Tobias Fischer, a professor at The University of New Mexico's Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, has been heavily involved in tracking Iceland’s volcanic activity. A noted volcanologist, Fischer traveled to Iceland in mid-November 2023 to deliver and install his Delta Ray Instrument to his colleagues at the University of Iceland. This instrument measures carbon isotopes that help inform scientists about the magma sources below the surface. The data from this instrument is critical when building time series data sets to evaluate the eruption.

Tobias Fischer with the Delta Ray instrument

“During an eruption such as the ones that have recently been occurring in Iceland, we have the opportunity to collect gas samples directly from magma as it reaches the surface. We use UAVs to capture these volcanic gasses and take the samples to the Lab at the University of Iceland, where we can analyze them rapidly using the Delta Ray. Having the instrument in the lab allows us to get a lot of data quickly that informs us on the magma dynamics and evolution of the ongoing eruption,” explained Fischer. 

This instrument is critical in understanding the land that volcanoes inhibit. Samantha Wolf, Fischer's administrative assistant, explains more. 

“The instrument used allows us to make rapid analyses of carbon isotopes, which helps inform us where the magma is sourced below the surface and if the source of the magma changes throughout the eruption. These data can then be used in a "bigger picture" sense to understand if eruptions within the region are related and potentially sourced from the same place at depth,” said Samantha Wolf, administrative assistant to Tobias Fischer. 

To get a baseline gas reading of the area before the eruption, Fischer and colleague Dr. Celine Mandon of the University of Iceland collected gas samples from newly formed cracks in the road to Grindavik and as well in Tedlar bags at a borehole of a geothermal plant. In these same areas where Fischer and Mandon collected gas samples, they measured different species of gasses using the Icelandic Met Offices multiGAS instrument.  Fischer explained that site access is always a challenge for scientists, so it is exciting that he could sample the cracks in Grindavik.

“With the permission of the Icelandic Met Office and the power plant company, we could access newly formed cracks in the ground. Gasses and steam were escaping these cracks, and we collected samples from those and also from a well operated by the power plant. The isotope composition of these samples gives us information on the potential impact of degassing magma at depth on the power plant wells,” said Fischer.

In November 2023, CONVERSE created a space in Slack workspace where scientists could collaborate on research ideas, discuss NSF RAPID proposals, and update each other on different aspects of the eruption. This all happened while more activity in the Grindavik area was building up with more earthquakes and deformation. Ph.D. students and Early Career Researchers from the workspace also organized an Early Career Researcher (ECR) webinar where they could ask questions about the NSF  RAPID writing process to promote ECR research during active eruptions. The Slack space is still active and has over 60 members interested in the now stopped Dec. 2023 eruption and potential future eruptions.

Delta Ray Instrument

The eruption in southern Iceland (Svartsengi area near Grindavik) started on Dec. 18, 2023, and was confirmed to be over by Dec. 21, 2023, by local scientists. In November, before the eruption, significant earthquakes (measured by seismometers) and deformation (north, south, east, west, and vertical ground movement relative to GPS instruments) resulted in major cracking of the ground in Grindavik, causing multiple evacuations of the area. A great drone video of the cracking in November can be found here

Over the summer in July, the CONVERSE Center conducted a one-week workshop to design and build a Volcanic Eruption Scenario at the University of New Mexico Campus from July 9 to July 15, 2023 (termed CSBI-CONVERSE Scenario building Institute pronounced 'Ces-bee').

Early career researchers and students from all over the country worked together in discipline groups to develop an eruption scenario in chronological order with different geochemical types and geophysical data and models. While the scenario was happening, Iceland began erupting on July 10, 2023.  This eruption was the next major eruption following the March 19, 2021 eruption, which lasted six months.

Tobias Fischer with the Delta Ray instrument

“To my knowledge, this type of exercise, to put together a realistic multi-disciplinary volcano eruption scenario, was a first, and the students and post-docs did a great job. Everyone was working together effectively and had to quickly learn from each other to come up with a consistent model for magma moving from below the surface through the volcano and erupting at the surface in various ways,” said Fischer. 

While CSBI occurred, Fischer worked alongside everyone, writing an NSF RAPID proposal. "The RAPID funding mechanism is used for proposals having a severe urgency with regard to the availability of, or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events." The proposal was successfully funded, and Fischer, Scott Nowicki (research associate professor), and Felipe Rojas Vilches from EPS (Earth and Planetary Sciences), plus Matthew Fricke (research assistant professor) and his Ph.D. student John Ericksen from the computer science department, were able to go to Iceland and measure CO2 in the eruption plumes, plus take samples via drone or UAS. The team was able to estimate the amount of CO2 in the plume using a multidisciplinary approach. 

“Our UNM VolCAN team can now go to eruptions and bring UAV and gas sampling equipment within about 48 hours notice. Such rapid response is critical because it is right at the start of these eruption where we can learn a lot about the magma dynamics and the processes the initiate and drive volcanic eruptions. If you are too slow, you may miss the most informative part of an eruption,” explained Fischer.

The VolCAN project is funded by NSF under the leadership of Melanie Moses, professor of Computer Science. 

Although the Dec. 2023 eruption near Grindavik stopped on Dec. 21, by Dec. 27, ground deformation continued at a rate similar to the days before the Dec. 18 eruption. Thus, Icelandic scientists and officials conclude that there is an increased probability of a new eruption. 

Daily updates can be found here for more in-depth details.

As of Sunday, Jan. 14 a new eruption started. View the live feed here. CONVERSE has updated the Slack workspace of the news. Right now, Iceland officials' priority is to ensure the public is safe and assess how infrastructure will be damaged (if at all) as the eruption evolves.