Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Undergraduate Issue

Volume 26 Number 2
Spring 2004

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Icelandic glacier
Skaftafellsjökull in Skaftafell National Park

waterfall in southern Iceland
Seljalandsfoss in southern Iceland

small valley
This small valley on the Reykjnes Peninsula marks the rift boundary between the North American plate moving to the west (right) and the Eurasian plate moving to the east (left).

Iceland Project students and faculty
The Iceland Project group poses in front of Hekla, one of Iceland's most active volcanoes.

Working in the Laboratory of the Gods

by David Bricker

Photos courtesy Jeffrey Swope

Some 30 million years ago, hot magma emerged from the cold, dark depths of the North Atlantic Ocean. Under extreme pressure, it burst from a loosened seam in the sea floor, erupting sporadically until at last its hardened masses broke the ocean's surface. Where once there had been nothing but choppy seas, a submerged mountain now stood, its apex thrust into the atmosphere.

And that was just the beginning. Since its fire-forged birth, Iceland has been a mythic battlefield where Scandinavian gods make war on each other disguised as the elements.

"Situated just below the Arctic circle, Iceland has been covered by expanding glaciers several times in the past million years alone," says Kathy Licht, assistant professor of geology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "In these somewhat balmy modern times, the remaining glaciers are slowly shrinking. Volcanoes frequently erupt under the ice producing enormous short-lived floods, called Jokulhaups, that have played, and still play, an important role in shaping the landscape."

The island nation sits atop a 2,500-mile-long fissure, along which the North American and European tectonic plates are constantly pulling apart, widening the Atlantic Ocean. Massive basalt flows—such as the 1783 Laki fissure eruptions of lava and millions of tons of caustic gases that killed half of Iceland's domestic animals and a tenth of its population—have periodically made Iceland a hell on Earth.

And there's no end to the eruptions in sight. Just 40 years ago, a major volcanic eruption below the North Atlantic spawned a new island 20 miles from Iceland's southern coast. The locals named it Surtsey, "land of Surtur," after the fearsome Icelandic god whose beard, hair, and sword crackle with flames.

The first humans to live in Iceland were probably Irish monks who arrived around A.D. 800. The monks were joined and quickly outnumbered by Danish and Norwegian Vikings. Then, just a brief geologic moment later, came a group of students who, despite making the trip without having rowed a stroke, accomplished something extraordinary to get there.

About a year ago, eight undergraduates at IUPUI submitted grant proposals to the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which funds IUPUI students pursuing research projects under the guidance of faculty members. Students must submit proposals just as they would if they were applying for a grant from the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health. Each proposal from the group of eight was crafted as part of a single, multifaceted study of Iceland's geology called The Iceland Project. All eight proposals were funded.

UROP provided each grantee with $2,500 to conduct research and help cover the costs of a research trip to Iceland. "The geology faculty really believe in the importance of direct engagement," Licht says. "These kinds of grants for undergraduates are pretty rare. We are extremely fortunate that IUPUI is committed to getting undergraduates involved in research as early as possible."

The crew of faculty mentors for the project included Licht and fellow IUPUI geologists Jeff Swope, Andrew Barth, Gabe Filippelli and Lenore Tedesco, IUPUI geographer Jeff Wilson, and IUPUI biologist Xianzhong Wang. In advising the students, Licht provided expertise on Iceland's glacial geology, while Swope, a mineralogist, taught students about the properties of the rocks and minerals in, under, and around Icelandic glaciers. Tedesco provided insight on the coastal geology. Barth's expertise covers both petrology and tectonics—he is interested in the large-scale processes responsible for Iceland's origins and continuing growth. Filippelli and Wang helped organize a project to assess biogenic controls on rock weathering, while Wilson guided students through remote sensing projects.

The Iceland Project, originally conceived and organized by Licht and Swope, was not merely a field trip. Students preparing for the summer trip took G420, a spring 2003 semester course called Field Study in Iceland co-taught by Licht and Swope. Enrolled students learned about Iceland's geology, but they also mastered the art of writing a successful grant proposal. "Dr. Licht and Dr. Swope kept us on deadline and helped us with each piece of the proposal," says senior Nicole Fohey, a member of the Iceland group. "All the professors worked together in reading over our proposals, which helped make the proposals more likely to succeed."

In July 2003, Fohey and a group of fellow undergraduates joined Licht, Swope, Tedesco, IUPUI physicist Fritz Kleinhans, IUPUI geology instructor Marta Corbin, and one graduate student for a 12-day trip to Iceland. They intensively studied glaciers, lava flows, and sediment-laden valleys. Because time was short, the IUPUI emissaries did as much as they could beforehand, tightening protocols for each aspect of the project and applying for the permits they would need to travel through Iceland's parks and collect rock samples.

