Every day, the earth’s crust violently breaks and heals dozens of times all over the planet, although most of us will never know. This is because it usually takes place under deep water in a strip that travels around the world called the Mid-Ocean Ridge. This summer, a group of professors, graduate students, undergraduates and alumni came closer to the phenomenon in one of the few places where it is happening directly on earth: Iceland. Volcanoes are of particular interest to researchers because they can be directly involved in the formation of mineral resources as well as in geothermal energy.
Jeffrey Karson, professor of earth and environmental sciences, describes the process as follows: “Two of the plates of the Earth’s lithosphere – large blocks on the outer part of the Earth – are being separated. A new crust is produced to fill the resulting void. It’s happening all over the planet, and it’s very evident in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. “
As the Earth separates, it cracks and the fissure is filled with igneous material – magma, if it is underground, or lava, if it erupts on the surface. Iceland, Karson explains, is a particularly special place to observe geological phenomena, because it is a “hot spot”, a hyperactive volcanic center. “An unusual amount of heat beneath Iceland results in more magmatism than in other parts of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge,” Karson explains. “The volcanoes we see in places like Iceland help heal the fractures formed by the divergence of the North American and Eurasian plates.”
The Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences had planned the trip to this iconic geological destination for the previous summer, but had to postpone it due to the pandemic. “Our department has a very long and rich history of taking students and faculty together on field trips, including one to Iceland in the 1970s,” says Karson. The trips are supported by generous gifts from alumni, many of whom remember their own undergraduate field trips as essential in their careers and the highlight of their time at Syracuse University.
Particularly after a year of virtual learning, “there was a lot of pent-up desire to go out into the world,” Karson says. “There is nothing like seeing real geological relationships on the ground. It’s like taking a walk through an Earth science textbook. A key feature of the trip, he says, is the experience shared between students and faculty. “We are all learners on this journey, experiencing these things together and sharing our perceptions and backgrounds. By bringing in faculty members with different specialties and graduate students working on doctorates, there is a lot of diverse expertise and a lot of look at complex geological features.
Interestingly, although the group witnessed an active volcanic eruption, junior Derick Ramos recalls a visit to a formerly active volcano as the most moving. “Where he was previously active, there was a large, open, wide field filled with black lava,” he says. “Standing where there had been turbulent activity at one point, but now it’s very still and very open, you feel like you are on another planet, but you are on Earth.” A graduate in geology, he attributes this trip to the consolidation of his commitment in the field. “It widened my horizon,” Ramos says.