The Lives of Lake Baikal
It is said that a huge stone fell from the sky like they do now, sometimes. While it was falling it became red hot. When it hit the earth there was a great rainfall. Earth, stone, and water came to a boil and in that turmoil Lake Baikal was born. (One of several creation legends of Lake Baikal)
Far from the ocean lies this unique lake. The purity and clarity of the water is legendary. The local name is ‘the Old Man’, or ‘the Sea’, or just ‘He’. Anywhere else, this is known as Lake Baikal. The locals have a point: no other lake is anywhere this size, no other lake is this ancient, and no other lake has its seals. It hardly needs a name. Lake Baikal is the closest we have to a fresh-water sea, Russia’s Galapagos, an exhibit of nature and geology alternating between a frozen wonderland and a flowering spectacle, ravaged by earthquakes, surrounded by plains and mountains, and blessed with a smattering of volcanoes. One day this may become our sixth ocean. If this happens, expect those volcanoes to flower. But that gets ahead of the story.
Lake Baikal is only ever described in superlatives. It is the world’s deepest lake, with the clearest water on Earth. There are 2000 kilometer of shoreline. Although not the largest by surface area (last time I flew over it, it only took 3 minutes to cross), it has the greatest volume: this sliver of lake holds more water than all the American Great Lakes combined. 20 per cent of the world’s (unfrozen) fresh water is here. I would not be surprised if Lake Baikal holds more than 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water biomass. In other deep lakes such as Lake Tanganyika (or even Loch Ness) only the top layer is oxygenated, and the deeper water is poisoned by hydrogen sulfide, but in Lake Baikal the habitable zone stretches all the way to the bottom, a staggering 1637 meter below the surface. A combination of heat from below and cold at the top keeps a vigorous circulation going and brings oxygen to the far deep.
Siberia is famously cold. The lake reportedly has a moderating influence over the local climate, but this can be hard to believe, seeing the sometimes meter-thick ice cover lasting from January to May. In the south, the ice disappears mid-May but in the north it lasts until early June, accompanying the flowering of the rhododendron bushland. Daytime highs are below freezing from late October until late March. In nearby Irkutsk, the record low temperature is -50C. Summers are short and rainy but pleasantly warm (rarely hot), with day time temperatures above 20C for three months. Mosquitos, however, own the summer. The summer weather can change quickly, and I can say so from experience. In Novosibirsk, to the west, I have seen the temperature drop from 30C to snow within two days. By Siberian standards, this is a mild climate. Still, even in the summer the lake is too cold for swimming. The cold water gives rise to the famous Baikal fog which can hang over the shores for much of the time especially in early summer. Perhaps this fog is at the origin of the legend of its formation at the beginning of the post. Chesterton famously wrote of the English weather But I will praise the English climate till I die, even if I die of it. One wonders what he would have made of Baikal.
The climate used to be classified as sub-arctic, but since 2000 it has warmed to such a degree that it is becoming continental. The local freezers (holes in the ground with a lid) are warming up.
Lake Baikal lies 480 meter above sea level. It is 635 kilometer long and 50-80 kilometer wide. Over 400 rivers and water courses flow into, but only one flows out: the kilometer-wide Angara, on which Irkutsk lies, 70 km away. Downstream it becomes the Yenisei river, one of the largest in Siberia and feeding the Arctic Ocean. The lake consists of three separate basins, of which the middle basin is the deepest. The southern basin is also deep, but the northern basin is much shallower. Beyond the southern end, the rift continues to the west where it is called the Tunka basin but here it lacks a lake.
South of the lake lies a steep mountain range,the Khamar-Daban range, with peaks over 2 kilometer high. This region is called the Siberian subtropics but this is either a slightly optimistic view or Russian humour. The west side of the lake is an extensive and somewhat dull plain, a never-ending field of steppe and taiga. (One of my enduring memories of Siberia is that of the beriozkas – birch trees. I stopped counting after 2 million. But I regret never making it to Lake Baikal.) East of the lake is another mountainous region, the Sayan Baikal fold belt. The north shore is also mountainous. In between, rivers have built up large and flat deltas. All the traditional Siberian landscapes are found near Lake Baikal: swamps, red bilberry, dark coniferous taiga, cedar taiga, mountain tundra, steppes and semi-desert.
