White Christmas


From all of Us to all of You: A happy Christmas and a Volcanic New Year!


Victoria Island

Our story begins and ends in the far north of Canada. The sea between northwestern Canada and northwestern Greenland is filled by a series of ancient islands. In winter the sea is deeply frozen, and the islands are a desolate, snow-covered wasteland. In summer the snow melts and the sparse tundra vegetation bursts into colour, but the sea may stay frozen. Many tried to find the fabled northwestern passage, a sea route through the archipelago connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific. Sir John Franklin was one of those. He was familiar with the area, having explored the coast twenty years before, in the 1820’s. But the sea ice enclosed his ships and it didn’t melt in summer, or the summer after. More than 130 men died in this disaster. Sixty years later, Roald Amundsen, the greatest of the polar explorers, finally managed to complete the route.

Victoria Island is the second largest island of the archipelago. It has the shape of a maple leaf – and this counts for something in Canada, far more than it being (reportedly) the 8th largest island in the world. There is a range of low mountains in the northwest of the island, with a plateau of basalt. The Kuujjua river has cut canyons in the basalt. Elsewhere there are patches of tundra, and a few shrub dwarf woods where the birch trees grow a staggering 50 cm tall. In spring and summer, the snow melts and the tundra comes to life with green mosses and lichens, and small plants with purple flowers.

Victoria Island is cold now. It was even colder in the past. During the ice age this area was covered by a thick glacier. When the glacier melted, the ground began to rise. There are now beaches 150 meters high above the current coast. Parallel grooves carved in the bedrock shows the scouring by the old glacier. Glacial debris and dropstones complete the evidence for the long winter of the ice age.

Christmas is the darkest time of mid-winter (well – at least it is in the north). There are months of cold still to come, but there is hope, or rather certainty, that the winter will pass and spring will come. But the ancient ice age seemed to last forever. Century after century, Christmas after Christmas, the cold remained and the ice thickened. It took tens of thousands of years for the melt to finally begin. The memory of that time is still all around on Victoria Island. But so is a far older memory, of a time when not just the north but the entire world was under the rule of the White Witch, beyond any hope of recovery.

Victoria Island is where the world ended. Here is where it began.


The rocks and stones of Victoria Island date to ancient Rodinia. This supercontinent formed around 1.1 billion years ago and existed until 700 million years ago; for much of that time it straddled the equator. Somewhere in the northern half of Rodinia was a basin, which collected sediment. This in-land sea sediment became (amongst others) Victoria Island.

Rodinia. Image from wikipedia

The sediment, now turned to solid, hard wearing rock, contains evidence of a major volcanic episode. The remains of sills, dikes and lavas are seen on the western side of Victoria Island, north of Prince Albert Sound. At least 13 separate sills intruded in the bedrock, with thicknesses between 5 and 100 meters, continuous over as long as 40 km. Many dikes exist, up to 40 meters across, and there are also remnants of thick surface flows. Little is left after so much time. At one time, lava as much as a kilometer thick spilled out, covering the future island in an ancient flood basalt. The sills have been dated to 716 million years ago.

Victoria Island, Canada

A flood basalt is also called a ‘large igneous province’. To avoid any risk of misspelling, it is often abbreviated as ‘LIP’, a term which can be used for either the completed lava sheets or for the eruption itself. A LIP is given a geographical name. This particular LIP covers the entire area of the District of Franklin (abolished in 1999) which covered the Canadian high arctic including Ellesmere, Baffin and Victoria Island. The District was named after Sir John Franklin, the unfortunate explorer who perished within this LIP. His name is now attached, perhaps a bit unfairly, both to the largest disaster of polar exploration, and to one of the biggest catastrophes the world has ever seen.

The Franklin Large Igneous Province has left traces in surprising places. The Coronation sills on the Canadian coast belong to it. The large igneous province around Irkutsk, southern Siberia (think Lake Baikal), which stretches from the Yenesei to Dovyren (‘Y’ and ‘D’ on the figure; ‘B’ is Baikal), has the same age, and is now considered as part of it. It So does the Kikiktat flood basalts (‘Ki’) on the North Slope of Alaska. The continents have been re-arranged, of course: at the time both Siberia and Alaska were rotated and the north slope of Alaska and the southern part of Siberia were attached to Canada. (How times have changed, even more so when you realize that at the time the area was located on the equator!)

