Goals & Background

NSF proposal

Overview:  The objective is to build a new understanding of the dynamic processes that create large rhyolitic magma systems and drive them into states of unrest and potential eruption. The natural laboratory at the Laguna del Maule volcanic field (LdM) in the Southern Andes of Chile presents a remarkable opportunity to investigate system dynamics while magma migration, reservoir growth, and crustal deformation are currently underway. This project will: (1) Ascertain the cause of the ongoing episode of unrest, including: (a) gauging the dimensions, depth, and melt fraction of the magma body or bodies currently beneath LdM; (b) estimating how these parameters evolve with time, and (c) assessing whether both current deformation, and longer term, 20,000 year, uplift, reflects replenishment of the system with basalt; (2) Integrate petrologic and geochronologic data to track and model crystallization, cooling, magma mixing and heating events over the past 100,000 years, and to determine whether the eruptive flare-up of rhyolitic lavas during the last 25,000 years shares a common, shallow source of melt or has more diffuse origins deeper in the crust; and (3) Create coupled numerical models that will link the observations to the physics and chemistry of the multi-phase magma-crust system over a variety of time scales. To reach the objective requires an international team comprising a broad range of expertise. Workshops, webinars, meetings, and a web site will keep team members and the public informed of the findings.

Intellectual Merit:  Since Earth will eventually experience another caldera-forming rhyolitic eruption, there is a need to gather comprehensive information and create models that realistically account for the dynamics that lead to these destructive events. Meeting this challenge will require understanding: (1) the slow geologic processes, magmatic conditions, and structural changes that propel assembly and growth of these systems, and (2) the dynamics of a complex multiphase system on both long (years to millennia), and short (days to months) human time scales.Yet a firm grasp on the coupling among these processes is currently lacking because they operate on scales ranging over many orders of magnitude temporally and spatially. We thus have a unique opportunity to investigate the dynamics of such a system while magma migration, reservoir growth, and astonishing crustal deformation are currently underway. Exploring this frontier through both observations and novel modeling approaches will yield unprecedented insight into system dynamics.

Broader impacts: The project is transformative because it will generate, for the first time, data on the assembly and unrest of a large rhyolitic system while it is active and growing rapidly. These data will be used in novel ways to create and test a unified computational model of how these potentially hazardous geosystems operate. Activities include:

Raising consciousness of geohazards: Subduction zones are the most seismically and volcanically dynamic, and thus most dangerous, elements of the Earth system. Even a minor eruption at LdM could trigger extensive flooding and ash fall, causing damage to downstream populations, infrastructure, and agriculture. This project will raise awareness of the potentially catastrophic hazards associated with Andean volcanism. It will develop next-generation approaches to measuring and modeling a large system that can be used by government decision-makers, both now and in the future.

Strengthening international partnerships: The team hails from 5 countries with collaboration among 8 universities and 3 government agencies. Thus, this project will catalyze research excellence through ties forged between UW-Madison, Cornell U., Georgia Tech, U. of Alberta, Simon Fraser U., Volcano Observatory of Southern Chile, U. de Concepcion, Chile, U. de San Juan, Argentina, and Nanyang Technological U., Singapore.

Mentoring & Education: The project involves mentoring of several junior faculty and investigators, plus training of several graduate students in field, laboratory, and analytical methods. Three Chilean graduate students will receive training at UW-Madison.

Communication of findings: Volcanoes are a powerful scientific teaching tool for the public at large. The project will engage with journalists and outreach specialists to improve communication of its significance and results to the public through this website.