Multidisciplinary constraints of hydrothermal explosions based on the 2013 Gengissig lake events, Kverkfjöll volcano, Iceland

By Cristian Montanaro

LMU Munich

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Hydrothermal explosions frequently occur in geothermal areas showing various mechanisms and energies of explosivity. Their deposits, though generally hardly recognised or badly preserved, provide important insights to quantify the dynamics and energy of these poorly understood explosive events. Furthermore the host rock lithology of the geothermal system adds a control on the efficiency in the energy release during an explosion. We present results from a detailed study of recent hydrothermal explosion deposits within an active geothermal area at Kverkfjöll, a central volcano at the northern edge of Vatnajökull. On August 15th 2013, a small jökulhlaup occurred when the Gengissig ice-dammed lake drained at Kverkfjöll. The lake level dropped by approximately 30 m, decreasing pressure on the lake bed and triggering several hydrothermal explosions on the 16th. Here, a multidisciplinary approach combining detailed field work, laboratory studies, and models of the energetics of explosions with information on duration and amplitudes of seismic signals, has been used to analyse the mechanisms and characteristics of these hydrothermal explosions. Field and laboratory studies were also carried out to help constrain the sedimentary sequence involved in the event. The explosions lasted for 40-50 seconds and involved the surficial part of an unconsolidated and hydrothermally altered glacio-lacustrine deposit composed of pyroclasts, lavas, scoriaceous fragments, and fine-grained welded or loosely consolidated aggregates, interbedded with clay-rich layers. Several small fans of ejecta were formed, reaching a distance of 1 km north of the lake and covering an area of approximately 0.3 km2, with a maximum thickness of 40 cm at the crater walls. The material (volume of approximately 104 m3) has been ejected by the expanding boiling fluid, generated by a pressure failure affecting the surficial geothermal reservoir. The maximum thermal, craterization and ejection energies, calculated for the explosion areas, are on the order of 1011, 1010 and 109 J, respectively. Comparison of these with those estimated by the volume of the ejecta and the crater sizes, yields good agreement. We estimate that approximately 30% of the available thermal energy was converted into mechanical energy during this event. The residual energy was largely dissipated as heat, while only a small portion was converted into seismic energy. Estimation of the amount of freshly-fragmented clasts in the ejected material obtained from SEM morphological analyses, reveals that a low but significant energy consumption by fragmentation occurred. Decompression experiments were performed in the laboratory mimicking the conditions due to the drainage of the lake. Experimental results confirm that only a minor amount of energy is consumed by the creation of new surfaces in fragmentation, whereas most of the fresh fragments derive from the disaggregation of aggregates. Furthermore, ejection velocities of the particles (40-50 m/s), measured via high-speed videos, are consistent with those estimated from the field. The multidisciplinary approach used here to investigate hydrothermal explosions has proven to be a valuable tool which can provide robust constraints on energy release and partitioning for such small-size yet hazardous, steam-explosion events.

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Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Cristian Montanaro (2015), "Multidisciplinary constraints of hydrothermal explosions based on the 2013 Gengissig lake events, Kverkfjöll volcano, Iceland,"

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