The Hell Machine

Guest post by Chad

The three musketeers, firing away

As is now abundantly clear, a new eruptive cycle on the Reykjanes Peninsula has begun. While an isolated eruption did happen in the ocean off the end of the peninsula in 1783, there has not been an eruption on land since 1240, today 781 years ago.

The eruption ongoing now has ratherbroken the regular cycle of eruptions at Reykjanes. Normally those begin at Brennisteinsfjoll and go west over a few hundred years, but this vent is on Fagradalsfjall, a mountain right in the middle of the peninsula. This area would not be expected to activate for at least a century yet, but here we are, watching the camera religiously as this new volcano grows before our eyes.

The magma is being generated at a great depth, nearly 20 km or twice as deep as normal eruptions in this area begin, and by mantle that is nearly totally melted to result in a lava that has a very high concentration of olivine. This sort of basalt even has its own name, picrite, and it is the closest thing to the ancient komatiite lava that erupts on the Earth today. This has been interpreted as a possible case for a shield volcano to form at, something which has not happened here for many millennia, but I think there are rather more profound implications for this. The magma is fluid and extremely hot, well over 1200 C, and that is enough to allow both physical and thermal erosion of the interior of the conduit, which will serve to only allow more magma to flow, in a compounding effect. Direct mantle eruptions are rare, but one that is currently ongoing if hard to observe is going on under the ocean near the island of Mayotte near Madagascar. It is not particularly intense, but since it began in mid 2018 some 5 km3 of lava has erupted to date.

The magma for eruptions like this is created by decompression melting as the pressure drops, a self feeding cycle that is limited only by the rate of mantle flow to the area. It is a self sustaining machine, the Hell Machine as I like to call it.

Hell Machines are a rare sort of eruption. Like said above they are perhaps best categorised as some sort of hybrid between a shield volcano and a lava flood fissure eruption. The eruption rates may be sustained at a relatively high rate for a long time, well above the rate seen in the formation of shield volcanoes but also never getting to the colossal rates seen in the big fissure eruptions, at least not for any long duration.

Mayotte is an example of a Hell Machine that is erupting now, it is in the deep sea and it may be that most such eruptions are, but there is a historical eruption like this that occurred on land and it offers some tantalising clues.

On the 1st September 1730 an eruption began on the island of Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands. It was relatively large, creating a cinder cone that was ultimately named Caldera del Cuervos, as well as over a few months the similarly sized Caldera del St Catalina and Pico Partido cones. This constitutes what would have been a typical if somewhat larger than average eruption in the Canary Islands, but we now know this first eruption managed to set off the Hell Machine. Eruptions continued into the next year, though it had declined from the initial high rates as expected, the flows were still fed at an impressive volume to sustain over a year. Submarine eruptions well off the west coast and going up all the way to just inland beginning in June of 1731 marked the completion of the hell machine, it was now in full working order, and eruptions marched eastwards back onto land to flood even more of the island. Observations after this are poor as few inhabitants stayed beyond this point but the eruptions continued into 1736, erupting some 5 km3 of lava, constituting the large majority of the volume of all eruptions in the Canary islands in recorded history. Lanzarote has no active central volcano, and has not possessed one for millions of years, the eruption of 1730-1736, or Montanas del Fuego as it is known locally, was fed out of the mantle directly by extensive melting under the base of the crust. Perhaps most notably, all the eruptions from the late Pleistocene and Holocene on Lanzarote before this were on the northern part of the island, the area where the Montanas del Fuego eruption occurred had not been volcanically active for possibly several tens of thousands of years or more, a certain similarity it does share with Fagradalsfjall.

Lava fields on Lanzarote. Source: Becerril et al. ,Assessing qualitative long-Term volcanic hazards at Lanzarote Island (Canary Islands), 2017 Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 17, 1145-1157

The Signs

The first sign of a hell machine is that the eruption is persistent and erupts out of the mantle directly, something clearly the case already. An eruption should also be a rifting event, where the rift is kept open by new magma, and this also seems to be happening, as a dike has formed within the crust going from less than 2 km depth down to at least 7 km, with possibly many feeding points below this that are not resolved. The very high temperature of the lava will also serve to enlarge the pathways, something that may take longer than a week to become evident but which is expected.

