, ascending it multiple times and acquiring long time-series.

 

 

We did eventually have to leave what will long remain one of our favourite volcanoes… The Trail must go on!

 

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7 March 2016: Nevados de Chillán

Disclaimer: Don’t try this at home! We’re professional (?) volcanologists working with expert mountaineers. For up to date advice on Nevados de Chillán, and any other volcanoes we visit check out the website and Facebook page of Sernageomin. Always follow their advice, and always respect the exclusion zone.

The safest place to be in an eruption?

 

Nevados de Chillán was our first stop in the Southern Volcanic Zone (SVZ) after crossing the Pampean Gap, and we were all looking forward to getting back to work after such a long journey. Additionally, our clothes had almost lost the odour of sulphur, and we risked having our volcanologist membership cards revoked. Much about the SVZ stood out in stark contrast to the North. The green, wet landscape of the SVZ hosts massive, prominent mountains, with their bases at lower elevations. As the physical geography changes southwards, so does the human. We had the mining industry to thank for our 4x4 tracks in the North – down here it would be the tourist industry, which has built roads, chair lifts and service tracks to reach ski pistes and hot springs on the volcano flanks.

Nevados de Chillán was a case in point, with its steep ski slopes and enticing hot springs. We stayed at the foot of the volcano in the resort town of Las Trancas, nestled at the end of a long, forested mountain valley flanked by steep crags. The bustle of tourists came as a shock after the remote quietude of Lastarria. Our diet improved dramatically – no more boiled frankfurters and instant mash seasoned by the dusty desert winds. In fact, we slept indoors, in great comfort, thanks to our sponsors Cabañas Basecamp. We now dined on finest Chillán longaniza and had a choice of delicious fresh empanadas, which brought new dilemmas– frito or horno? Pino or queso? These decisions can split the most cohesive teams. However, the easy living was not to last and we would soon be bouncing up some of the steepest 4x4 tracks we had yet to encounter, as well as donning our crampons and ice axes for the first time. In fact, Nevados de Chillán proved so interesting we would be back again and again.

Nevados de Chillán is a very active composite andesitic stratovolcano, and consists of three distinct cones coalesced to form a north west to south east trending ridge. Three days before our first visit, a phreatic eruption blasted a new crater into the side of Volcan Chillán Nuevo, the central peak. One of our main objectives is to identify the provenance of the volatiles Andean volcanoes emit – how much is simply ground water and air circulating in hydrothermal systems and how much is freshly emitted from bodies of magma at depth. At Nevados de Chillán we had the rare chance to answer this question for a volcano undergoing explosive activity.

We teamed up with new friends from Socorro Andino, René, Monchy and Corinne, and the owner of the ski resort kindly agreed to activate the chairlift to take us a good way towards the summit. Recovering from his first chair lift ride, Talfan set up the ultraviolet remote sensing station at the head of the chair lift, while the rest of the team donned their crampons and pushed on. Walking with crampons on ice for the first time after sliding around on boots is an amazing experience – it turns your soles into ‘ice velcro’, and you can walk almost anywhere. We say almost anywhere, because you can’t walk up crevasses, but we avoided those with the help of expert mountaineers Renée and Monchy. While Talfan set up the cameras and spectrometers, the summit team made their way cautiously towards the source of the new activity. This was hidden from view behind the summit, and the team were unsure of exactly what they would find…

 

We use ultraviolet light to measure the presence of SO2 in volcanic plumes because we can - sulphur dioxide is the ‘Goldilocks’ gas for volcano remote sensing. There is very little background SO2 in the atmosphere compared to volcanic plumes, so we don’t have to worry about whether the SO2 we measure comes from volcanoes or another source. Sulphur dioxide is also easily identifiable as few other gasses absorb at the same wavelengths – it has a unique 'fingerprint'. Additionally, the pervasive scattering of sunlight in the ultraviolet means that during the day there is usually enough light passing through the plume in any direction to make a good measurement – the acquisition geometry isn't dictated by our need to boost the signal using directed sources of intense radiation, like direct sunlight, a heat lamp or hot lava.  By comparing the signal at wavelengths where SO2 absorbs light with those where it doesn't, we estimate the amount of the gas in the plume. We then combine this with estimates of the speed at which the plume is moving to get the flux, or the rate at which the volcano is emitting SO2.  Because we need a good view of the plume to do this, we set up our ultraviolet remote sensing instruments a few kilometres away, nice and safe. All we need then is an estimate of the ratio of the other gasses to Sulphur dioxide and we can get the fluxes for all gases of interest. And that, in a nutshell, is all we do. Apart from isotopes, but that’s a whole blog post in itself.

Easy!

You might think.

But most of the other gasses are not so co-operative. Either the atmosphere is already full of them, or they are emitted in very small amounts, or they absorb light in awkward parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Usually, we need to go to the plume and get a sample. And as the summit team crested the mountain, and saw the steaming source of the recent emissions, they realised something, or someone, was going to have to go down there:

A newborn crater -- shown 4 days old. The slope is steeper than it looks!

