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Water and lava, but--curiously--no explosion.

Rocky pillars dotting Iceland's Skaelingar Valley were projectiles tossed into the fields by warring trolls. That, at least, is the tale that University at Buffalo (N.Y.) geologist Tracy Gregg heard from a tour guide and focal hiker when she visited the site on two occasions, but Gregg and a colleague have a new explanation for the presence of the lava formations--this one also unexpected.

She and former master's student Kenneth Christie report that the pillars, hollow and made from basalt, likely formed in a surprising reaction where lava met water without any explosion occurring. "Usually, when lava and water meet in aerial environments, the water instantly flashes to steam," explains Gregg, associate professor of geology. "That's a volume increase of eight times--boom.

"Formations like the ones we see in Iceland are common in the ocean under two miles of water, where there's so much pressure that there's no explosion. They've never been described on land before, and it's important because it tells us that water and lava can come together on land and not explode. This has implications for the way we view volcanic risk."

Deep-sea basalt pillars form when columns of super-heated water rise between pillows of lava on the ocean floor, cooling the molten rock into hollow, pipe-like minarets. The structures grow taller as lava levels rise, and remain standing even after volcanic eruptions end and lava levels fall again.

Gregg and Christie propose that the same phenomenon sculpted the land-based lava pillars in Iceland. It happened in the 1780s, when lava from a nearby eruption entered the Skaelingar Valley, which Gregg theorizes was covered by a pond or was super-swampy.

She thinks one reason no explosion occurred was because the lava was moving so slowly--centimeters per second--that it was able to react with the water in a "kinder, gentler" manner. "If you're driving your car at five miles per hour and you hit a stop sign, it's a lot different than if you hit that same stop sign at 40 miles an hour. There's a lot more energy that will be released."

The Iceland formations, some more than two meters tall, display telltale features that hint at how they were created. For example, they are hollow on the inside and their rocky exteriors bear vertical scars--scratches where pieces of floating crust may have rammed into the pillars and scraped the surface as lava levels in the valley declined. The skin of the towers is not smooth, but gnarled with shiny drips of rock. The glassy texture suggests that the lava hardened quickly into rock, at a pace consistent with nonexplosive water-lava interactions. Had the lava cooled more slowly in air, it would have formed crystals.

In the future, scientists could hunt for land-based lava pillars near oceans to learn about the height of ancient seas, or search for such formations on Mars and other planets to determine where water once existed.

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Title Annotation:Iceland
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:4EXIC
Date:Jun 1, 2016
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