So far our eruption is quite small, even tiny, but it has a big future. The first obvious sign could be that the vent increases in output, or that it stays constant but another vent opens. We may already be seeing this, as the vents are rather a lot larger than they were to begin with, and the output appears to have increased. Deflation is not observed along the dike either, which would suggest the eruption is being fed by continued decompression melting in the mantle, a process that may increase accordingly with the eruption rate and set the hell machine in motion.

What will become of the Reykjanes peninsula if this occurs? Perhaps the most direct consequence is that land within perhaps 10 km of Fagradalsfjall is potentially at risk. There is no danger to Reykjavik but Grindavik may suffer if not from the lava then from the gas emission. The effect it will have on the normal Reykjanes cycle is also unknown, most typically the section of the transform fault at Brennisteinsfjoll is the first to go but this time around the section going through Krysuvik was set of by the recent intrusion, leaving Brennisteinsfjoll in a precarious situation. Decompression melting at Krysuvik may well have already begun now in preparation to its awakening, and Brennisteinsfjoll could wake up rapidly following its eventual quake. Eruptions here will resemble those from the Reykjanes Fires, but taking a back seat to the lava flood that is just beginning now at Fagradalsfjall. We are watching history creating itself.

Perhaps this will not come to fruition, it may turn into a shield instead, or even stop. But with all the signs it is looking like the future is grand for the new little volcano.

Chad – 2021

859 thoughts on “The Hell Machine

  1. Great article Chad, I have a feeling your ideas regarding the current situation are quite accurate, and this eruption will continue to evolve with further fissures opening up.
    I wasn’t aware of the relatively recent volcanism in Lanzarote, but I do believe there are many comparisons to be made between Canary Islands volcanism and other mantle-sourced rift volcanism such as that we are seeing right now. This is a good article on the matter and blows away the ‘hotspot’ hypothesis:

  2. Wonder if lava flow going behind (west side) i think it get. And back to 1 valley that way soon. looks like it is a gorge there..

    • some of my local FB is out boohiss but was able to read reports that boats have been called in to evacuate people in the red zone.

      • yes, one of the large cruise ships coming tonight. The video is quite covered with smoke but the messages from authorities are quite straightforward. Unfortunately for me some of the content is only on Facebook which I won’t touch.

        • it certainly looks imminent and real. Emergency press briefing was tweeted by @DJimeshaPrince
          the most worrying would be explosive eruption as they would have to close water supply and be dependent on external supply. It seems they are very well organized re: Covid.

          I guess I should try to convince Dr. Jazmin Scarlett to write us an article about La Soufriere.

          • Please do ask, we would love to see a guest article about La Soufrière by Dr. Jazmin Scarlett.

  3. Great article Chad, thank you.

    There seems to be a great deal of activity on the hillside at Meradalir – torches everywhere. I wonder why they are out at night?

  4. Kudos to RUV for zooming in on the geldingadalir vents! Crisp focus, not entirely overwhelmed with exposure. Next best thing to mbl1. With uptick in activity i expect some crumbling of the cones again.

  5. I feel sorry for the search and rescue people. What on earth are people doing out there that late into the evening? I wouldn’t like to be hunting for people out there with the possibility of a new fissure opening up beneath my feet. .

    • When a lava dome eruptions starts quietly it usually stays quiet, when La Soufriere wishes to blow up it does so at the start of the eruption.

      • I have seen now the news that seismic activity has been ramping up, so a new intrusion is probably rising up. I change my mind, it could blow up, or maybe not. But it does seem wise to evacuate the mountain’s slopes, this volcano can get very nasty.