 

Previously, on Trail by Fire, we’ve used a range of devices to get our sampling instruments to the plume. But here, our sampling quadcopter was temporarily grounded, and even the mighty STICK wasn't going to reach. It was time to get out the big guns: YVES (Yvo Volcano Exploration System). YVES is autonomous, adaptive, knows no fear, and runs on granola bars.

 

Under the eyes of our nervous team Yves was belayed down the flank of the volcano to the steaming pit and waited an an agonising few minutes while the MultiGas system buzzed away, pumping the precious gas through its array of sensors. Eventually we had enough measurements to get the ratios of the various gasses to each other and Yves clambered back up, mission accomplished.

 

 

We returned to Nevados de Chillan a few weeks later and found the situation had changed. Explosions had continued and became much more frequent, so there was no prospect of approaching the new craters on foot. An exclusion zone now extended two kilometers around the summit, placing the vents beyond the range of our quadcopters, let alone the mighty STICK.  We fell back to UV remote sensing from a safe distance, this time taking our mobile volcano observatory up the insanely steep ski piste service tracks, an endless series of switchbacks snaking up the boulder strewn slope, and were treated to a spectacular series of eruptions over the next few days. The explosions were eerily gentle due to their silence and the slow billowing of their plumes, but this was largely a function of distance – up close, these events are dangerous. After a few days measurements, we packed up, and said goodbye to new friends René, Corinne, Monchy, Gordon, Ponda and Flash.

 

At a conceptual level, Earth scientists know that plate tectonics is about big things, but it's rare to be able to experience this viscerally. Usually on field trips, we see a fault scarp here and a volcano there and have to put the larger features together in our imaginations. One of the great privileges of being a part of Trail by Fire has been simply driving along the Andean volcanic zones, day by day, week by week, getting a feel for just how big they are.  And they feel big, a feeling that can't be conveyed by textbook diagrams, or satellite images. It's been an enlightening and humbling experience. The view from the top of Nevados de Chillán was spectacular, but we could still only just see to our next target volcano. Far away across the snow capped peaks was the tell tale brown smudge of volcanic plume hanging on the horizon, that could only have been put there by a volcano much more active than Nevados de Chillán. It could only be one volcano: Copahue. But would we make it there?

Copahue

 

Photo credits: Trail By Fire, Monchy Zapata Vergara, René Gonzalo Cardenas Bravo

 

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12 February 2016: Minding the Pampean Gap

Volcán Lastarria was a milestone for Trail by Fire because it marked the end of our travels in the Andean Central Volcanic Zone, the belt of active volcanoes that runs through southern Peru and northern Chile. Ahead of us, we had the long drive south across the Pampean Gap to reach our next target volcano. This gap reveals something fundamental about how volcanoes in the Andes work, and why we’re here in the first place, but it requires a bit of explanation…

To recap the geological story so far, volcanic activity in the Andes is caused by the Nazca plate (which is under the Pacific Ocean) sliding beneath South America along the Atacama Trench. Water and gasses, which we call volatiles, are liberated by the increasing heat and pressure as the plate sinks. These volatiles rise into the overlying mantle and change its chemical composition, causing it to melt, which creates magma. This mixture of molten rock and volatiles rises to the surface, where we hope to capture some of the gas in our MultiGas or Delta Ray to reveal its provenance. Of course if the gas escapes our clutches we can still catch it in a quadcopter mounted flying Tedlar bag, or image it with our UV cameras and Flame spectrometers (all of these would be deployed on Lastarria, but more on that later). However, a few volcanoes south of Lastarria something strange happens; this titanic chain of volcanism that we’ve been following these past two months through Peru and Chile... stops.

This is thought to be the result of the Nazca plate sinking at a low angle, perhaps due to the collision of a chain of old volcanoes on the plate known as the Juan Fernandez Ridge with the Atacama Trench. As a result, the plate never sinks deep enough to liberate the volatiles, causing a dearth of volcanism for several hundred kilometers before the sinking plate steepens again and volcanism reappears in the Southern Volcanic Zone. This illustrates how important the recycling of volatiles through subduction systems is – it controls where the volcanoes are. You could say the passage of volatiles leaves a ‘trail of fire’ through the Earth’s crust, which would make a great name for a grant proposal. How much gas is there? What pathways does it take? What is its composition? Ultimately that’s what we’re here to find out, and the answer lies at the end of our journey. But before swapping the waterless Atacama Desert for the magmaless Pampean Gap we had one last stop to stock up on volcanological excitement; the enigmatic Volcán Lastarria.

 

 

Lastarria lies at the end of a long winding 4x4 track on the border with Argentina, past vast salars and soaring mountain ranges, which our Mobile Volcano Observatory navigated with ease.