In 1961, a paper mill was opened on the lake shore which became a world-famous source of pollution: the Baykalsk Paper and Pulp Mills. A town sprung up around it, called Baikalsk. After many years of protests, a water treatment facility was added but it was too expensive to operate and the plant went bankrupt shortly after, in 2009. It re-opened in 2010 with a new permit to dump untreated water into Lake Baikal, but it didn’t last long and the mill soon had to close again, this time for good.Now, 6 million tons of toxic waste are left in 13 reservoirs, and the economic mono-town of Baikalsk (a town with 41,000 people dependent on a single bankrupt employer) is in deep crisis.
People of the lake
Lake Baikal has long been at a cross roads of civilizations ever since people qualified for this term. Migrations could reach it from the west (Europe), the south (via the major river valleys around the Himalayas) and from the east. During the ice age, this area was a refuge, a place where survival was possible because of the local climate.
This skeleton of a young boy has been dated to 24,000 year ago. Its DNA shows similarity both with ancient European populations and with America: here the populations from east and west met, and mixed before moving to Beringia on the way to the invasion of Alaska. Hunter gatherers kept using the area and left their archaeological evidence, including 4000 year old cave paintings.
2200 year ago, the region found itself at the northern end of the Xiongu Mongol empire, and at that time the local tribe was called the Hunyu. It is often claimed, although not proven, that they migrated west and became the Huns. In modern days, the main population group are the Buryat, still the northernmost group of the Mongols. Whether they are related to the hunter gatherers of the previous 10,000 year is not known, but seems not unlikely.
The area around Lake Baikal became the heartland of the Mongols in the 12th century, during the time of Genghis Khan. The name ‘Genghis’, adopted later in his life, was derived from ‘tengis’ meaning ‘ocean’: it was a word used for Lake Baikal. The rest, as they say, is history, a bloody example of the ease of east-west migrations in Asia and Europe. In a much reduced form, the Mongol empire survived around Lake Baikal until the 1600’s, when it became a pawn in the struggle between the Russian empire and the rising power of the Manchu Chinese and lost its independence to both.
Many Russians have moved into the area especially since the railway provided easy access. The Buryats still live here as well, and the political persecutions of them during the Soviet Union have stopped. However, the large majority of Buryats still exist well below the poverty line.
All the people that have lived here at various times depended on the lake, for food, transport, and climate. It ruled their lives and was -and in many ways still is- something to be worshipped.
(which isn’t a word but should be.)
It began with the Siberian craton, an ancient core of a continent. In the maps, it can be recognized adjacent to the Lake, to the west. It is a fairly featureless plateau, about 500 meter above sea level. To the east is the Baikal-Patom mountain range, which was the edge of the craton and became a mountain range in the Silurian. Southeast lies the Sayan-Baikal fold belt, already mentioned, where a series of microcontinents and volcanic arcs were merged with the craton. This was always a line of weakness. It worsened with the continental collision in the mesozoic, along the Mongol-Okhotsk line: this left a series of SW-NE fault lines and fold belts. The collision is still visible in the Sea of Okhotsk. By the end of the mesozoic, the region had become stable, but here at the edge of the underlying craton, a major line of weakness had been build into the fabric of the land. Nowadays, the region east of Lake Baikal is recognised as a separate plate, the Amur plate, consisting of the arcs and platelets pasted onto Eurasia, held in place by the north China craton.
Before 30 million year ago, this was mildly elevated land. The proto-Baikal began to form 30 million year ago as a series of shallow lakes in the southern and central region, amidst the rising mountains. The lakes formed in a river bed draining from the Mongolian highlands. They left sediments which has been dated. From 10 million year ago, the lakes rapidly became deeper and the uplift in the mountains increased, still mainly in the southern and central basins but the northern basin began to grow. About 2.5 million year ago, rifting accelerated, as seen by a change in the sedimentation. This happened along the entire Baikal rift.
By 3 million year ago the rift valley had formed and the deep lakes created by the subsidence of crusta blocks in the rift. The subsidence is huge. From the peak of the surrounding mountains to the bottom of the sediment is almost 13 kilometer! The sediment filled in the hole created by the sinking crust. 9 kilometer of sediment has accrued, including large reservoirs of methane hydrates. The rift began to widen, at the present time by 5 mm per year.