        • they were following some seismic tremor and that is guiding the advice. + there is a history of building a dome before damaging explosive eruption. more at @uwiseismic and @NEMOSVG

    • See my comment above. The volcanoes on the Lesser Antilles Volcanic Arc are nothing to mess around with. The subduction zone that creates these volcanoes are the deepest in the Atlantic ocean. That could spell havoc for the US eastern seaboard but it isn’t talked about.

      • With regards to La Soufrière .The Puerto Rican trench is the focus of these volcanoes. The deepest location in the Atlantic ocean at 27480 ft. or 5.2 miles. Try to wrap that around your head. Number 8 on the deepest spots in the oceans which at this massive depth is hard to believe.

      • Must wonder when the arc’s subduction will extend sideways to begin swallowing the Western Atlantic plate rim. Flip side is the activity off eg Lisbon & Gibraltar, where Eastern Atlantic plate rim *may* be preparing to dive. Initiation process is, IIRC, ‘uncertain’. Partly because precursor evidence is the first to go down a new trench.

        Sadly, initiation may be marked by a mega-thrust quake and Fukushima-grade tsunami…
        Be NOT There.

        • That is the base of the Pangea Ultima hypothesis, the most common and polular depiction of the next supercontinent. Problem is the Puerto Rico trench isnt the atlantic seafloor subducting under North America, or South America, its subducting underneath a microplate (maybe not ‘micro’ but it is small nonetheless). Same in the South Sandwich islands, although for whatever reason the volcanoes at both these locations are very different in behavior (Lesser Antilles is domes and pyroclastic activity, South Sandwich is mostly mafic volcanoes).

          The other problem is that the Pacific plate actually is all of the ocean floor in that ocean, theres only a spreading ridge in part of it. The most probable configuration of the next supercontinent is something similar to the Novopangea model, where the Atlantic ocean evolves into the next global ocean and antarctica moves north. If antarctica doesnt move north then Amasia forms, but we dotn really know muc habout tectonics in Antarctica and it is entirely possible it will be rifted apart just like Africa. That is one of the unknowns, how likely it is that the continents actually stay the same as they are today for 250 million years as they move around, in my opinion not likely.

    • I am concerned that the intense northern activity is signalling new fissures ahead of that location soon.

    • another observation of why women live longer. (mots is losing her filter… 🙂 also expecting hurricane force winds in here so may lose more than my filter… lots of dead trees around and may lose power for a while… so if i become quiet… enjoy… cause “i’ll be back!” 🙂

      • hiking at night in wintry conditions is fun – if you are prepared and experienced, if you are unprepared and a hiking novice it results in an interesting experience at best.

  6. Thanks for the excellent article, Chad. So this event has me wondering if these “fires” should be called a volcano. Yes, there’s magma/lava. But no chamber. Are we going to call every flow from the MAR a volcano? “Hell Machine” is more fitting. An apt name because who knows where/when this will end? Maybe it will become a volcano some day.. it will make Irpsit very happy if it turns into a shield volcano. (Fitting pronoun goes here) had high hopes for Bardabunga’s leak.

    • Yes if it turns into a shield it can be called Irpsitdyngja, and if it turns into what I hypothesize it can be called Tjadagigar 🙂

      Holuhraun was not likely to ever be a shield in hindsight, just like the rift at Veidivotn there is no deep source to eruptions here and they are fed by dikes coming from the extensive sill complex underneath the area of Bardarbunga and probably the neighboring volcanoes too, with the most elevated one draining in the process. Eruptions like this are fast and large in volume, sometimes extremely so as we see at Thjorsahraun, though that was an exceptional event with 1-5 km3 eruptions being more typical. Eruptions at on the north rift and the northern part of Veidivotn can be direct deep source eruptions though bypassing a central volcano, so shields will probably form in these places when Vatnajokull melts. Possibly we might also be able to have hell machines too, theres some pretty big flows there that look somewhat inbetween a fissure eruption and a shield, a lot different to the long fissures further south.

      Might write another post about Bardarbunga one day, once I have finished mapping it on google earth.