 

 

We set up camp at the foot of the volcano, and were soon buffeted by the strong evening winds roaring down the mountains at sunset, and then frozen by plummeting temperatures at night. But our tent, courtesy of Land Rover Special Vehicle Operations, stood firm and kept us cosy, and we were rewarded by a perfect view of the milky way through crystal clear skies, and the silence of the deep desert disturbed only by the soft whistling of the midnight winds. We saw no-one in this remote spot, and found only the old tracks of vicuñas and llamas in the desert sands. The next morning we faced a long hot day sampling fumaroles spitting boiling water and corrosive gasses. It was Supertrousers time.

 

 

Volcán Lastarria is a stratovolcano that rises to 5700 m above sea level and is famous for its billowing fumaroles and epic sulfur flows that run to hundreds of meters in length. Despite lacking historically documented eruptions, young looking deposits and a history of ground deformation show the volcano is an important target for study. As at Tacora, there is a winding track that snakes through the fumarole fields halfway up the mountain as a legacy of the mining industry, this time copper exploration. This allowed us to take the trail straight to the fire.

 

 

The team deployed the full spectrum of instruments at Lastarria – MultiGas gas boxes to give ratios between different gases, UV cameras and Flame spectrometers to convert these to fluxes, and the DeltaRay to give the isotopic compositions, while Aaron, wiser than the rest of us, kept an eye on us from the air. The thick condensed plumes reduced visibility, while the corrosive acid gasses necessitated the use of gas masks. Breathing the thin mountain air against the resistance of the gas filters was a real challenge, and progress was slow and laborious. But by the end of two days, we had the suite of measurements we needed.

 

 

 

We bade a sad farewell to Lastarria, the beautiful mountain deserts of northern Chile and southern Peru, the Central Volcanic Zone, and all our friends, both new and old, we had met along the way. Before us lies the long drive south across the Pampean Gap to the lands of lush green fields, fjords and the promise of the Southern Volcanic Zone, where the active lava lake of Villarrica, the colossal dome of Chaiten, and the rumblings of Chillán await….

 

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31 January 2016: Volcán Isluga: A monster hiding in plain sight

Looking down into the Islgua valley, where the Land Rover anxiously awaited our return.

The Trail By Fire leaves no pumice unturned in our search for volcanic action. And with over 100 active volcanoes in Chile alone (the actual number depending on who you ask), there are surprises around every corner.

Waaay back on the Hydrothermal Loop, some locals suggested we pass by Volcán Isluga, near the Chile-Bolivia border. At that time, we spotted some fumaroles on the horizon that provided an opportunity to test our remote sensing gear. We figured we’d return if time allowed – it was a pretty spot, a valley full of Suri (large flightless birds) and other wildlife – but volcanically speaking, we didn’t think there was much to this sleepy border volcano...

 

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Our Christmas day ascent up the 5500 metre Isluga brought us face to face with the gaping maw of an active beast! The fumaroles we had seen from below were nothing but the coattails of a 300-metre deep, sulfur-encrusted open vent that was spewing forth torrents of gas!

Nial, making sure of his footing at edge of the monster's mouth.

This was no time for Christmas crackers and figgy pudding. It was time for action. The team unleashed the full arsenal of instruments: two MultiGas Boxes, direct sampling gear, UV and IR Cameras, DOAS, and in its full glory for the first time, the Thermo Fisher Delta Ray Spectrometer.

The noxious brew being emitted from Isluga was so concentrated, the team struggled to find a place for the MultiGas boxes where their gas sensors were not saturated! Yves, like a true Olympian, thrust his titanium javelin into one of the fumaroles, only to have it spit back out at him!

 

Ian set out to collect some of the precious and abundant CO2 that was pumping out of the crater, collecting it in Tedlar bags for carbon isotope analysis on the Delta Ray. Meanwhile, Aaron pulled another daring aerial maneuver, using a flying Tedlar bag gas sampler to collect CO2 from overhead (with a custom Crossfire-enabled Turboace Matrix). Tedlar bags allow the collection of gas for short-term storage before analysis. They are perfect for use with the Delta Ray, which we cannot bring up to the actual crater rim, but which is mounted and ready to go - in true mobile volcano observatory style - in the Land Rover.

 

The use of Tedlar bags allows us to take many samples from different places around the summit of the volcano: direct from the plume, from fumaroles, and from the background, and analyze all of them for isotopes of carbon in CO2 on the Delta Ray mounted in the vehicle. Previously, the only way to obtain such data would have been to collect a small number of samples in fragile glass vials, and transport them home to the laboratory for analysis on a mass spectrometer. By analyzing them on-site, we not only can use more samples, we can immediately identify which samples are useful and not so useful, and can modify our sampling strategy on-the-fly. Not only that, but the name "Delta Ray" conjures imagery of both Chuck Norris and Star Wars, and the Trail By Fire are happy to align themselves with both of these things.

We learned that just because you've never heard of a volcano, doesn't mean it's not a monster! And it seems that Volcán Isluga is itself like Chuck Norris: It never sleeps. It just waits.