The sills and dikes across the arctic formed about 720 million years ago. The oldest dates are around 723 million years and the youngest 716 millions years. Flood basalt eruptions typically last 1 to 5 million years – Franklin, being a large LIP, may have been at the upper end. Victoria Island has the younger dates, and may only have experienced the final part of the entire event.

The dike system of the Franklin Large Igneous Province. The positions are shown as they were at the time of the eruption. MH: Mount Harper; Co: Coronation sills; Ki: Kikiktat (now Alaska); B: Baikal (Siberia). From Ernst et al. Long-lived connection between southern Siberia and northern Laurentia in the Proterozoic. Nature Geosci 9, 464–469 (2016)

The two basalt areas on Victoria Island (see below) are known as the Natkusiat basalt: they are the only remaining surface flows or the Franklin LIP. Originally the lava sheets must have covered a far larger region, approaching the extent to the dike system. But they only survive on Victoria Island. The rest is either eroded away or still lies buried underneath younger deposits. The area of the Franklin flood basalt is at least 2.5 million km2. It covers 10% or more of the combined Siberia-Canada craton.

Franklin is one of 300 LIPs known in the past 3.5 billion years. It is quite large even for a LIP, at four times the size of the Deccan. For comparison, the Siberian Traps and the CAMP, the largest known, each cover between 4 and 7 million km2. An interesting accident is that Canada hosts another flood basalt of almost the same size: the MacKenzie LIP from 1.27 billion years ago. The Franklin LIP partially overlaps with the older MacKenzie, and the plume centre of the MacKenzie LIP may, in a twist of history suitable for a christmas cracker, have been located at Victoria Island. Some places have all the luck.

Victoria Island was not the centre of the Franklin LIP, however. The dikes fan out from a location further to the north, somewhere in the western arctic. The exact location is difficult to define. Dikes on the Canadian mainland point at a focal point northwest of Banks Island. But other dikes suggests that the centre was further east. Either way, this was in the heart of what remained of Rodinia.

Rodinia broke up (supercontinents always do) in stages between 900 and 700 million years ago. At the time of the Franklin eruption, many parts had already gone their own way. The Franklin eruption was located on the border between Laurentia and Siberia. The fact that the dikes crossed into Siberia shows that the two were still connected, rather than (as normally drawn) with Siberia at some distance. The last surviving part of Rodinia would break apart at this very location. Naturally, the Fanklin LIP is held responsible for this final demise of Rodinia.

This unwanted Christmas present initiated the separation of North America and Siberia. Afterwards, these two continents went their own way and Siberia rotated away, ready to leave. But it didn’t go far. In fact all three arctic continents, long before they became arctic, remained closely knit: Baltica, Siberia and North America were like partners who could neither live together nor apart. Think Shrek, Fiona and donkey. Or, perhaps more in tune with the season, the three wise men: they traveled together, but the story does not say how they got along. Wisdom can grate and wise men can argue too much. We value experts but don’t necessarily like them.


There is evidence that before the Franklin volcanism began, there had been uplift. Beginning between 10 and 20 million years before the eruptions, Victoria Island had been rising as part of a big dome. The doming is attributed to a mantle plume. The size of the dike system also suggests such a plume. A large mantle plume will spread out where it hits the lithosphere, and form a mushroom head with a size that can reach 1000 km in radius. This is indeed approximately the area of the Franklin LIP.

The doming may have been centred several hundred kilometers north of Victoria Island. The remnants that we have in Victoria Island are at the outer edge of a much larger structure. In the dance of the plates, the center has been lost. It may be hiding in an unexpected place – we don’t know the make-up and break-up of Rodinia well enough. It could be on the ancient cratons of China or Australia, both of which were in the general area. Or the old centre has been erased in a later mountain-building plate collision. We only have fragments of our past, and it can be hard to piece together the historical events from those fragments. Too much is gone.

From Williamson et al., 2016. The Franklin LIP on Victoria Island. Green: basalt; orange: older sandstone; yellow: sandstone of a flood plain just prior to the eruptions

Studies of the surviving lava flows on Victoria Island (green on the figure) shows that parts rest on the sand from a river flood plain (yellow). The river was flowing to the northwest, and brought sand which had been eroded from higher land to the southeast. This sand contains basaltic and other volcanic fragments, which apparently were still warm when deposited. There had been volcanic activity nearby before the basalt of Victoria Island was erupted. The same sand layer also shows disturbances: these indicate there had been frequent earthquakes.