Rifts and rifting
Rifts come in two varieties: wide (or diffuse) rifts and narrow rifts. An example of a wide rift is the Great Basin in the American west. It consists of numerous deep basins, together covering the region from California to Montana. An example of a narrow rift is the African rift, a narrow(ish), deep valley stretching over much of the continent. Just looking at the maps shows how different these two are. Both varieties of rift are caused by crustal extension (sides being pulled apart) but they differ in the strength of the lithosphere (the stuff just below the crust, 50-100 km deep). When the lithosphere is weak, crust stretches easily and a wide, diffuse basin develops. When the lithosphere is strong, you get a narrow, deep tear. Once the extension develops, the crust between the two sides that are being pulled apart loses support and begins to sink. Narrow rifts especially can become very deep. Baikal is clearly an example of a narrow rift.
What causes rifts to develop? That is the right question to which we don’t quite know the right answer. There will be more than one answer. In some cases, as in the Djibouti rift where the African rift and the Red Sea meet, a mantle plume seems to blame. The upwelling cracks the crust and pushes the sides apart. But in many cases there isn’t a clear hot spot associated with the rift. In the US, for instance, the Yellowstone hot spot crossed the rifts but did not affect them much, while further south the rifts are very similar but no hot spot is anywhere near. There must be more to it.
Two other processes can cause rifts. A nearby mountain range can causes faults by its weight, or a subduction zone of an oceanic plate can pull the neighbouring continental plate apart. Sometimes a rift can form in one way but change character: for example, the Azores started out when the Atlantic formed, as a propagating fault, but later hot mantle material began to come up forcing the volcanism. In this case, though, the driving force is still mainly the pull from the plates.
In the modern world, there are two main actors driving the plates. The most important is the Pacific ocean, rimmed by subduction zones. Whilst the Atlantic ocean plate is passive, the Pacific plate is the main player affecting America, the Atlantic, Europe, and Asia. The Pacific plate has achieved worldwide domination! But at the price of being subducted into oblivion. Ruling has a cost. The second actor is India, which crashed into Asia. This is only one part of the closing of the Tethys ocean which once ran from Spain to China, but India did more damage than any other part along this collision front. The two are acting together, and Siberia is in the firing line. It is in danger of breaking up.
So why did the Baikal rift form? It is, as it turns out, a complex interaction. There is a clue in when it started, 30 million year ago. This was the time when the the effects of India colliding with Asia first reached the area. This collision push into Asia and caused compression in the SW-NE direction in the Baikal area. In response, the ancient fault responded by extending in the NW-SE direction. This extension caused the shallow lakes to form in the south and central region. Later, the subduction zone near Japan had an unexpected effect. A back arc developed, causing the opening of the Sea of Japan. This back arc pushed against the eastern movement of Asia (and Europe). Thus, extension stopped. The Tibetan plateau had grown up by now and its weight renewed the push. The rift narrowed and deepened in response. Finally, the back push ceased a few million years ago. The Tibetan push now started to squeeze the Amur plate to the east, causing a counter-clockwise rotation. The Baikal rift started to widen to accommodate this movement.
The region has always been earthquake-prone, including some large ones. Geological activity has consequences. During 2015, concerns were raised because of a small swarm of M3-M5 quakes east of Baikal. This was followed by an M6 quake underneath Lake Baikal in February 2016. No damage was done, but it is a warning that this is a seismically active zone.
Lake Baikal has a history of damaging events. The largest recent major earthquake happened on 12 January 1862, estimated at M7.5, hitting the populated southeastern shore of Lake Baikal. There had been a foreshock a day earlier. The main quake was centred on Tsagan, a region adjacent to the lake with steppe, several small lakes and marshland. Reports talk about the ground moving in waves and water and sand shooting out of the ground. The ice on the lake broke and an ice and water tsunami reached the shore. Perhaps 1300 people died, mainly Buryats: the local Russian villages were at higher elevation while the Buryats lived near the shore. The Tsagan sank by 2 meter which was bad news as it was barely at lake level to begin with: it is now known as Proval Bay. 200 km2 became submerged. The area was the delta of the river Selenga (explaining why it was close to lake level), and new sediment has slowly moved the shoreline back towards the lake. The recurrence time for this region has been estimated at 1100 year. The next big earthquake should not be here.
But smaller ones could. On 29 Aug 1959, there was an M6.8 earthquake in this area. The stress in this area seems to have been relieved for now, and the next large earthquake may be further west on the fault.
