How Do Volcanoes Erupt?

Cleveland Volcano Eruption

Volcanoes come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from common cinder cone volcanoes that build up from repeated eruptions and lava domes that pile up over volcanic vents to broad shield volcanoes and composite volcanoes. Though they differ in terms of structure and appearance, they all share two things. On the one hand, they are all awesome forces of nature that both terrify and inspire.

On the other, all volcanic activity comes down to the same basic principle. In essence, all eruptions are the result of magma from beneath the Earth being pushed up to the surface where it erupts as lava, ash and rock. But what mechanisms drive this process? What is it exactly that makes molten rock rise from the Earth’s interior and explode onto the landscape?

To understand how volcanoes erupt, one first needs to consider the structure of the Earth. At the very top is the lithosphere, the outermost layers of the Earth that consists of the upper mantle and crust. The crust makes up a tiny volume of the Earth, ranging from 10 km in thickness on the ocean floor to a maximum of 100 km in mountainous regions. It is cold and rigid, and composed primarily of silicate rock.

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com
The Earth’s layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com

Beneath the crust, the Earth’s mantle is divided into sections of varying thickness based on their seismology. These consist of the upper mantle, which extends from a depth of 7 – 35 km (4.3 to 21.7 mi)) to 410 km (250 mi); the transition zone, which ranges from 410–660 km (250–410 mi); the lower mantle, which ranges from 660–2,891 km (410–1,796 mi); and the core–mantle boundary, which is ~200 km (120 mi) thick on average.

In the mantle region, conditions change drastically from the crust. Pressures increase considerably and temperatures can reach up to 1000 °C, which makes the rock viscous enough that it behaves like a liquid. In short, it experiences elastically on time scales of thousands of years or greater. This viscous, molten rock collects into vast chambers beneath the Earth’s crust.

Since this magma is less dense than the surrounding rock, it ” floats” up to the surface, seeking out cracks and weaknesses in the mantle. When it finally reaches the surface, it explodes from the summit of a volcano. When it’s beneath the surface, the molten rock is called magma. When it reaches the surface, it erupts as lava, ash and volcanic rocks.

The Earth's Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org
The Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org

With each eruption, rocks, lava and ash build up around the volcanic vent. The nature of the eruption depends on the viscosity of the magma. When the lava flows easily, it can travel far and create wide shield volcanoes. When the lava is very thick, it creates a more familiar cone volcano shape (aka. a cinder cone volcano). When the lava is extremely thick, it can build up in the volcano and explode (lava domes).

Another mechanism that drives volcanism is the motion the crust undergoes. To break it down, the lithosphere is divided into several plates, which are constantly in motion atop the mantle. Sometimes the plates collide, pull apart, or slide alongside each other; resulting in convergent boundaries, divergent boundaries, and transform boundaries. This activity is what drives geological activity, which includes earthquakes and volcanoes.

In the case of the former, subduction zones are often the result, where the heavier plate slips under the lighter plate – forming a deep trench. This subduction changes the dense mantle into buoyant magma, which rises through the crust to the Earth’s surface. Over millions of years, this rising magma creates a series of active volcanoes known as a volcanic arc.

Cross-section of a volcano. Credit: 3dgeography.co.uk/#!
Cross-section of a volcano. Credit: 3dgeography.co.uk

In short, volcanoes are driven by pressure and heat in the mantle, as well as tectonic activity that leads to volcanic eruptions and geological renewal. The prevalence of volcanic eruptions in certain regions of the world – such as the Pacific Ring of Fire – also has a profound impact on the local climate and geography. For example, such regions are generally mountainous, have rich soil, and periodically experience the formation of new landmasses.

We have written many articles about volcanoes here at Universe Today. Here’s What are the Different Types of Volcanoes?, What are the Different Parts of a Volcano?, 10 Interesting Facts About Volcanoes?, What is the Pacific Ring of Fire?, Olympus Mons: The Largest Volcano in the Solar System.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

What is the Difference Between Lava and Magma?