 

 

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21 January 2016: Liftoff at Lascar

 

Of the 62 volcanoes in the Central Volcanic Zone of the Andes, Lascar (5592m / 18,346ft) is the most active. It went through a cycle of dome building and eruption until a large (VEI 4) event destroyed the dome in 1993. Activity resumed in the mid-to-late 2000s, and then it woke up again in October 2015 with a small phreatic eruption, a couple of weeks before we planned to ascend. Our colleagues at NASA detected a large hotspot from space while we were there (shown right).

On the Trail by Fire, we couldn't get enough of Lascar. Literally -- we found it a challenge to collect enough volcanic gas. So we innovated and iterated, tackling the volcano time after time with our new tools. In the end, we climbed Lascar four times. In the process, we may have set some world records: longest improvised volcano gas collecting pole, and the highest flight of a quadcopter above sea level.

Trail by Fire's preferred route to Lascar involves driving across 40km of salt flats (Salar de Atacama) to reach the village of Talabre. With a population of 64, Talabre lacks many of the amenities provided in San Pedro de Atacama, the traditional jumping-off point for Lascar. For example, there is no petrol station. On the other hand, it's 1100m further above sea level (a boon for acclimatization), it's an hour closer to the volcano, and the traditional village cooking at hostal Huaytiquina is delicious.

Salar de Atacama, on the way to Lascar

 

Out the window from Talabre, Lascar's impressive gas plume appears an easy target for study. Once at the crater rim, however, it's a different story. To measure gas composition and take samples, we need to get right into the plume. At many volcanoes, this is easily accomplished by standing on downwind side of the crater rim. Lascar's enormous active crater, however, is 600m across. The geometry means that the plume tends to float off above our heads. TBF came up with two ways to tackle this problem.

One solution is to fly quadcopters. On Lascar, there's about half of the air pressure at sea level, which has a major impact on available thrust, reducing stability. Although we designed our quadcopters to handle high altitudes, this would be the highest we'd tested them. In fact, to the best of our knowledge, this would be the highest above sea level any quadcopter has ever flown. We did it, and it worked. TBF made several flights out over the crater and up into the plume.

The quadcopter flights allowed us to see the bottom of the crater in high resolution for the first time. Although our hopes of discovering a lava lake deep in the crater were dashed, it was useful to learn which fumaroles were active and where. We also flew a quadcopter with gas sensors on it into the plume and were excited to analyse the data. Unfortunately, it turned out that a gas tube had come loose while transporting the quadcopter to Lascar, rendering the data from that particular flight useless. Nevertheless, it was a good demonstration of the technology and paved the way for flights at the next volcano.

 

 

Yves and Ian worked on a simpler approach to the problem, without the stability and battery life limitations posed by a flying platform. It's called the Sampling Technology for In-situ CO2 Kollection (STICK) and is based on high-tech modular composite materials. In other words, walking poles and tent poles zip-tied together. STICK significantly increased the concentration of the gas we were able to collect.

 

We also conducted remote sensing, usually from the south side of the volcano but one day the plume direction inspired us to try operating the scanning DOAS and UV camera from a different location. On the way, we encountered some fellow Land Rover enthusiasts from Italy. We planned to get in touch afterwards via their website, but can't seem to find it! Consider this a missed connections ad.

One thing all these Atacama volcanoes have in common (in Atacommon?) is dusty off-road driving, and Lascar is no exception. We'd been blowing out our air filter with compressed air at every opportunity, but after Lascar it was clearly time for a change. We put in a fresh air filter at Antofagasta and rolled on south towards greener climes.

 

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15 January 2016: The smell of sulphur: volcán Tacora

 

From the late seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century sulphur mining was flourishing in Chile. One of the most important sulphur deposits was found on the flank of Tacora volcano, the northernmost Chilean volcano, lying hard on the triple border with Peru and Bolivia. Sulphur mining on active volcanoes has been compared to hell on multiple occasions. In Chile, the miners not only had to deal with toxic gases and hard labour conditions, but also with the high altitude (>5000 m a.s.l.) and sub-zero temperatures. At Tacora, the sulphur was loaded and transported directly on a branch of the former Arica-La Paz steam-engine train line. This railway was the world's highest, with sections higher than 4800m a.s.l.

Today, sulphur is produced as a by-product by the oil and gas industry and traditional sulphur mining is close to extinction worldwide. Ghost towns, abandoned railways, and spoil tip are the only remaining traces of this once booming industry in the Altiplano. Conveniently for us, half washed-away roads and dirt tracks up active volcanoes are also part of this legacy.

 

Compared to the work of miners, our work on the flank of the same volcano forty years later is a walk in the park! We take temperature readings to find the hottest fumaroles for our gas measurements. While the fumaroles are hot and toxic, our gas masks and Supertrousers keep us well protected. The one thing we share with the miners, however, is that we are constantly bathed in brimstone. After more than a month on volcanoes, everything - our clothes, our equipment, our skin - is impregnated by the smell of sulphur.  We often wrap up a hard day of work with a soak in a nearby hot spring -- but this doesn't seem to do much to wash away the volcanic perfume.