There is a legend that at one time the Yakut people lived around the lake, but that they left after a number of large quakes. The olonkho (Yakut legend) runs:
The middle country trembled
Like a quaking quagmire;
The sea waves shook up;
The Baikal waves raged;
On the opposite side of the valley
Fell down cliff peaks;
The whole valley burst into lightning flame.
Rifts should be full of volcanoes. Look at the African Rift, flanked by impressive volcanoes, or the Icelandic rift. But it is not that simple. An active rift, pushed apart by rising mantle material, will suffer a bad case of volcanistrics. But a passive rift, pulled apart by the movement of distant plates, is more or less immune to volcano-enza. Baikal, being a passive rift, lacks volcanoes.
Hot springs are present, and are in fact one reason for the freshness of the water. They keep the water moving and prevent de-oxygenated layers to occur. Many other lakes could learn from this. But hot springs do not volcanoes make.
There are volcanic fields around the Baikal rift. At the eastern end of the northern Baikal rift, several hundred kilometer east of the northern tip of Lake Baikal, lies the Udokan plateau, where volcanism began 14 million year ago and some activity may have been recent, perhaps even in the Holocene. Closer to the Lake, 200 km east of the central region is the Vitim plateau, larger than Udokan. It contains a large number of cinder cones and lava fields, some of which are recent but there is no indication that activity is still continuing. A third region is in Tunka, the western extension of the Baikal rift. This is called the Oka plateau or Jom-Bolok, and is currently the most active although it contains only four volcanic peaks A large lava flow, 8 km3, was formed in the early Holocene, perhaps 7000BC. The most recent (much smaller) flow is less than 3000 year old.
To what degree these volcanic fields are related to the Baikal rift is not clear. They could also be the northernmost extent of the Himalayan activity. But the main volcanics may still be in the future. If the Baikal rift continues to wide it will allow mantle magma to penetrate the lithosphere. Eventually a spreading ridge could form, and a new ocean. A passive rift can grow to be an active one.
Will this happen here? It could. The nearby subduction zone beyond Japan, combined with India’s split, could tear Siberia in two. If that happens, far from all the continents coming together again in a future supercontinent, the Earth 6th ocean would form. The Baikal Rift follows an old suture at the edge of an even older craton. A new split would likely re-open this weakness, between Baikal and the Sea of Okhotsk separating Eurasia from Mongolia and China; the latter slowly migrating towards America, closing the North Pacific in the process. What a world it would be.
So the true volcanic activity may still be in the future. The spreading accelerated a few million year ago. The rate is still low, but the situation is fluent. If the break happens, one could expect volcanoes to form along the edges of the break. Just wait and see.
Life as we know it
The lake has a huge range of life forms which occur nowhere else on earth. It may not be as visually spectacular as a tropical reef, but the numbers are impressive. Over 800 endemic animals species have been reported, including 27 species of fish. Many of the endemic animals are species of tiny shrimp. There are also 14 endemic types of sponges and 180 different molluscs.
Best known are the seals. There are some 60,000 Nerpa seals in the lake, a rare group of freshwater seals. Their presence show how biologically productive the lake must be. The main food comes from the endemic fish species, namely two species of golomyanka, translucent but fatty. The golomyanka (the Baikal oilfish) are the most numerous fish in the lake, accounting for 67 per cent of the total fish biomass. In the summer, the seals tend to stay in the northern part. At other times, they are everywhere. Over winter they keep breathing holes open in the thick ice, and their thickly furred white young are born on the ice nearby.
How did the Nerpa seals get here? They are not known for traveling over land, and Baikal is very far from the nearest ocean. Lake Baikal is old, and sometime since its beginning 30 million year ago, the seals were able to reach here and gave it a strong seal of approval. Even today they are sometimes seen in the Angara river, although unable to get past the dams. Their nearest genetic relatives live in the Arctic Ocean. Did the Arctic ocean reach here? Unlikely, given that the region is 500 meter above seal level, but at times huge lakes flooded parts of Siberia which may have helped. In the end the seals must have managed to travel up the Lena and Yenisei rivers. Genetic evidence puts this at some 4 million year ago. As mammals, dealing with the change from salt to fresh water would not have presented evolutionary problems – there are other fresh water seals in the world, although none as isolated as the Nerpa.