Few forces in nature are are impressive or frightening as a volcanic eruption. In an instant, from within the rumbling depths of the Earth, hot lava, steam, and even chunks of hot rock are spewed into the air, covering vast distances with fire and ash. And thanks to the efforts of geologists and Earth scientists over the course of many centuries, we have to come to understand a great deal about them.

However, when it comes to the nomenclature of volcanoes, a point of confusion often arises. Again and again, one of the most common questions about volcanoes is, what is the difference between lava and magma? They are both molten rock, and are both associated with volcanism. So why the separate names? As it turns out, it all comes down to location.

Earth’s Composition:

As anyone with a basic knowledge of geology will tell you, the insides of the Earth are very hot. As a terrestrial planet, its interior is differentiated between a molten, metal core, and a mantle and crust composed primarily of silicate rock. Life as we know it, consisting of all vegetation and land animals, live on the cool crust, whereas sea life inhabits the oceans that cover a large extent of this same crust.

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com
The Earth’s layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com

However, the deeper one goes into the planet, both pressures and temperatures increase considerably. All told, Earth’s mantle extends to a depth of about 2,890 km, and is composed of silicate rocks that are rich in iron and magnesium relative to the overlying crust. Although solid, the high temperatures within the mantle cause pockets of molten rock to form.

This silicate material is less dense than the surrounding rock, and is therefore sufficiently ductile that it can flow on very long timescales. Over time, it will also reach the surface as geological forces push it upwards. This happens as a result of tectonic activity.

Basically, the cool, rigid crust is broken into pieces called tectonic plates. These plates are rigid segments that move in relation to one another at one of three types of plate boundaries. These are known as convergent boundaries, at which two plates come together; divergent boundaries, at which two plates are pulled apart; and transform boundaries, in which two plates slide past one another laterally.

Interactions between these plates are what is what is volcanic activity (best exemplified by the “Pacific Ring of Fire“) as well as mountain-building. As the tectonic plates migrate across the planet, the ocean floor is subducted – the leading edge of one plate pushing under another. At the same time, mantle material will push up at divergent boundaries, forcing molten rock to the surface.

The Earth's Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org
The Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org

Magma:

As already noted, both lava and magma are what results from rock superheated to the point where it becomes viscous and molten. But again, the location is the key. When this molten rock is still located within the Earth, it is known as magma. The name is derived from Greek, which translate to “thick unguent” (a word used to describe a viscous substance used for ointments or lubrication).

It is composed of molten or semi-molten rock, volatiles, solids (and sometimes crystals) that are found beneath the surface of the Earth. This vicious rock usually collects in a magma chamber beneath a volcano, or solidify underground to form an intrusion. Where it forms beneath a volcano, it can then be injected into cracks in rocks or issue out of volcanoes in eruptions. The temperature of magma ranges between 600 °C and 1600 °C.

Magma is also known to exist on other terrestrial planets in the Solar System (i.e. Mercury, Venus and Mars) as well as certain moons (Earth’s Moon and Jupiter’s moon Io). In addition to stable lava tubes being observed on Mercury, the Moon and Mars, powerful volcanoes have been observed on Io that are capable of sending lava jets 500 km (300 miles) into space.

Igneous rock (aka. "fire rock") is formed from cooled and solidified magma. Credit: geologyclass.org
Igneous rock (aka. “fire rock”) is formed from cooled and solidified lava. Credit: geologyclass.org

Lava:

When magma reaches the surface and erupts from a volcano, it officially becomes lava. There are actually different kinds of lava depending on its thickness or viscosity. Whereas the thinnest lava can flow downhill for many kilometers (thus creating a gentle slope), thicker lavas will pile up around a  volcanic vent and hardly flow at all. The thickest lava doesn’t even flow, and just plugs up the throat of a volcano, which in some cases cause violent explosions.

The term lava is usually used instead of lava flow. This describes a moving outpouring of lava, which occurs when a non-explosive effusive eruption takes place. Once a flow has stopped moving, the lava solidifies to form igneous rock. Although lava can be up to 100,000 times more viscous than water, lava can flow over great distances before cooling and solidifying.