 

An active fumarole on Tacora seen in the infrared and visible spectra.

 

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10 January 2016: Measuring Misti

 

Dominating the skyline of Arequipa, El Misti is a big volcano. Although slightly smaller than Sabancaya in absolute terms (i.e. height above sea level, 5822 m compared to 5976 m), the lower surrounding terrain of El Misti makes it look a lot more formidable. Indeed, our Peruvian colleagues at OVI warned us (repeatedly!) that El Misti was the harder of the two to climb. Having only just made it to the top of Sabancaya without losing our breakfast, it would be a lie to say that we were thrilled at the prospect of attempting something even harder. In the end, it was Yves and Nial who took up the challenge, and began stuffing camping gear into rucksacks.

The El Misti climb is a two day affair. The route (we took the Southern route) begins at around 3400 m and starts gaining height immediately. Approximately 4 hours of climbing gets you to the campsite at ~4600 m, a small set of terraced tent emplacements set into the steep scree slopes of the mountain. The second day involves a 3am start, followed by a further 6 hours of climbing to reach the summit.

In addition to Yves and Nial, there were five members of OVI and two guides climbing. Day one got off to slow start, with lots of shuttling of equipment and personnel to the trail head. In the end, we didn’t start climbing until well after lunchtime. Upward progress was pretty slow due to the amount of equipment we were all carrying and by the time we reached the campsite there were only a few hours to spare before dark. Based on Aaron’s advice, we had opted to carry takeaway pizzas for dinner rather than bring a stove and try to cook anything. So, with the tent set up, we relaxed in the fading light and tucked into a hearty meal of cold four-cheese and spicy-meat deliciousness. I have to say that this is the best thing I have ever eaten in the mountains. Dehy, energy-gel, pasta and all those other foods that you read about in mountaineering books are rubbish. What your body needs after a strenuous, high altitude workout, is a big greasy slice of cold pizza. I cannot stress this point enough.

 

As the sun dropped, so too did the temperature. Despite the fantastic views of nearby Pikchu Pikchu volcano turned deep pink in the sunset, and the twinkling streetlights of Arequipa far below us, we didn’t waste any time in getting into our nice warm sleeping bags. Even with the altitude, the cold, and the day spent carrying heavy things uphill, we felt pretty good, and the concerns that we had harbored about the climb rapidly drifted away. At 3 am the next morning however, the attrition started.

The group set off trudging slowly upwards in the darkness, with a collection of headtorches, iPhones and a Maglight gaffer-taped to a walking pole, illuminating our way. As dawn arrived and the distant silhouette of Ubinas volcano gradually revealed itself on the horizon, we found ourselves with a problem. We could now see the top of El Misti, and it was a long way away. This was not a huge morale booster, and neither was the fact that despite leaving all the camping gear at the campsite, our rucksacks did not seem any lighter. Taking some solace in the fact that our Peruvian colleagues were not finding the climb easy either, we pushed on, the pace getting ever slower.

A little over an hour later, the rest of the group reached the top. This called for a celebration, so we all lay down and went to sleep for half an hour. This was followed by the rest of the pizza. By this time, the stragglers in the group had caught up and we turned our attention to the task at hand. The OVI group planned to take some GPS measurements around the rim of the inner crater and to take some gas measurements from the fumaroles there. We wanted to take measurements of the gases emanating from the lava dome at the bottom of the inner crater. So, donning gas masks and helmets, Nial and Edison (one of the guides), headed over to the edge of the inner crater, passing by the site where six Inca mummies were discovered in 1998.

Lava dome in the El Misti crater. Photo: Pablo Masias Alvarez

The inner crater is around 200 m deep, with mostly vertical sides. However, at one point there is a steep scree slope that can be descended relatively safely without the need for ropes. The bottom of the crater is occupied almost entirely by a jagged lava dome, stained yellow in patches by sulphur deposits from the numerous gas vents in its surface. It is an impressive site. Our first descent attempt ended at a cliff, forcing us to back-track up the slope to find another route. It rapidly became evident that whilst descending the crater was easy, climbing back out again was going to be non-trivial. The levels of gas in the crater were extremely high, saturating our Crowcon GasPro detector almost immediately and requiring a change of gas mask filter after only a short period. We had heard stories from OVI that several years ago a volcanologist had suffered chemical burns to his respiratory system after saturating his gas mask filter in the El Misti crater, so we were well prepared, with spare filters close to hand. However, the masks exacerbated the breathing difficulties caused by the altitude and condensation from the plume made it hard to see anything. Combined with the burning heat of the gases, this made for very unpleasant working conditions.