Lake Baikal is one of the geological wonders of the world. The climate is not conducive for tourism but maybe that has helped to protect it. The crystal clear water has to be seen to be believed. The mountain scenery is impressive, and the taiga in spite of its stark uniformity has a beauty of its own. Yet Baikal is also a place that could shape the world. It feels its way around an inherited weakness in the continent and may yet break it. If it does, the volcanoes will be the first sign of a change of direction of the continents. The next supercontinent would be delayed, and assembled differently. What a difference a lake can make.
72 thoughts on “The Old Man or The Sea”
Many of the photographs are almost unbelievably beautiful, yet they barely honour the article. Thank you, Albert!
Albert, you outdid yourself on this one.
Poetic, and the wordnanza was excellent.
I find a lot of relations between your description of the formation of the Baikal and the part of Africa I am writing about right now. I think you will see the future of Baikal in the next part of Off the beaten track.
Wow! Thanks Albert. I knew nothing about Lake Baikal. Now I would love to visit it. Thanks for a fascinating article!
Don’t forget the pressure of the ice cap during the ice age. The seals may have swum slong+side the ice edge and with the land pressed down, the distance may not have been that long
There is something in this but Siberia never had much ice cover. The big glaciers were in Canada and Scandinavia. The region in between, from Alaska to Finland, was largely ice free. Perhaps it was the opposite: a much higher sea level 4 million year ago (before the ice age) may have helped the seals getting closer. The rivers must have played some role in it.
There was some ice north of Baikal. The seal that it is most closely related to is actually swimming up rivers and is also captured (after the last ice age) in the sea of Botnia and in the lakes Ladoga and Saimen, without contact with the seals in the open seas.
However as the seals in the sea of Botnia are more closely related to the open sea seals, the separation in Baikal must have been earlier, as you say perhaps even prior to the last ice age. But it might also be that the rivers from Baikal took a route towards Japan as you had an ice cap further north in the current outlet direction.
The separation of the seals in the sea of Botnia was only ten thousand years ago (roughly).
Just a pointer to the rest.
The Sea of Botnia is not closed off like Baikal. It is connected to the Atlantic, so diverse seals may have made baby seals with open ocean seals around Öresund.
Baikal is one of those places that I have always wished to go to. I dream about the day I can go by the Trans-Siberian Express and visit Baikal (and other places). I hope I will be able to do that before I close my eyes, but I doubt that I will ever be able to do that since Russia is the only place I can’t go to.
Fantastic post, great pictures!
Amazing article! Very good one Albert!
A delight to read!
totally OT, but worth watching full screen:
filmed from El Teide, Spain.
For the stoners among us. Faaaaar out, man! 🙂
Amazing, beautiful piece again Albert!
Sometimes your wife does something that just tickles the shit out of you and makes you proud. My wife is making chili. I heard a blender in the kitchen and it got my curiosity, so I investigated. She had found that she had no tomato puree, so she took an extra can of stewed tomatoes and made her own. I tapped her on the shoulder and proclaimed “Smart Girl!”
In the hope you don’t speak your German – but your wife does
ROFL….I didn’t know that one…thanks Albert!
Also thank you for this article, I’m with Clive on that one…this region never tempted me, but seeing these beautiful pictures…
Absolutely fascinating Albert!
As for the article,
it kicks ass. Literally. It is stunning!
“The crystal clear water has to be seen to be believed”
Had a similar experience during CNOPs down in the Caribbean. During one port call, I was amazed at being able to see the screws under the ship from the liberty launch. Not sure which port it was, but I was flabbergasted. It might have been the Caymans.
Another examples of a passive rift are the Upper and the Lower Rhine Graben. While the Upper one is a narrow rift, is the Lower Rhine Graben which extends under the Netherlands and the North Sea Basin an example of a diffuse rift?
It is still a graben and hasn’t yet rifted. (OK, this may be semantics.) It is rather wide and if a rift does develop I would expect it to be diffuse. The graben is caused by a bit of extension as Europe rotates in response to Italy. I am not sure whether the upper Rhine valley is a part of it. The line connects to the Massif Central and on to Eastern Spain (mentioned in the post on Volcanoes of Europe)
And to tie everything together….
From Sicily it ties together with the volcanic mantle upwelling line I am currently writing about. So, in a sense of it, the Rheingraben is a distant cousin of Mount Cameroon.