The word “lava” comes from Italian, and is probably derived from the Latin word labes which means “a fall” or “slide”. The first use in connection with a volcanic event was apparently in a short written account by Franscesco Serao, who observed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius between May 14th and June 4th, 1737. Serao described “a flow of fiery lava” as an analogy to the flow of water and mud down the flanks of the volcano following heavy rain.

Such is the difference between magma and lava. It seems that in geology, as in real estate, its all about location!

We have written many articles about volcanoes here at Universe Today. Here’s What is Lava?, What is the Temperature of Lava?, Igneous Rocks: How Are They Formed?, What Are The Different Parts Of A Volcano? and Planet Earth.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

Igneous Rocks: How Are They Formed?

When it comes to the composition of the Earth, three main types of rock come into play. These are known as metamorphic rock, sedimentary rock, and igneous rock, respectively. Also known as “fire rock” (derived from the Latin “ignus”), these type of rock are the most common type of rock in the Earth’s surface. In fact, combined with metaphoric rock, igneous rock makes up 90 to 95% of all rock to a depth of 16 km from the surface.

Igneous rocks are also very important because their mineral and chemical makeup can be used to learn about the composition, temperature and pressure that exists within the Earth’s mantle. They can also tell us much about the tectonic environment, given that they are closely linked to the convection of tectonic plates. But just how are these rocks formed?

Continue reading “Igneous Rocks: How Are They Formed?”

Weekly Space Hangout – May 8, 2015: Emily Rice & Brian Levine from Astronomy on Tap

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: Emily Rice & Brian Levine from Astronomy on Tap

Guests:
Jolene Creighton (@jolene723 / fromquarkstoquasars.com)
Charles Black (@charlesblack / sen.com/charles-black)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – May 8, 2015: Emily Rice & Brian Levine from Astronomy on Tap”

10 Interesting Facts About Volcanoes

Want some volcano facts? Here are 10 interesting facts about volcanoes. Some of these facts you’ll know, and others may surprise you. Whatever the case, volcanoes are amazing features of nature that demand our respect.

1. There are Three Major Kinds of Volcanoes:

Although volcanoes are all made from hot magma reaching the surface of the Earth and erupting, there are different kinds. Shield volcanoes have lava flows with low viscosity that flow dozens of kilometers; this makes them very wide with smoothly sloping flanks.

Stratovolcanoes are made up of different kinds of lava, and eruptions of ash and rock and grow to enormous heights. Cinder cone volcanoes are usually smaller, and come from short-lived eruptions that only make a cone about 400 meters high.

2. Volcanoes Erupt Because of Escaping Magma:

About 30 km beneath your feet is the Earth’s mantle. It’s a region of superhot rock that extends down to the Earth’s core. This region is so hot that molten rock can squeeze out and form giant bubbles of liquid rock called magma chambers. This magma is lighter than the surrounding rock, so it rises up, finding cracks and weakness in the Earth’s crust.

Lava fountain in Hawaii.
Lava fountain in Hawaii. Image Credit: Jim D. Griggs/HVO/USGS

When it finally reaches the surface, it erupts out of the ground as lava, ash, volcanic gasses and rock. It’s called magma when it’s under the ground, and lava when it erupts onto the surface.

3. Volcanoes can be Active, Dormant or Extinct:

An active volcano is one that has had an eruption in historical times (in the last few thousand years). A dormant volcano is one that has erupted in historical times and has the potential to erupt again, it just hasn’t erupted recently. An extinct volcano is one that scientists think probably won’t erupt again. Here’s more information on the active volcanoes in the world.

4. Volcanoes can Grow Quickly:

Although some volcanoes can take thousands of years to form, others can grow overnight. For example, the cinder cone volcano Paricutin appeared in a Mexican cornfield on February 20, 1943. Within a week it was 5 stories tall, and by the end of a year it had grown to more than 336 meters tall. It ended its grown in 1952, at a height of 424 meters. By geology standards, that’s pretty quick.