      • Looking at all Holocene lava flows in Reykjanes, I would say about 5% of them are shield eruptions.

        I cannot recall all lava flows but there are probably a good number of them, maybe between 50 and 100. About 5 Holocene shields in the peninsula, or one per 2000 years (but most happened actually in the early Holocene).

        Near Langjokull the percentage is larger, as well as north of Vatnajokull.

        I also recall a paper researching an eruption south of Langjokull about 3000 years ago, and they postulated a shield and fissure eruption at same time, with the dyke coming from a big depth. This is as far as my memory goes. I could try to locate that paper again.

        • Langjokull area is certainly interesting. I think generally it is assumed to be a less active version of Vatnajokull but it looks in reality like the only similarity is that there is a glacier and volcanoes in the same place… .

          That double eruption was Lambahraun and Thjofahraun, I read about that exact paper just today as it happens 🙂
          Problem is GVP considers Lambahraun a part of Langjokull which is fine, but Thjofahraun to be part of Hengill but this doesnt seem likely, its on the wrong side of Thingvallavatn and Hengill isnt tall enough. Thjofahraun is I think probably an example of a hell machine, its a 1 km3 fissure eruption but it took place in multiple stages suggesting a long duration, and theres no really large scale lava flows like we see at Holuhraun. The current eruption might end up looking very much like this in the end I think.

  7. Taal is once again, experiencing tremors and earthquakes, it looks it’s time for some explosive volcanism, Especially with these activity in st Vincent. I am on top on these volcano like butter on toast!

    • Please keep us posted. The Icelandic eruption is tending to catch attention, but Taal and La Soufriere are very important, too. Especially for those living near them!
      Thanks, Tallis!

  8. I am wondering if there is another fissure. Little one nearer the cam. It seems to be pulsing more than Lava flow.

    The two Belgian tourists who got lost deserve to be charged for the added costs in time and effort of the Iceland emergency services. They have enough to do monitoring the progress and watching out for the local inhabitants. Those people manning vehicles and aircraft must be really tired . Not a usual day at the office for any of them, especially as there is the possibility of fissures opening just about anywhere in the area.

  9. La Soufrière is about to go brrrr… Seismic signals, a glowing dome and lots of white smoke (what could go wrong?) Hopefully they get all the people out of the way before it goes. Twitter is full of images of roads clogged with cars trying to get away as quickly as possible.

    • I believe you are correct, but the previous night, there were fissures in this stretch which did open, so most likely we are seeing a re-open.

  10. Fissure 2 is absolutely hammering it tonight. Seems the majority of the magma is feeding this vent currently as it looks like Nordur and Sudur appear to be comparatively down too. Would not be surprised if fissure activity propagates further in the coming hours to days.

  11. Eh? Suðri has been putting on quite a show tonight on RUV1. Big spatters every minute or so. The lava ponded inside the vent is heaving like a sea in a hurricane.

    • I think I checked in at the wrong moment on the Geldingadalur cam – must’ve been a lul. They’re definitely making up for it now!

  12. Series of big collapses and lava surges in Suðri starting about 03:19 and lasting several minutes. Not to be outdone, Norðri has been having some serious vertical outbursts tonight.

  13. Look to me Suðri eat it self backwards little by little. Se if back of dome crack and we get a change of out flow. “recycling alot with this collapses of back wall. And take a walk in the dark in this aria just now very stupid. its lava flows all over place now easy get stucked in between. A brake out can be very fast.

    • I’m so, so glad that I’m not the only person howling into the void against too much zooming in for focus and not enough wide angle view of the lava fields and edges.

      These areas are critical to monitor, especially in a situation wherer a small change can lead to a drastic cascade of consequences.

      A flow out to the east, and the lava joins that of Fissure 2/ Flo and loses itself in the mountainous wilds beyond Maresdalir.

      South, and a flow into Natthi valley; the ring road could be threatened, along with other infrastructure, and a possible ocean entry could well result if the eruption continues for the very long term.