Would you like to write an article about the volcanic provinces of Central Europe, provinces like the VulkanEifel, Vogelsberg and Chaîne des Puys? The VulkanEifel and the Chaîne des Puys are still considered to be active and future eruptions aren’t ruled out there. We even have an active volcano in the neighbour’s backyard, it is called Laacher See in the VulkanEifel of West Germany.
I would be happy to do that when I am finished meandering about in Africa. I am pretty certain we are not in a hurry to write about the VulkanEifel and the other continental volcanoes.
Thank you for this article, it is one of my favorite ones so far on Volcanocafe! Visiting Siberia with the Trans-Sib is on my bucket list, as it is also very interesting in the geological/mineralogical aspect.
According to a local legend god was flying around the earth to distribute the riches and natural resources. When he flew over Siberia his hands got so cold that he dropped all the natural resources left in his palms. Angry of making this mistake he cursed Siberia with eternal coldness and frost to make sure the natural equilibrium of the world is maintained.
It’s not hard to envision how this could shape the next supercontinent. The new Panthalassa would end up running from the south Atlantic up through the north Atlantic into the Arctic Ocean, then over the pole and south into the new Baikal Ocean, ending with whatever survived of the Indian Ocean; the new supercontinent would start with an amalgamated East Asia and North America, running south to a merged South America, New Zealand, and Australia, with the next big chunk being Antarctica, then over the pole and north to Africa and finally western Eurasia (with the Mediterranean long since squeezed the rest of the way shut). The arrangement would be like the two rawhide panels that make up a baseball’s surface, with the seam the coastline, one panel centered on the south pole and being the supercontinent, and the other panel centered on the north pole and being the ocean.
Perhaps but there is an alternative. The Baikal rift turn east at the north end of Lake Baikal, and west at the southern end. It could also re-open the Tethys ocean but a bit further north than the original, effectively along part of the Silk Road. In that case you get a Europe-Siberia-North America conglomerate, perhaps with Africa, and a southern continent consisting of China, south east Asia, India, linking up with South America. Instead of a North-South ocean, the main one would again be East-West. I am sure you could make beautiful models of it!
By that time you would only get a small part of Africa attached to the Europe-Siberia-North America conglomerate.
Mini-Africas would probably be all over the map as small continents on their own, or attached to superblocs.
You will soon have Africas aplenty to toy with meandering about. I will shortly return with the End of Africa!
Africa has been written off a lot.. and still it survives.
Oh, I will make a pretty strong case for it in the next few weeks Albert.
And I am not writing off Africa, I am making more Africas to love 🙂
I see what you did there, Albert has come forth as a Uniafricaplatist!
I answer in the undying words of Hermione Granger: “Separatu Africanus!”
That would definately fit the Wilson cycle aspect of it quite well…
very nice article! Just a small remark: Baikalsee and the Ankara are part of the Jenisej system, not the Lena.
You are correct, the Angara flows into the Yenisei, not the Lena (now fixed in the post). Although the Lena river also starts at Lake Baikal, close to Angara, it doesn’t quite connect to them. In the papers I read the seal migration was mainly attributed to the Lena rather than the Yenisei: they are genetically closer to the seals of that region, and in the distant past the Lena did connect to the Baikalsee.
lake Baikal of course (no idea why my tablet starts doing things in German :/)
Beautiful and interesting! Thnks!!
Have any of the readers of this blog seen Lake Baikal? I (and Carl) would be very interested in your experiences and impressions.
Especially me since I will never be able to see the lake for myself.
That is why I found this article so enchanting that I just read it for the fifth time (something unheard of for me).
See my comment below
Well, sadly it will not happen until Russia changes it’s government rather completely.
Love it. Another great article! Thanks.
The small swarm wsw of Hekla, tectonic?
Is it just my computer, not showing the drumplot-data at: http://hraun.vedur.is/ja/drumplot/mapDRUM.php
Does anybody have a working link for the icelandic drumplots?
The small swarm is on the extended fissure of Hekla, but is still not related to Hekla volcanically.
The lavas erupted are very different, so much so that the eruptions that sometimes happens out on the fissure are not counted as Hekla eruptions.
Currently this small swarm is tectonic in nature, but it is highly constrained and if the swarm continues it could at some point turn around and become the starting point for a fissure eruption. But, we are far from that point yet.