Detailed View of Ash Plume at Eyjafjallajökull Volcano
Detailed view from space of the ash plume caused by the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010. Credit: NASA

5. There are 20 Volcanoes Erupting Right Now:

Somewhere, around the world, there are likely about 20 active volcanoes erupting as you’re reading this. Some are experiencing new activity, others are ongoing. Between 50-70 volcanoes erupted last year, and 160 were active in the last decade. Geologists estimate that 1,300 erupted in the last 10,000 years.

Three quarters of all eruptions happen underneath the ocean, and most are actively erupting and no geologist knows about it at all. One of the reasons is that volcanoes occur at the mid ocean ridges, where the ocean’s plates are spreading apart. If you add the underwater volcanoes, you get an estimate that there are a total of about 6,000 volcanoes that have erupted in the last 10,000 years.

6. Volcanoes are Dangerous:

But then you knew that. Some of the most deadly volcanoes include Krakatoa, which erupted in 1883, releasing a tsunami that killed 36,000 people. When Vesuvius exploded in AD 79, it buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing 16,000 people.

Image of Mt. Vesuvius, captured in 2000 by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER). Credit: NASA/EO
Image of Mt. Vesuvius, captured in 2000 by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) aboard the Terra satellite. Credit: NASA/EO

Mount Pelee, on the island of Martinique destroyed a town with 30,000 people in 1902. The most dangerous aspect of volcanoes are the deadly pyroclastic flows that blast down the side of a volcano during an eruption. These contain ash, rock and water moving hundreds of kilometers an hour, and hotter than 1,000 degrees C.

7. Supervolcanoes are Really Dangerous:

Geologists measure volcano eruptions using the Volcano Explosivity Index, which measures the amount of material released. A “small” eruption like Mount St. Helens was a 5 out of 8, releasing a cubic kilometer of material. The largest explosion on record was Toba, thought to have erupted 73,000 years ago.

It released more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of material, and created a caldera 100 km long and 30 kilometers wide. The explosion plunged the world into a world wide ice age. Toba was considered an 8 on the VEI.

8. The Tallest Volcano in the Solar System isn’t on Earth:

That’s right, the tallest volcano in the Solar System isn’t on Earth at all, but on Mars. Olympus Mons, on Mars, is a giant shield volcano that rises to an elevation of 27 km, and it measures 550 km across. Scientists think that Olympus Mons was able to get so large because there aren’t any plate tectonics on Mars. A single hotspot was able to bubble away for billions of years, building the volcano up bigger and bigger.

Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea observed from space. Credit: NASA/EO

9. The Tallest and Biggest Volcanoes on Earth are side by side:

The tallest volcano on Earth is Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, with an elevation of 4,207 meters. It’s only a little bigger than the largest volcano on Earth, Mauna Loa with an elevation of only 4,169 meters. Both are shield volcanoes that rise up from the bottom of the ocean. If you could measure Mauna Kea from the base of the ocean to its peak, you’d get a true height of 10,203 meters (and that’s bigger than Mount Everest).

10. The Most Distant Point from the Center of the Earth is a Volcano:

You might think that the peak of Mount Everest is the most distant point from the center of the Earth, but that’s not true. Instead, it’s the volcano Chimborazo in Ecuador. That’s because the Earth is spinning in space and is flattened out. Points at the equator are further from the center of the Earth than the poles. And Chimborazo is very close to the Earth’s equator.

We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article that tackles about the 10 facts about earth’s core. You might also want to read on the 10 facts about earth. And here’s more: all about volcanoes.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

Reference:
USGS Volcano Hazards Program

Were Lunar Volcanoes Active When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth?

The Moon’s a very dusty museum where the exhibits haven’t changed much over the last 4 billion years. Or so we thought. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has provided researchers strong evidence the Moon’s volcanic activity slowed gradually instead of stopping abruptly a billion years ago.

Some volcanic deposits are estimated to be 100 million years old, meaning the moon was spouting lava when dinosaurs of the Cretaceous era were busy swatting giant dragonflies. There are even hints of 50-million-year-old volcanism, practically yesterday by lunar standards.

