Phreatomagmatic eruptions under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet: potential hazard for ice sheet stability

Monday, 15 December 2014
Nels Anton Iverson1, Nelia W Dunbar1, Ross Lieb-Lappen2, Ellen J Kim2, Ellyn J Golden2 and Rachel W Obbard2, (1)New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Socorro, NM, United States, (2)Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, United States
Volcanic tephra layers have been seen in most ice cores in Antarctica. These tephra layers are deposited almost instantaneously across wide areas of ice sheets, creating horizons that can provide “pinning points” to adjust ice time scales that may otherwise be lacking detailed chronology. A combination of traditional particle morphology characterization by SEM with new non-destructive X-ray micro-computed tomography (Micro-CT) has been used to analyze selected coarse grained tephra in the West Antarctica Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide WDC06A ice core. Micro-CT has the ability to image particles as small as 50µm in length (15µm resolution), quantifying both particle shape and size.

 The WDC06A contains hundreds of dusty layers of which 36 have so far been identified as primary tephra layers. Two of these tephra layers have been characterized as phreatomagmatic eruptions based on SEM imagery and are blocky and platy in nature, with rare magmatic particles. These layers are strikingly different in composition from the typical phonolitic and trachytic tephra produced from West Antarctic volcanoes. These two layers are coarser in grain size, with many particles (including feldspar crystals) exceeding 100µm in length. One tephra layer found at 3149.138m deep in the ice core is a coarse ~1mm thick basanitic tephra layer with a WDC06-7 ice core age of 45,381±2000yrs. The second layer is a ~1.3 cm thick zoned trachyandesite to trachydacite tephra found at 2569.205m deep with an ice core age 22,470±835yrs. Micro-CT analysis shows that WDC06A-3149.138 has normal grading with the largest particles at the bottom of the sample (~160μm). WDC06A-2569.205 has a bimodal distribution of particles with large particles at the top and bottom of the layer. These large particles are more spherical in shape at the base and become more irregular and finer grained higher in the layer, likely showing changes in eruption dynamics. The distinct chemistry as well as the blocky and large grain size of the two tephra lead us to believe that these eruptions are from volcanoes proximal to WAIS Divide and did not transport far because neither tephra was observed in the Byrd core (<100km away). It is likely that these tephra are sourced from volcanoes beneath the WAIS and have since been buried and if they were to erupt again, may contribute to ice sheet instability.