      Has anyone seen any sort of calculation for lava exit from Natthi southwards?

    TL;DR: The total flow of lava from all the craters of the eruption sites in and around Geldingadalur was about eight cubic meters per second in the past 24 hours. This is shown by the results of geoscientists based on data obtained by flight at noon today.

    The flow according to these measurements is about 50% more than was the longest in the eruption.

    The northernmost crater is the strongest, with about two thirds of the total flow, but one third is divided fairly evenly between the older eruption sites in Geldingadalur and the newest fissure that lies between them.

    The area of ​​the lava has approximately doubled in the last two days, and the total volume has become almost nine million cubic meters.

    • The lava does not seem to be flowing into Meradalir at the moment. So where is it going?

      • It could be going over the north slope of Fagradalsfjall, or into Geldingadalur. There is a lava flow going towards Meradalir though but not to the bottom. I would like to see an aerial view from today.

        • Hope they could zoom out camera on geldingadalur. To see if any flow comes back that way. Very interesting i must say. If go further away and down to meradalir can be steep drop down.

      • I,spotted what I thought was a water smudge on the cameera, but it is very persistent. Then I thought it was only gas from F3 being blown billowing to the ground by the wind. Only it never moved away from that one spot…

    • Beign able to see the glow from 100 km away, and the dome itself over the rim, this thing has grown fast. I dont know the history of St Vincent, but if it is like Pelee it could be prone to blowing itself up, eruptions that are basically a VEI 4 with the intensity of a 6… Good decision to evacuate the island.

  15. Very interesting article. I do see a huge problem if this continues over a long periode time though. My productivity will continue to be “collapsed” as I am stuck to the screen both day and night….

    • My colleagues keep asking me why I have an erupting volcano pinned in the lower right corner of my rightmost screen. Not effecting my coding too much … just as well because it is safety critical railway stuff.

      • DH used to be a Railway Signal Engineer before he moved sideways in the early days of computerisation of British Railways… Just as well as the chronic lack of investment in modernisation, and selling off the publicly owened family jewels, finally resulted in a series of train collisions wreaking havoc in the engineering departments… and there by the grace of the gods and all that malarkey…

        • We went through that period of under investment leading to poor safety here in Australia too. Thankfully behind us now. The core rationale for what I do at work is to ensure that no train ever exceeds its limit of authority (SPAD- Signal Passed At Danger) or exceeds safe line speed. Everything else is secondary to those goals. Could prattle on at length but won’t, the lava is flowing.

      • Not sure if I like the redbullization and instagrammization of volcanology. And on this note, I believe Demystification is not always personal progress. We’ve seen the vents now naked and close up, but wasn’t the magical red glimmer of the first eruption, obscured behind the mountains, at least equally exciting? // Also, it is interesting how nice frozen basil tastes on pasta, yummy….

        • Totally agree, let alone the throw away society. To much mony on his hands probably. Fly the thing a bit higher get the same spectacular video and save a few $$€€££¥.

    • Full story about this at

      A filmmaker melted his DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone to get these incredible shots of an active volcano

      To capture it all, Forster brought along three Mavic 2 Pro drones, one of which was ‘sacrificed’ for the close-up shots from above the volcano. He says the ‘flights through the lava spray were pure luck and [while] the drones record footage internally,’ he also screen recorded the video feed on his phone in the event he permanently lost a drone to the volcano. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and we have the full-resolution video to view in all its glory, but one of the Mavic 2 Pro drones didn’t make it out entirely unscathed.

      Forster tells DPReview the drone still flies and can capture stills and video, but notes ‘there are so many malfunctions and errors that it’s funny to fly.’

      Photographer Stefan Forster has previously visited Iceland over 50 times and you can see some more stunning images from previous trips below.

      I always say that Iceland is the home of my soul and heart. Since I hiked alone trough the highlands with the age of 18 I fell in love with this volcanic island. Since then I travelled to Iceland over 50 times. The gallery below contains photographs of all those trips – so if you can’t believe what you see think about the fact, that on each of my 50 trips to Iceland only about 3 photographs have been chosen to be in this gallery. Good photographs need time and a lot of diligence.