 

After an hour of collecting samples, running filter packs and performing a traverse of the lava dome with the multiGas instrument we were satisfied and started heading home. Our earlier assessment proved to be correct. The route that had taken only a few minutes to descend took us over an hour and a half to climb. The loose scree slid out from under our feet with every step, and clinging to the slope with hands and feet was the only way to make upwards progress. By the time we reached the top, the OVI team had finished their measurements too, and, keen to return to a more sensible altitude, we started our descent straight away. Coming down is always the easy bit, and this is especially true for El Misti. A huge sandy slope stretches most of the way down the volcano, and by running down this we were back at the trail-head in just a few hours. Not long later we were tucking into a large plate of Chifa (Peruvian-Chinese food), and sleepily celebrating another successful volcano ascent. It was really good to go to bed that night.

 

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31 December 2015: Three Lightly Sleeping Giants: Ticsani, Tutupaca, and Yucamani

 

After a relaxing day off, we were ready for a few more volcanoes. We left beautiful Arequipa city and headed south to Ticsani Volcano. It was an interesting target, because our OVI colleagues had noticed Ticsani's fumarolic activity to be increasing.

The slope of Ticsani is blanketed in sulphur, and the many fumaroles looked perfect for direct sampling! We started probing the ground with some high-tech devices (a meter-long titanium tube) and quickly stumbled onto an old geothermal exploration well completely filled with well-formed sulphur crystals. We started taking measurements, but while waiting for them we realized something was slightly wrong… the soles of Ian’s boots had started to melt! So did Nial’s jacket! And so did Aaron and Yves’ trousers - they were foolishly not wearing their Supertrousers (proven to be fumarole-proof) at the time.

 

After duct taping our clothes back together, we climbed Tutupaca volcano, also known as the "Peruvian Mount St. Helens", because the whole volcano had been dissected by a huge flank collapse resulting in an impressive 7 km long debris avalanche. Unlike Mt St. Helens, where the deposit is gradually becoming forested over, the desert climate of southern Peru has left this colossal trace of Tutupaca’s turbulent past entirely pristine.

Tutupaca’s fumaroles were very small and diffuse making them difficult to sample without contamination by air. The measurements were bad and we got quite frustrated. With the bitter taste of failure, an unwelcome first on the Trail by Fire, we had to bounce back so drove straight on to the next active volcano: Yucamani.

 

The volcanic gases from Yucamani are conveniently coming out of… natural hot springs. After sampling a few, we closed this chapter, and this month in Peru by a well-deserved "direct sampling" of the Yucamani hot springs.

 

With never a dull moment, a landslide forced the closure of the highway back to Arequipa. The alternate route was... "interesting"...

Ticsani, Tutupaca and Yucamani are three very lightly sleeping giants. Checking their breath regularly, as we’ve done under the guidance of our friend Fredy Apaza (of OVI), could help forecast their next awakening.

 

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12 December 2015: Sampling Sabancaya

 

Even from outer space, Sabancaya stands out as one of the world's major volcanic gas emitters. Vigilant TBF colleague Marie Boichu (CNRS Lille) pointed out that sulfur dioxide (SO2) from Sabancaya set off an alert system based on data from the MetOp-B satellite on October 10th and November 20th. In the center of the below image from the Aura satellite, you can see a huge red trail of SO2 coming from Sabancaya. TBF team member Talfan Barnie is collaborating with NASA to point the EO-1 satellite's Hyperion instrument at Sabancaya, to acquire corresponding thermal data.

 

There is some crucial information that we can't get from orbiting instruments – what is the composition of the gas, and exactly how much is being emitted? No one has answered these questions on Sabancaya. TBF was excited to find out – but it meant man-hauling our instruments to the top of this remote 5,976 m (19,606 ft) beauty.

On November 26, TBF & friends (Fredy and Dino from OVI, Sandro and Giancarlo from INGV Palermo) drove from Arequipa to the delightful town of Chivay, where elaborately snazzy rickshaws weave among outlandish statues depicting history and folklore. In Chivay, we feasted on alpaca and helped Fredy sample the water in a local hot spring.

The next morning, we hit the long windy road towards Sabancaya. As the plume came into view, we couldn't believe our luck – one of those rare moments when all conditions were perfect for measuring SO2 flux using our UV camera and DOAS instruments.

We parked around 5,000m and broke out the instruments, but soon clouds rolled in and thwarted the measurements. Ian took advantage of the downtime to complete some vehicle maintenance.

 

 

Wind and snow followed, convincing us to pack up and drive downhill.

 

 

You may have heard of "volcano fishing" – a technique where instruments are lowered into a volcano's crater by a system of cables. Well, that afternoon we tried volcano fishing of a more literal sort – Fredy took his net down to a stream and showed us how to catch trout. Fried up in garlic and ginger, they made for a hearty pre-climb meal. Full, we climbed into our sleeping bags for a few hour's rest.

 

 

The wildlife in this remote part of Peru is diverse and potent. When we woke at 1am to drive to the Ampato trailhead for our Sabancaya climb, we found with chagrin that some of that Peruvian wildlife had found its way into Ian, and was determined to come back out again. And again... At the trailhead, we held a quick team powwow and decided Yves and Sandro would take Ian downhill to recover. We'd miss them on the mountain, but we all knew 5,000m is no place to fight a stomach bug.