It could also in theory destable Hekla itself and bring on an eruption there.
As always with Hekla, we will have to wait and see.
Mapdrum is down for some reason.
Here is the old and still working link that is not as spiffy, but functional:
Thanks Carl 🙂
Like Carl said, swarm is tectonic, part of the SISZ. Sometimes earthquakes there can be up to M7. Towards the east of SISZ earthquakes tend to be deeper, as they near Hekla.
But often eruptions in Hekla can follow a few months after such large earthquake, or the other way around too. At least, this has happened repeatedly in the historic record, from what I found.
Also along SISZ; eruptions do happen! but they are very rare.
There are some small volcanoes across the SISZ in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene. This is in fact little known by most outside of Iceland. From west to east, these are:
– Ingólfsfjall (an old table mountain)
– Burfell (but this is not the more famous also-called Burfell near Hekla)
– Grimsnes (monogenic field with several eruptions in early and mid Holocene)
– Hestfjall (a small shield volcano, last eruption in late Pleistocene),
– Vordufell (another table mountain, probably late Pleistocene, with a nice crater lake in the top)
– chain of moutains from Midfjall to Galdafell (some volcanic vents there look pretty recent)
– Skardsfjall (probably a old small shield volcano)
– Hagafjall (old chain of mountains, some lava fields there)
– Bjólfell (an elongated mountain to the southwest of Hekla, where the swarm took place)
– and finally the more famous Burfell, just before Hekla
And this is not an exaustive list, there are many more volcanic mountains across the SISZ, some look more recent origin than others.
So we can´t never forget the rare possibility of an eruption in the SISZ. Which would clearly be a black swan event…
In this case not such a black swan. One third of the eruptions that was previously given as Hekla eruptions occured on this specific rift that Hekla is a part of. Both to the NNE and to the SSW of Hekla proper.
Yes Carl but the region I was speaking about is actually the whole of SISZ between Hengill and Hekla. There are many volcanic vents halfway between them, unknown to most of us here in the blog. Nevertheless the region is a transform zone, with 99% of activity being tectonic.
I only got to know them by extensively hiking in the region, as I also lived there for five years (I´m not in Iceland anymore since 2015). Grimsnes is the only known Holocene volcanic field, but I actually refer to many other volcanic mountains elsewhere in the SISZ region.
If such an eruption happened in such a region, which is also highly inhabited, that would be certainly a black swan!
I read once a study that concluded that during many swarms in the SISZ magma does indeed intrude upwards in the crust, but due to the slide-slip faulting nature, magma has not that much opportunity to come upwards, so eruptions are rare.
Around Hekla, I agree.
That wouldn´t be a black swan event, as there is a generous amount of crater rows and fissures outside of Hekla mountain proper, pointing to many past eruptions there. Last ones were in 1913, 1878 and 1725. But mostly northeast, east or southeast of Hekla, towards Torfajokull or Vatnsfjoll.
The lava fields are not as large as from Hekla itself.
And sometimes such eruptions are also mildly explosive, VEI2 at most.
Speaking of rift valleys. According to this article, the African rift valley may have gone stupendous 170k to 320k years ago, causing the residents to get on with it and migrate out of the area
yes check out this http://www.volcanocafe.org/turkana-and-the-dawn-of-man/comment-page-1/#comment-11447
I have a most evil and cunning plan for the author of that article since he is reader of our site.
Our plan entails trying to coax him into writing a popular science version of the article for us. This would save him from the headpalm he would make if I did it… 😉
Monday 24.10.2016 02:46:29 63.921 -19.241 9.0 km 2.2 99.0 6.8 km N of Álftavatn
How did that little earthquake cause this?
I dearly wish I had a beachball so I perhaps could get an idea of how such a small earthquake at such a distance could relax Hekla this much on the side facing towards Torfajökull (where the earthquake took place).
Perhaps another quake closer to home not yet back filled by IMO and that isn’t so clearly visible on the drums? If it is the one at Torfajökull then I bet there are others scratching their heads too.
Does the GPS stations between Hekla and Torfajökull tell us anything? Not sure if they would in any case. Although they may not be directly related I figure they are in the wider context.
Not sure if that makes any sense. Don’t you hate being woken at 4.30am by cold callers when travelling?
I always hate cold-callers regardless of time and trips.