The rise of the land shows that magma had collected below the crust. Long, approximately vertical dikes formed. Some dikes became deflected and formed large horizontal sills in the crust, tens of kilometers long. The sedimentary rock became riddled with these sills and dikes. The rock was rich in sulphur, dating from the basin in Rodinia where it formed. The magma in some of the sills, picked up this sulphur from the sediment.

The eruption itself consisted of three phases, over a long period of time. The earliest flows at Victoria island were in shallow water, perhaps lakes or ponds. They formed some local halyoclastites and a few pillow lavas. The water quickly disappeared: subsequent flows were rubbly but not wet. Each flow was between 1 and 10 meters in thickness. The top of these flows is weathered, showing there was considerable time between individual flows. The flow rates were not high and the flows are not wide. This suggests that this phase was fed by small, separate vents or fissures, each erupting at its own time.

In the second phase, volcaniclastics (think lahars) filled in a valley in the lava field, perhaps 50 meters deep. The valley may have been tectonic, grabens caused by magma intrusion, which would imply a long hiatus after the first phase. The first debris avalanche came from the edge of the valley and brought only debris from the lava field. The second one came from further away and was carried by water, indicating a river had started flowing over the lava field.

Now the real thing began, the third phase with much larger sheet flows, typical of a flood basalt. Three flows are recognized in the southern lava field of Victoria Island, with a combined thickness of 70 meters. The lower one is recognizable along a length of 25 kilometers. The northern lava field has four further sheets on top of these three, which are absent in the more deeply eroded southern field. The uppermost of these sheets is more than 150 meters tall. Each sheet consists of multiple flows: in the northern field, the five sheets together contain a minimum of 34 flows. Some of the individual flows can be traced over more than 30 kilometers.

From Williamson et al. 2013, https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2013/rncan-nrcan/M44-2013-16-eng.pdf. The southern lava field. Kj is the underlying sand stone, V0 the first phae, C1 and C2 the two volcaniclastics and V1A-C the sheets flows.

The earliest lava was similar in composition to ocean crust with up to 10% continental crust melted into it. Later flows had less continental pollution, and as the melt became more and more voluminous, the lavas became more homogeneous. But this was deep within Rodinia: where did the oceanic crust come from? Isotopic ratios suggest that this oceanic crust was quite old (or ‘mature’). The heat from the plume melted the lithosphere below the continent, and perhaps the upper mantle. The lithosphere had retained material from a long-subducted oceanic plate, most likely a remnant of the ocean that had been lost when Rodinia was assembled. It is sobering to think that this 700-million year old lava field, deep in the Canadian arctic, was made from an ocean that was lost more than a billion years ago and which has seen the underside of Rodinia.

All this was a side show: the real centre of the activity was hundreds of kilometers away. The event left a scar even below the continent. Seismographic imaging has shown that the deep root of the Canadian craton comes to a sudden end underneath the northern shore of the Prince Albert Sound. The Franklin LIP split the craton top to bottom. Rodinia now came to an end as the continents on either side of the developing rift drifted away.


Life goes at its own pace. It can’t be rushed. The Franklin eruption occurred in a world that was poised for the future, but reluctant to enter it. Simple life (single cells) has existed since some 3.5 billion years ago. When photosynthesis developed, it led to the first major environmental crisis when its waste product (oxygen) turned out an indiscriminate killer. It almost ended life altogether. Eventually life developed ways to cope with, and even make use of, this highly poisonous molecule.

The great oxygenation happened 2 billion years ago. But after the initial spike, oxygen levels had dropped back again and a billion years followed of low oxygen (perhaps 1-2%). Life was hanging on but nutrient levels in the ocean were very low. Much of the sea was anoxic, and mainly supported sulphur-eating bacteria. This sulphur is still seen in the sills of Victoria Island. The climate was pleasant, with temperatures a few degrees higher than nowadays. The atmosphere was not, with very little oxygen, five to ten times higher CO2 than nowadays, and significant methane and nitrous oxide. But change was coming. Stromatolites, build by cyanobacteria, disappeared 1 billion years ago, perhaps because of grazing, from a new life form which had developed. Microfossils became more diverse. Their origin is not known but they may come from algae. Bacteria ruled the waves! 800 million years ago the first animals evolved. Don’t hold your breath (however tempting in that atmosphere): these were only the forerunners of the sponges. But it was sign of what was to come.