Despite their many preparations, the group often had to modify their plans to ensure they would get needed samples. Existing maps didn't always lead the students to the locations with the best samples, and sample collection sometimes required the field scientists to haul heavy equipment up the face of a glacier. None of this deterred sophomore Christy Carter, however, who found that the only thing better than reading about Iceland's smörgåsbord of geological processes was seeing them in person.

"Iceland is like climbing into the pictures in my geology textbook," she says. "Each time you walked out a door, there was some new incredible thing to study. It's great to be able to have a scientific conversation in the middle of a place you're studying."

Licht, Swope, Tedesco, and Corbin gave short lectures in the field to augment the students' observations. "It was extremely rewarding for me to watch the 'a-ha' light bulbs go off when students saw examples of things in the field that had seemed somewhat nebulous in the classroom," Licht says. "Studying rocks and glaciers without ever seeing them in the field is like studying medicine without ever seeing a patient."

The students' projects covered a range of Icelandic phenomena including the formation of igneous rocks, the weathering of basalt flows, and the movement of glacial debris. For their part of the project, Fohey, Carter, and senior Kenny Brown collaborated to study Iceland's rhyolites, volcanic rocks that are high in silica and low in magnesium. Most of Iceland is made of rhyolites' volcanic cousins, basalts, which are low in silica and high in magnesium.

The difference may seem slight, but the relative amounts of magnesium, silica, and water in magma greatly influence the character of volcanic eruptions. It is the difference between the explosive Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, which spewed hot ash across 230 square miles, and the comparatively gentle Mauna Loa eruptions, which produce seeping lava flows. "Rhyolite eruptions are very violent because the liquid rock is stickier and contains more water," Fohey explains. "This is different from the volcanoes in say, Hawaii, where the lavas flow smoothly."

Knowing which kind of magma will emerge is a matter of great interest to people who are nearby, such as the nearly 300,000 Icelanders who live within 60 miles of an active volcano. Fohey, Carter, and Brown divided up labor in collecting 13 rhyolite samples from Namshraun, Laughraun, and Domadulshraun, three lava flows in the Torfajokull volcano complex. "Working with Christy and Nicole has helped me develop my communication skills," Brown notes. "We are constantly discussing issues associated with our research and problem-solving as group."

One of the big questions the students faced is the simple existence of rhyolites in Iceland. "Rhyolites are not supposed to be there, coming up at the hot spot," Fohey says, referring to the point where subterranean magma emerges. "You'd expect it all to be basalt. It's weird, because the whole island is made out of basalt, except for just a few areas which are higher in silica.

"So the question is, what's going on here?" she continues. "Many different geological processes can change the chemistry of the magma before it emerges. The exact process that makes high-silica magma in Iceland is still mostly a mystery. In the literature, we found only 50 to 60 chemical analyses of rhyolitic volcanic rocks from this geologic setting, not including ours."

Without more scientific studies, it's difficult to understand why some volcanoes produce rhyolites, but the students' analyses should lead to a better model for rhyolite formation, says IUPUI Associate Dean for Research Kathryn Wilson. "A better understanding of the origin of this type of magma could help predict eruptions and lessen the danger of volcanic eruptions in Iceland," she points out.

In fall 2003, Fohey, Carter, and Brown began the analysis phase of their project by taking an indepen- dent study course with Barth, who runs the IUPUI Petrology Laboratory where sample preparation and analyses were performed. The students also received continuing mentoring from Swope, who runs the X-ray Laboratory and Licht, who runs the Sediment Analysis Laboratory, as well as from Tedesco, Filippelli, Wilson, and Wang.

Fohey, Carter, and Brown discussed the preliminary results of their studies at the IU Undergraduate Research Conference in November 2003. All of the Iceland Project students hope to discuss abstracts describing their research at the Geological Society of America's annual meeting in Denver this fall.

The Iceland Project accomplished real field research and will likely contribute to the scientific literature. It also gave the students a chance to try on a geologist's guise, to see if it suited them.

It suited Carter. "The project taught me what it's like to be a geologist, going out to get the things you're going to study," she says. "As a freshman, I thought it would be really cool to do field research, but I had expected to wait three or four years. Before I took the trip, I thought maybe rocks would be a hobby rather than a career, but the trip helped me realize this is what I really want to do."

Of the many things students brought back with them from Iceland, it may be their memories of doing field research that stick with them longest. "One day when we were out getting samples, I looked up and watched a storm coming across the valley, high atop this lava field," Fohey recalls. "I feel more connected now to the research I'm doing."

David Bricker works for the IU Office of Media Relations and is a freelance writer in Bloomington.