Ina Caldera sits atop a low, broad volcanic dome or shield volcano, where lavas once oozed from the moon’s crust. The darker patches in the photo are blobs of older lunar crust. As in the photo of Maskelyne, they form a series of low mounds higher than the younger, jumbled terrain around them. Credit: NASA
Ina Caldera sits atop a low, broad volcanic dome or shield volcano, where lavas once oozed from the moon’s crust. The darker patches in the photo are blobs of older lunar crust. As in the photo of Maskelyne, they form a series of low mounds higher than the younger, jumbled terrain around them. Credit: NASA

The deposits are scattered across the Moon’s dark volcanic plains (lunar “seas”) and are characterized by a mixture of smooth, rounded, shallow mounds next to patches of rough, blocky terrain. Because of this combination of textures, the researchers refer to these unusual areas as “irregular mare patches.”

Measuring less than one-third mile (1/2 km) across, almost all are too small to see from Earth with the exception of Ina Caldera, a 2-mile-long D-shaped patch where blobs of older, crater-pitted lunar crust (darker blobs) rise some 250 feet above the younger, rubbly surface like melted cheese on pizza.

Lavas on the moon were thin and runny like this flow photographed in Kilauea, Hawaii. Credit: USGS
Lavas on the moon were thin and runny like this flow photographed in Kilauea, Hawaii. Credit: USGS

Ina was thought to be a one-of-a-kind until researchers from Arizona State University in Tempe and Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster in Germany spotted 70 more patches in close-up photos taken by the LRO. The large number and the fact that the patches are scattered all over the nearside of the Moon means that volcanic activity was not only recent but widespread.

Astronomers estimate ages for features on the moon by counting crater numbers and sizes (the fewer seen, the younger the surface) and the steepness of the slopes running from the tops of the smoother domes to the rough terrain below (the steeper, the younger).

“Based on a technique that links such crater measurements to the ages of Apollo and Luna samples, three of the irregular mare patches are thought to be less than 100 million years old, and perhaps less than 50 million years old in the case of Ina,” according to the NASA press release.

Artist concept illustration of the internal structure of the moon. Credit: NOAJ
Artist concept illustration of the internal structure of the moon. Credit: NOAJ

The young mare patches stand in stark contrast to the ancient volcanic terrain surrounding them that dates from 3.5 to 1 billion years ago.

For lava to flow you need a hot mantle, the deep layer of rock beneath the crust that extends to the Moon’s metal core. And a hot mantle means a core that’s still cranking out a lot of heat.

Scientists thought the Moon had cooled off a billion or more years ago, making recent flows all but impossible. Apparently the moon’s interior remained piping hot far longer than anyone had supposed.

“The existence and age of the irregular mare patches tell us that the lunar mantle had to remain hot enough to provide magma for the small-volume eruptions that created these unusual young features,” said Sarah Braden, a recent Arizona State University graduate and the lead author of the study.

It takes two to tango. The moon’s gravity raises a pair of watery bulges in the Earth’s oceans creating the tides, while Earth's gravity stretches and compresses the moon to warm its interior. Illustration: Bob King
It takes two to tango. The moon’s gravity raises a pair of watery bulges in the Earth’s oceans creating the tides, while Earth’s gravity stretches and compresses the moon to warm its interior. Illustration: Bob King

One way to keep the Moon warm is through tidal interaction with the Earth. A recent study points out that strains caused by Earth’s gravitational tug on the Moon (nearside vs. farside) heats up its interior. Could this be the source of the relatively recent lava flows?

So the pendulum swings. Prior to 1950 it was thought that lunar craters and landforms were all produced by volcanic activity. But the size and global distribution of craters – and the volcanoes required to produce them – would be impossible on a small body like the Moon. In the 1950s and beyond, astronomers came to realize through the study of nuclear bomb tests and high-velocity impact experiments that explosive impacts from asteroids large and small were responsible for the Moon’s craters.

This latest revelation gives us a more nuanced view of how volcanism may continue to play a role in the formation of lunar features.