  16. On the Meradalir camera I think the flows look like the front of a horse which seems rather apposite.

    • I cannot wait to see the lava galloping across the valley plains… shades of the Guinness ssea surfing advert….

  17. Screenshot cone fissure 2. Person walking in front of it, shows how tall the cone has grown already.

  18. Bad weather at iceland so look at Etna little. Maybe up for something again.. But my link to trimors dont work.. only camera view.

  19. The last zooming around event, while it didn’t pan far enough to the left of the cone, it did show that the area inside the red curve here, is NOT filled up, so any erupted lava must either have run down into Meradalir, or out to the plain in hte upper left corner

    • Thanks exactly photo i wanted. Dont need much before it can take that way.. Bad weather so probleby going to take some time before a better over view photo can be done.

    • When looking at the mbl cam, which has a comparable angle to the other RUV cam, we can see that last night fissure 2 mostly flowed towards the top left corner of your picture. At some point it even reach the edge of the plain and started downhill on that side

    • Excellent photo. I think we may be getting another nice kipuka in a while, there’s been lots of gas/steam on camera 3, heading towards the camera.

      Is there something’s brewing under cover of the storm? Some screenshots seem to show dark billows and clouds within the storm in between the cones where none should be.

      What would happen if a 1200-degree-plus lava flow came across a very sodden, spongy, wet, mossy, valley bottom??

      Yes, definitely a wet track, more than mildly moist.

      • Makes a pseudocrater, theres hundreds of them at Myvatn from this exact interaction on a way bigger scale, lava flowing over wet ground.
        I also have thought many times whether the lava island at Kilauea is a similar structure, it was after all created in a major lava water interaction too and HVO find a lot of tephra from the start despite only a moderate fountain, pseudocraters make a lot of reticulite and Peles hair.

        I think the best way to visualise is that it would look like a littoral cone but not directly near water that is obvious, and maybe lots if them at the same time, would look spectacular 🙂

    • Not sure about that. Looks like exactly the same signal affects all stations. That’s likely to be a common measurement error.

    • Ash Height is at 12-18 km from your link…. (ref colourchart)

      There are already a couple of live broadcasts on YT. And Pelè is sestless. Not saying the live feeds are any good yet, but watched this one for a while;

      Been saying we could expect this after this SC minimum but wtf did I know when I brought this to VC attention… Right? Right….

      So, that is the avatar bandaid everybody. Might want to rise the celinghight in here. Based on freaking o b s e r v a t i o n s.

        • This Solar Cycle minimum. My own 20+ yrs reseach places the highest volcanic activity post SC minimum. But esp. after weak cycles like the one we have had now. Just my thesis. As with the deepest wintercolds. So chopped a great deal extra firewood for this winter. And more for next. Have not been wrong for my area so far (western Norway). Still snowing outside…

          There is actually one black dot in the Ash Height chart (in Karelm1’s link) covering the last hour. Meaning +20 km height…

          • Sorry about the height. Black dots indicate Ash Heights of 18-20 km. And more black dots are appearing, but at/near the island. So definetely stratospheric. And growing in force based on satellite observations and reports on the ground from YT live feed. last from people reports. not verified.

            Albert: I do NOT want to have this discussion again. My father just passed and VC is a most welcomed break from it all. I really respect and appreciate all the work and knowlede here. But. I state what I do based on long time observations, published research and articles but I still respect other views. No problem. If you have a problem with that tell me straight. Otherwise, loose the stupid bandaid. I’m at 143, so I can relate to most subjects fairly objective, but this i find fairly childish (end of “rant”).

          • Understood. Our opinions are on record. Condoleances with your father, by the way.

            No pyroclastics reported, I am glad to see

  20. Interesting how google maps does show La Soufrière Eruption, but it doesn’t for our Reykjanes eruption

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