If you wonder how such a high level of greenhouse gasses could keep the Earth no warmer than 4C above current levels, the Sun was fainter in those days. And as Rodinia was breaking up, those CO2 levels were falling. Winter was coming. And what a winter it was. It even was given its own geological name: this was the time of the Cryogenian.

In the years before the Franklin eruption, the climate had become variable. Models suggest that global temperatures may have been a little cooler than today. There had already been some excursions to even cooler climates. One study finds evidence for a glacier in southwest Virginia, about 750 million years ago, at a time Virginia was tropical. This was likely a mountain glacier, and it has been suggested to be associated with rifting, perhaps akin to (but lower than) the Mountains of the Moon along the Africa rift valley which nowadays carries glaciers. This brief cold phase is now known as the Kaigas glaciation. A bit earlier, around 810 million years ago there was a longer phase of colder weather known as the ‘Bitter Springs’.

From MacDonald et al. 2010, Calibrating the Cryogenian, Science Vol 327, pp. 1241-1243. Mount Harper glacial indicators. Top: glacial dropstone; Middle: Striations caused by a moving glacier; Bottom: Soft sediment which has been folded underneath a grounded glacier.

Why had the climate been cooling, after the warmer days of early Rodinia? There are two reasons. The continents had all moved to tropical and subtropical latitudes. Land reflects more radiation than the sea, and with the continents on the equator where most of the sunlight falls, the Earth now reflected more and retained less solar heat. And as Rodinia began to split, the climate may have become wetter (supercontinents have dry interiors) and this would have increased weathering. Weathering of rocks removes CO2 from the atmosphere, so the CO2 content was going down a bit: there was less greenhouse warming. This is common when supercontinents break up.

However, this was no ice age. With the continents clustered around the equator, large glaciers could not form. The sea near the poles might freeze, but snow had nowhere to settle. There would be no white Christmas – and certainly not at tropical Victoria Island.

Not far from Victoria Island lies Canada’s Yukon territory – at least, it is close enough to be in the same country. Rocks of the time of the Franklin LIP are exposed here in various locations stretching to the Alaskan border. And these show unexpected features. Around Mount Harper, there are scratches on the rock, similar to those seen on the modern-day Victoria Island, left by recent ice. A layer of diactimite is seen: a layer of sediment containing unsorted fragments up to boulders in size. This is the kind of sediment that can come from a glacier. Debris and dropstones show evidence for a floating glacier. The conclusion was unavoidable: Mount Harper had been near the grounding line of a marine glacier.

This glacial deposit has been dated to 716.5 million years ago. Mount Harper lies within the area of the Franklin dikes, and therefore already was close to Victoria Island. The lava at Victoria Island has kept the direction of the magnetic field of the time. From that, we know this region was no more than 10 degrees from the equator. That Mount Harper glacier was floating on a tropical sea.

Evidence for this glaciation has been found around the world, in Africa, Australia and America. They all tell us the same story of sea-level glaciers in the tropics. The ice had reached everywhere and the sea had frozen from pole to pole and from shore to shore. No open sea remained anywhere on Earth, not even the most remote ocean. The long winter had begun. Victoria Island finally had its white Christmas.


We have long known that the Earth is living precariously. Modeling shows that there are three stable types of climate that the Earth can have. One is what we have, where temperatures are moderate, the seas are open, and snow and ice are found only at higher latitudes or not at all. There are excursions to more extreme temperatures, as there were during the ice age or from our attempt at global warming, but these are within the range of this type of temperate, liveable climate which we depend on.

The second climate type is that of the White Witch where the entire Earth is frozen. Open oceans absorb a lot of sunlight and turn it to warmth. Ice, on the other hand, reflects most of the sunlight. A frozen Earth would have a stable temperature far below freezing, all over the globe, kept that way by the reflecting ice.

There is a third stable climate but we don’t want to go there: evaporate the entire ocean and we get a steam atmosphere where the blanket of moisture keeps the temperature high enough (several hundred C) to keep it that way. Somehow the Earth has avoided both extremes and kept temperatures at the moderate level which life can live with, over a staggering 4 billion years. For much of that time, the Earth was an ocean planet with only small pockets of land. Oceans are excellent at providing stability. But over time, the land areas had grown and had reached continent size. Land creates climate instability: it has low heat capacity, and the temperature can fluctuate rapidly. And now all this land was in the tropics, and much of the sunlight falling on Earth fell here. Franklin erupted into this world of danger.