The rest of us shouldered our packs and followed Fredy along the path that wound around Ampato towards Sabancaya. Six hours later, we flopped onto the crater rim, exhausted. Gas masks were essential in the thick plume. We set up gas monitors, filter packs, and collected gas samples.

 

 

Soon the weather began to change and it was time to head down. Back in Chivay, we dug into the data. We were thrilled to find extraordinarily high SO2 concentrations, correlating tightly with a strong CO2 signal. The gas samples and filter pack samples will be analysed at Scripps and INGV to give us the carbon isotope values, chlorine and fluorine content, and other information about the plume composition. We can't wait to combine all the data to unravel some of Sabancaya's subsurface secrets.

Photos by Giancarlo Tamburello, Fredy Apaza, and TBF Team.

 

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2 December 2015: Friends of Trail By Fire: Peruvians, Sicilians, Volcán Ubinas, and Soft Cheese

 

Riding the Guallatiri high, we headed for Peru. We had aimed to be on Peruvian soil by noon, but it wasn’t long until Yves’ “facilitating” skills were put to the test. In fact, we were turned away once, and made a second attempt after diplomatic assistance from the incredible people at IRD. On the second try, border patrol scrutinized every nut and bolt in our load, with rules seeming to change by the minute. But after 6 hours and cobbling together some pesos from among the seats of the Land Rover, the team were in Peru!

Southern Peru is home to some of the most active volcanoes on the Trail By Fire. For this section, we had the honor of teaming up with local scientists from Peru’s OVI – INGEMMET, who run the volcano observatory in Arequipa. Fredy Apaza, Pablo Masias, and their many colleagues know the local volcanoes like the backs of their hands, and monitor their activity. They gave us a warm welcome at their Arequipa headquarters, and were willing to lead us through the Peruvian portion of the trip.

The other “Friends of Trail By Fire” to join in Arequipa were Alessandro Aiuppa (INGV, Palermo) and Giancarlo Tamburello (Universidad de Palermo), world-leading experts in volcanic degassing. They brought additional instruments and expertise – including another MultiGAS instrument, which importantly gives gas composition (ratios of different gas species) to complement the gas flux (amount of gas discharged per unit time) that can be obtained by UV Camera and DOAS.

Our Sicilians colleagues swiftly got in the spirit of “The Trail.” We formed a new and dynamic collaboration between The Trail By Fire and “The Trail by Sicily: La Routa de la Ricotta”!

 

 

With the Friends of Trail By Fire assembled, and with the expert guidance of Fredy and his colleagues from OVI, we were ready to take on the formidable volcanoes of Peru, starting with Volcán Ubinas. Right from the start, the drive to Ubinas Village was sufficient to melt away all dark memories of bureaucratic trauma.

 

 

Volcán Ubinas is the most active volcano in Peru. A large (Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) 5 on a scale of 1 to 8), pumice-forming rhyolite eruption occurred as recently as ~1000 years ago. Historical records dating to the 16th century describe at least 24 eruptions, mostly relatively small magnitude (VEI < 2) explosive events. Eruptive activity at Ubinas is considered to be ongoing, with intermittent explosions occurring since March 2015. OVI continuously monitors seismicity, gas flux, and deformation at Ubinas, in order to determine hazards associated with its activity. At the time of writing, they list the volcanic alert level as “orange” on a four colour scale.

With the addition of our colleagues and with perfect weather, the Trail By Fire mobile volcano observatory was a veritable hive of scientific activity. Nial ran static and scanning DOAS systems. Ian ran the team’s UV Camera. Aaron performed test flights with the MultiGAS-equipped Matrix Quadcopter. Sandro and Giancarlo introduced their new UV Camera setup and provided expertise on implementation of the MultiGAS instruments.

On the final day of the campaign, the plume was fortuitously descending down the flanks of the volcano. Fredy, Yves, and Giancarlo donned helmets, gas masks, and portable gas detectors, and made a daring dash to the summit. At the crater rim, they used their MultiGAS instruments to measure the composition of gases emitted from Volcán Ubinas, for the first time. 

 

 

As if the successful field campaign at Ubinas was not enough, back in the UK, Talfan “Eye in the Sky” Barnie had been liaising with Ashley Davies of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to coordinate satellite observations with the Team’s work on the ground. At the same time as the field campaign, they captured thermal anomalies (hot spots) at Ubinas from the Earth Observing-1 spacecraft. Together, these provide a rich set of data from which to expand our understanding of the volatile composition and flux at this globally important, and highly active volcano.

 

 

The Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) spacecraft is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. EO-1 is the satellite remote-sensing asset used by the EO-1 Volcano Sensor Web (VSW), developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, which is being used to monitor volcanic eruptions around the world. Image Credit: Ashley Davies

 

For the next couple of weeks, we we will continue to work closely with OVI and with the Trail By Sicily, our next stop being the mighty Volcán Sabancaya. May the Trail By Fire burn on!! And may the Trail by Ricotta continue to taste great with fresh pasta and carefully selected wine.