I can’t see anything on the GPSes, so it is a bit of conundrum. But, Hekla is unstable to begin with and those strainmeters are really sensitive.
Could it be delayed reaction from the swarm near Arnes?
No, the strainmeters are fairly short range. Basically they only cover Hekla, the closer half of the Southern Icelandic Seismic Zone, Vatnafjöll if the earthquake is big enough to shift the crust and the same for Torfajökull. Further than that does not show as shift in the same way even though you sometimes can see traces of really big earthquakes.
I must be misreading a map somewhere because the Arnes swarm – which looks like it’s in the SISZ – looks nearer to Hekla than Torfajokull to me. But I’ve obviously got the wrong end of the stick.
The Arnes swarm was prior to this event, the Torfajökull earthquake and the strain drop was at the same time.
So there is a temporal thing going, but there might have been an adding effect from Arnes too, but in my mind that would have affected the strainmeters that are close to Arnes, which it did not.
Ah – thank you. As you say, the time fits perfectly in the case of the Torfajokull quake. I was trying to find an explanation of the dip on the strainmeter that avoided “spooky action at a distance”! But that seems like what we’ve got. (Apologies, Uncle Albert ;0)
I may be wrong here but the 0 is in the middle of the graph, looks like the strain switched directions and actually doubled. Hope I am wrong.
No, you are correct. Just a pointer, the negative direction is strain release. So, it relaxed that much.
Unusually sharp but the amplitude is not abnormal for Hekla. Was there a weather front passing at the time? Change in wind? Distant geyser letting of steam?
I think in one previous Hekla eruption, a swarm also occurred in Arnes some days before. The earthquakes in Arnes were up to M2.5. They were 20km west from Hekla summit.
Those quakes at Torfajokull are also 20km away, but east.
Either adjustements are developing all across that line, and Hekla is responding, or one of these quakes was mislocated.
Anyways Hekla is not erupting yet…. 😀
GPS stations around Hekla show slight shifts over the past few weeks.
I would say this one is the most interesting to keep an eye on
No front passing, the others further away from Torfajökull did not react. Not even storms does this, they make the line “fat and noisy” instead. There is no geothermal field near enough to affect the strainmeter, they are fairly local in picking up things.
The lava lake Halema’uma’u on Kilauea is close to overflowing its rim again. For those interested to know.
Some 20 years or so ago my parents had an active early retirement travelling extensively, including the stans along the Silk Road, Moscow and St Petersburg, the Danube – and Siberia, by noisy Russian helicopter, jeep and rusty boat across Lake Baikal, in the eclectic company of a handful of fellow enthusiasts. Souvenirs include pictures of watercolour paintings of sunny days in the Taiga, by fellow travellers, birch bark pictures, a small mammoth carving from mammoth tusk and their unforgettable memories. The holiday did not run again and they were lucky with the flight to the lake on a clear day as the fog came in after. They also travelled China, Canada and most of Europe extensively. But Siberia was their most unusual, unforgettable holiday.
That must have been unbelievable Alyson!
I travelled in southeast Asia earlier this year and also had a great adventure time, especially in Myanmar and Indonesia. And one my most dreams (and future plans) would be to travel across central Asia, Siberia and Mongolia…
What route did your parents exactly took across Siberia?
My mum kept a journal which is somewhere but she recalls that they flew from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk? and then took an old plane to the university town of Irkutsk, where they took the boat across Lake Baikal and then proceeded back up the river at a leisurely pace, stopping in villages along the way. The noisy helicopter ride was then from the Bratsk Sea? to a nomadic camp near mountains where the heat brought thousands of butterflies. There were 9 coach loads of Europeans coming on the plane from Moscow but only a few of them paid the extra for the river trip and Lake Baikal – and that was the most memorable part of their trip.
I remember that. In the Soviet Union you had to pay ‘extra’ for what you thought was part of the trip.
A concept that was quickly rebranded in the west as “All inclusive charter”. 🙂
The African rift reminds me of a scene from The gods must be crazy I watched back in the 1980s. The tribal leader Xi decides to take the bottle back to the gods to restore peace because the tribal people were fighting over it. There’s quite a few funny scenes in it from what I remember.
Here’s an alternate ending that shows the rift where he tosses the coke bottle into it. You can see why he thought it was the end of the world.
New article on Volcan de Colima, Mexico, and Momotombo, Nicuaragua posted!
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