The temperate climate had been lost. In an ice age, the whiteness of the ice and snow keeps the temperatures low, and allows the glaciers to creep towards temperature latitudes. Models show that if sea ice were to reach 30 degrees latitude, the expansion becomes unstoppable. Temperatures plummet, and within 200 years the sea ice will have reached the equator. A few thousand years later, in those models the ice is several hundred meters thick across the entire world ocean. This had come to pass.

The global freeze had begun immediately after the Fanklin eruption of Victoria Island. Somehow, this flood basalt, among the largest continental flood basalts known, had tipped the Earth into a snowball. We still don’t quite know how the LIP did this – other, even larger LIPs never managed. There are some suggestions. The Earth had already been relatively cool, which helped. The Franklin eruption was quite sulphur rich because of the sedimentary rock through which it erupted. The sulphate in the atmosphere may have cooled the planet. The problem with this is that sulphate drops out of the atmosphere quite fast and if the eruptions lasts very long (centuries), it has to compete with the CO2 which the eruption also produces.

More likely is CO2 scrubbing. Volcanoes put CO2 into the atmosphere – flood basalts therefore often go together with a strong bout of global warming. But later, they can remove CO2 again. This is because basalt, when it weathers, takes up CO2. The suggestion is that this scrubbing had been much stronger than usual after the Franklin eruption, firstly because the basalt covered such a large area, and second because it erupted in the tropics with high rainfall and therefore high weathering. The result was that after an initial CO2 spike, levels began to drop – and reached values well below those of before the eruption. As CO2 fell, temperatures did too, sea ice expanded and snow began to settle on the fringes of Rodinia. When half the ocean was covered by ice, the planet’s fate was sealed.

Let it snow, let it snow

The ice catastrophe may have been an accident. The Franklin eruption had been going on, intermittently, for one million years or more. But now it was in its declining phase. Basalt was weathering and CO2 was going down. At that moment, in a final flash, Victoria Island erupted its sulphuric magma. This caused a sharp, temporary drop in temperatures. This drop was enough to push things over the edge, perhaps allowing glaciers to form in parts of Rodinia. It never recovered, and the volcanic winter became a permanent one.

And so the ice came, the snow fell and the world turned into a frozen, lifeless desert. The bleak winter would last for 50 million years.

The bleak mid-winter

With the sea frozen, the continents covered in snow and CO2 at record low levels, temperatures plummeted. The average temperature over the year quickly dropped to -40C, even at the equator. These temperatures are predicted by climate models, but have been confirmed by the study of oxygen isotopes in rocks of the time. The poles were far colder, with an average annual temperature of -80C and midwinter temperatures of -110C. It was like living on Mars. Summer temperatures were a balmy -20C at all latitudes. There are no seasons in the tropics, and the cold here was year round. The sea ice grew to a thickness of over 1 kilometer.

From space, the Earth would have appeared white. This is called a ‘Snowball Earth’ – for obvious reasons. Snowfall was sparse, as cold air contains very little moisture. The whole Earth was a desert. But much of modern Antarctica is such a cold desert, and still it has been able to grow enormously thick glaciers. Even a little snow can build up if it never melts.

You may wonder how there could have been any snow at all when the main source of moisture – sea water – had been locked away below the thick sea ice and evaporation of water had stopped. But ice could also sublimate into vapour, bypassing the state of liquid water. Sublimation happened mainly at the tropics, with the Sun directly overhead and no clouds to shield it. A reversed Hadley circulation channeled the moisture to the subtropics where it became snow. Glaciers could thicken at a rate of a kilometer in a million years. That rate was high enough for the glaciers to start moving, but the ice growth was 10 times less than that in our modern ice ages. Models show that the glaciers covered the entire supercontinent within 200,000 years, apart from a few coastal strips. Sometimes the glaciers would surge (very slowly) seaward; at other times there was a sudden retreat, leaving sand exposed. Meltwater would flow underneath the glaciers, just as it does in modern glaciers. The air was dusty, dry and cold. And so it continued, year after year after year, in this everlasting winter.