This Company Wants To Send Robots Into Lunar Caves

Ever since (and most likely long before) the first tantalizing glimpses of a lunar lava tube and skylight were captured by Japan’s Kaguya spacecraft in 2009, scientists have been dreaming of ways to explore inside these geological treasures. Not only would they provide valuable information on the movement of ancient lunar lava flows, but they could also be great places for future human explorers to set up camp and be well-protected from dangerous solar and cosmic radiation.

But before human eyes will ever peer into the darkness of a lava tube on the Moon, robotic rovers will roll along their silent floors — at least, they will if Google Lunar XPRIZE competitor Astrobotic has anything to say about it.

Last month, engineer and Astrobotic CEO Dr. Red Whitttaker talked to NASA about why they want to explore a Moon cave and the history and progress of their project. Check it out below:


“Something so unique about the lava tubes is that they are the one destination that combines the trifecta of science, exploration, and resources.”

– Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, CEO Astrobotic Technology, Inc.

See this and more in-progress Moon plans from various research facilities on the Google Lunar XPRIZE Moon Roundup.

The international Google Lunar XPRIZE aims to create a new “Apollo” moment for a new generation by driving continuous lunar exploration with $40 million in incentive-based prizes. In order to win, a private company must land safely on the surface of the Moon, travel 500 meters above, below, or on the lunar surface, and send back two “Mooncasts” to Earth… all by Dec. 31, 2015.

Astrobotic Technology Inc. is a Pittsburgh-based company that delivers affordable space robotics technology and planetary missions. Spun out of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute in 2008, Astrobotic is pioneering affordable planetary access that promises to spark a new era of exploration, science, tourism, resource utilization and mining. (Source)

Scientists Suggest Evidence of Recent Lunar Volcanism

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A team of researchers at India’s Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) claims it has found evidence of relatively recent volcanic activity on the Moon, using data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Chadrayaan-1 spacecraft. According to the findings the central peak of Tycho crater contains features that are volcanic in origin, indicating that the Moon was geologically active during the crater’s formation 110 million years ago.

In an article by the Deccan Herald, a Bangalore-based  publication, the PRL researchers claim that vents, lava channels and solidified flows of inner crustal material found within Tycho were made as recently as 100 million years ago — after the creation of the crater.

This could indicate that there was pre-existing volcanic activity within the Moon at the site of the Tycho impact, lending credence to the idea that the Moon was recently geologically active.

In addition, large boulders ranging in size from 33 meters to hundreds of yards across have been spotted on Tycho’s central peaks by LRO, including one 400-foot (120-meter) -wide specimen nestled atop the highest summit. How did such large boulders get there and what are they made of?

A 400-foot-wide boulder within the central peak of Tycho. (NASA/GSFC/LROC)

The researchers hint that they may also be volcanic in origin.

“A surprise findings revealed the  presence of large boulders–about 100 meter in size –on top of the peak. Nobody knew how did they reach the top,” said Prakash Chauhan, a PRL scientist.

Without further studies it’s difficult to determine the exact origin and ages of these lunar formations. The team awaits future research by Chandrayaan-II, which will examine the Moon from orbit as well as land a rover onto the lunar surface. Chandrayaan-II is expected to launch in early 2014.

The PRL team’s findings were published in the April 10 issue of Current Science.

Read the article in the Deccan Herald here.

Could There Be Life In Them Thar Pits?

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Recent images from ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft reveal long rows of crater-like depressions lining the flanks of ancient Martian volcanoes located in the planet’s vast Tharsis region. Rather than being the result of impact events, these “pit chains” were likely caused by underground lava flows — and could be a prime location for look for life.

Like similar features found on Earth, lava tubes on Mars are the result of rivers of magma that carved channels beneath the surface. When these channels empty out, a hollow tube is left. If the roof of a particularly large tube is near the surface the roof can eventually collapse, creating a surface depression… or, in some cases, opening up to the surface entirely.

Even though volcanism on Mars isn’t currently active — the last eruptions probably took place at least over a million years ago — the features left by volcanic activity are still very much present today and likely well-preserved beneath the Martian surface.

Shielded from harsh solar and cosmic radiation, the interior of such lava tubes could provide a safe haven for microbial life — especially if groundwater had found its way inside at some point.