 

 

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9 November 2015: Successful first leg of the Trail By Fire

 

Once in Iquique, the team wasted no time getting the equipment packed, getting local parts sourced, and getting the Land Rover ready.

 

 

Recognizing that the Land Rover, the instruments, and the team members themselves needed time to acclimatize to high elevation, and get used to navigating Andean 4x4 tracks, we embarked on the Hydrothermal Loop. This was a 680 km, four-day, warm up run from sea level at Iquique, to two hydrothermal systems and a volcano at ~4000 m near the Bolivian border.

 

 

The route took us through breathtaking scenery on rugged mountain roads. We were greeted by llamas and flamingos, diverse vegetation (complete with cactus flowers), and rapidly changing geology. When services got scarce we met with some lovely locals in the villages of Parca and Moque, who were quick to offer refreshments and directions.

Our first scientific target was the hydrothermal system of Pampa Lirima, at ~4000 m elevation. We found springs up to ~60 degrees Celcius, emitting primary CO2-rich gas that was suitable for study. We deployed our full suite of direct sampling tools for later analysis back at the lab and with the Delta Ray.

We went on to successfully take measurements and samples in subsequent valleys, and were greeted at every turn by new and fantastic sights – including the continuously active geyser at Puchuldiza.

The Hydrothermal Loop culminated with the first deployment of our remote sensing instruments (UV camera and DOAS) at Volcán Isluga, a 5550 metre-high active volcano.

The team is now headed back to Iquique, to make some modifications to the equipment, and process the initial data. The Hydrothermal Loop was an important beta-test of equipment and systems, and we’re ready to get going on the next section of the adventure.

 

 

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15 October 2015

The Trail by Fire expedition, recipient of the 2015 Land Rover Bursary, run by the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) on behalf of Land Rover, and supported by DCO’s Deep Carbon Degassing (DECADE) initiative, will send an international team of six volcanologists to western South America to investigate volcanic gas emissions along the length of the Nazca plate subduction zone. Their research will help quantify volcanic gas emissions and the volcanoes’ role in cycling volatile gases through Earth’s mantle and crust. The expedition also will help to constrain the role of subduction zones in affecting Earth’s atmospheric composition.

The team members are Yves Moussallam (Team leader, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USA), Nial Peters (University of Cambridge, UK), Philipson Bani (Institute of Research for the Development, France/Indonesia), Ian Schipper (University of Wellington, New Zealand), Aaron Curtis (New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, USA), and Talfan Barnie (The Open University, UK).

EXPEDITION UPDATE: The Trail by Fire Expedition set forth in early November 2015.

Follow the progress of their expedition via their expedition blog.

The unique scientific field trip will cover more than 4,000 kilometers from Peru to the southern tip of Chile, and will contribute to DCO’s DECADE initiative, which was developed to clarify quantities and movements of volcanic carbon emissions on a global scale.

A selection of the cutting edge instruments the team will use on the expedition, clockwise from top left: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (quadcopter), SO2 camera, AvoScan scanning DOAS, Multigas system. Image credit: Trail by Fire.

Trail by Fire has gained the support of many partners, including Land Rover, the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), DCO, and contributions from colleagues worldwide, and will use a suite of cutting edge instruments housed in the world’s first Mobile Volcano Observatory: a specially modified Land Rover Defender 110. The team will use a range of in situ sensing, direct sampling, and remote sensing techniques to quantify the fluxes of various volatiles and their isotopic compositions. Using ultraviolet cameras and flame spectrometers provided by Ocean Optics, the researchers will estimate the flux of sulfur dioxide by imaging the distinctive absorption “fingerprint” left in light that has passed through volcanic plumes. The team also will deploy multigas instruments, designed and built by INGV Palermo, to register the presence of volatiles from within the plume. The Trail by Fire team will use Tedlar bags and Giggenbach bottles for field sampling and analyses, and to store physical samples for further analysis. The team will measure carbon isotopes in the field with a Delta Ray spectrometer provided by Thermo Fisher. Finally, the team will deploy a fleet of quadcopters provided by Turbo Ace to take spectrometers, sensors, and sampling devices to locales volcanologists typically cannot access. With the support of NASA scientists, satellites will track the team’s progress along the Andes, allowing for their observations to be extrapolated spatially and temporally.

By bringing these diverse and cutting edge techniques together for the first time, the team hopes to get a synoptic view of the rate at which volcanoes release volatiles into the atmosphere, and where these volatiles have come from.

Follow the expedition as it unfolds at trailbyfire.org.

The Trail by Fire team. From left to right: The Mobile Volcano Observatory, Yves Moussallam, Ian Schipper, Aaron Curtis, Talfan Barnie, Philipson Bani and Nial Peters. Image credit: Trail by Fire.

 

 

 

Further Reading

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