Even though the surface of Mars can receive 250 times the radiation levels found on Earth, the layers of soil and rock surrounding the tubes can provide adequate protection for life, whether it be ancient Martian microbes or future explorers from Earth.

A wider image of the Tractus Catena region showing the large shield volcano Ascraeus Mons. Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Of course, water and protection from radiation aren’t the only factors necessary for life. There also needs to be some source of heat. Fortunately, the pit chains imaged by Mars Express happen to be within one of the most volcano-laden areas of the Red Planet, a region called the Arcadia quadrangle. Within this area exist some of the largest volcanoes on Mars — and the Tractus Catena pits are located right in the middle of them.

If a heat source were ever to have been beneath the surface of Mars, there would be a good chance it would have been here.

And if our own planet is any measure of such things, where there’s heat and water there is often some form of life — however extreme the conditions may be.

“I’d like to see us land ON a volcano,” Dr. Tracy Gregg, a volcanologist with the University of Buffalo, had once told Universe Today back in 2004. “Right on the flanks. Often the best place to look for evidence of life on any planet is near volcanoes.”

“That may sound counterintuitive, but think about Yellowstone National Park , which really is nothing but a huge volcano,” Gregg elaborated. “Even when the weather in Wyoming is 20 below zero, all the geysers, which are fed by volcanic heat, are swarming with bacteria and all kinds of happy little things cruising around in the water. So, since we think that the necessary ingredients for life on Earth were water and heat, we are looking for the same things on Mars.”

As far as any remaining geothermal activity still happening beneath the Martian surface?

“I strongly suspect there are still molten (or at least mushy) magma bodies beneath the huge Tharsis volcanoes,” Gregg had said. (Read the full article here.)

On Earth, lava tubes, caves and underground spaces of all kinds harbor life, often specialized forms that are found no place else. Could this be (or have once been) the case on Mars as well? Only future exploration will tell. Until then, places like Tractus Catena will remain on scientists’ short list of places to look.

Read more on the ESA website here.

How Hot is Lava

How Hot is Lava

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We all know that the lava is molten rock that is spewed from a volcano. However how hot is lava? The temperature of lava can range anywhere from 700° C to 1200° C. Lava is not really lava until it meets the earth’s crust before that it is known as magma. Magma is the ocean of molten rock that lies beneath the earth’s crust. When it escapes through cracks the earth’s crust it creates volcanoes. The magma that comes out of volcanoes is what we call lava. Lava can be as much 100,000 times as viscous as water.

The different types of lava vary depending on composition and temperature. The three main types of lava are felsic, intermediate, and mafic. There are two types of felsic lava. They are rhyolite and dacite. These types of lava are composed of aluminum, silica, potassium, sodium, calcium, and liquid quartz and feldspar. Felsic lava normally erupts between 650° C to 750° C.

Intermediate lava is the next type of lava. Intermediate lava is also known as andesitic lava. Andesitic lava has lower levels of aluminium and silica. However this kind of lava is richer in magnesium and iron than felsic lava. This kind of lava occurs on steep composite volcanoes like those found in the Andes mountain range. Since andesitic lava has a lower level of aluminum and silica in its composition it is normally hotter with a range of 750-950° C.

The last type of lava is mafic lava or basaltic lava. This is one of the hottest types of lava coming out at temperatures exceed 950 degrees Celsius. This type of lava is rich in iron bearing minerals. This is what accounts for as high temperature. There are also the kinds of mafic lava that are even a hotter than normal basaltic lava. One type is all ultra-mafic lava.

Lava temperature tells us a lot about the different types of lava. Each brings important minerals and nutrients to the surface. So getting a better understanding of lava flows gives a better of the Earth’s composition and how certain minerals came to the surface of the Earth’s crust.

We have written many articles about lava for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the types of lava, and here’s an article about the viscosity of lava.

If you’d like more info on lava and volcanoes, take a look at the USGS’ Volcanoes Hazard Program, and here’s a link to Volcano World from Oregon State University.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about volcanoes. Listen here, Episode 141: Volcanoes, Hot and Cold.

References:
NASA Earth Observatory
USGS