But during this winter, there was a slow change, imperceptibly at first but becoming larger as the season grew older and the ten million years of December turned into the ten million years of January, and then February. For this was a broken Earth. In our modern world, CO2 is kept at bay through weathering of rocks and through the carbonate cycle of the oceans. There is a balance between how much CO2 is produced by volcanoes , and how much is removed from the atmosphere. But this cycle had been broken. Volcanoes remained active, breaking through the ice in immense eruptions. But the CO2 they breathed out was no longer removed from the atmosphere. CO2 can dissolve into rain, but not into snow. There was no weathering of rocks and there was no open water. What was added, stayed added because of a lack of subtraction. And so CO2 began to multiply, from 1000 ppm (0.1 mbar) to 10,000 and then 100,000 ppm. It still wasn’t enough to fully counter the enormous reflectivity of the sea ice, and Winter’s rule remained undivided. But temperatures slowly went up from their early extremes. Eventually, March came and during the afternoon, for the first time in 50 million years, the temperature rose above freezing. There was hope of a Spring.

During those millions of years, the rising temperature had already changed the land. Glaciers were retreating and more of the land became ice free. Even at 10,000 ppm, the open land remained limited to the equator, but at 100,000 ppm, most of Rodinia had become bare. But the ocean was still a wide expanse of ice, thinner than before but still frozen solid. At 100,000ppm, the sea glacier was still 500 meters thick on average.

The ides of March

But change was in the air. Once CO2 had increased to 200,000ppm, tropical average annual temperatures were above freezing, sea ice at the equator began to melt from the top, and open water appeared. This water did something that had been missing for a very long time: it absorbed rather than reflected sunlight. When this open water lasted year-round, the winter reached its end. The sea warmed, and more open water appeared. The sea ice began to retreat towards the poles. The change was now unstoppable; the retreat accelerated and within only 2,000 years, even the poles had become ice free. Spring had arrived.

It was a catastrophe. Rain was now falling and CO2 was being scrubbed from the atmosphere. But half of all air was CO2, and the scrubbing took too long. Temperatures were rising, at first welcome but soon the rise became too much. A torrid greenhouse developed. The oceans melted, warmed, and kept warming. Water temperatures reached between 40C and 60C. The warming water expanded, and sea levels rose by 50 meters. Much of the coast became deeply flooded by the unbearably hot water. The Earth was out of the frying pan into the fire.

The flooded coast came to the rescue. The hot water was highly oversaturated in carbonates, caused in part by tens of millions of years of volcanic activity along the mid-ocean ridges and in part by run-off from the sudden weathering in the continents. The carbonates came out of the water, and were deposited on the continental shelves. It is seen as a distinct thick cap on top of the sediments left by the Snowball Earth glaciation. Eventually CO2 regained its equilibrium. The Earth finally became habitable again, ready for a very long summer.

Source: http://www.snowballearth.org Cap carbonate in Namibia, following the second Snowball event. TST (CD): dolostone; MFZ: limestone of the maximum flooding stage; HST, flaggy limestone and dolostone grainstone

But the long summer did not last. Perhaps this was all a false spring, the pleasant week in March before winter returns with a vengeance. After 10 million years, for reasons not well understood, the temperatures dropped again. Glaciers reformed, and sea ice again advanced. The continents were still close to the equator. History repeated itself: eventually, the ice again enveloped the globe in a snowball Earth. It stayed that way for another ten million years, before spring finally took hold. The Earth’s long summer had begun.

Life in the freezer

How ever did life survive the snowball? Where could it have survived, with the continents covered in glaciers, the sea frozen to a kilometer depth and the waters below pitch dark, hypersaline and anoxic? How did photosynthesis survive without photons for 50 million years? We still don’t know. Deep water creatures will survive near black smokers on the sea floor, but these do not photosynthesize.

There are suggestions. Some have suggested that areas of open water existed throughout the snowball in the warmest regions near the equator. These are called ‘loophole’ or ‘waterbelt’ models. But physics is not encouraging. There is no obvious way to stop the ice spreading out and filling in any gaps. The most promising waterbelt model is one where the ice is deemed to be much less reflective in the tropical region. This can give a ten-degree wide belt of water which migrates back and forth with the seasons. However, there is no clear reason why the ice here would be less reflective. Cracks in the sea ice are a perhaps more plausible alternative. They are seen on Europa, the ice-covered moon of Jupiter. They would require that life can quickly jump from one random crack to another, half a planet away.

Other ideas ignore the ocean and focus on the surface. Perhaps liquid water could exist on top of the ice. A possibility is dust. A dry world is a dusty world, even if only from volcanic ash. Over the entire globe, the dust layer would increase by one to ten meter per million years. Left alone, the dust would be 300 meters deep by the end of snowball Earth; wind would bring it mainly to the tropics. Clearly, something recycled all that dust. Perhaps every now and then the ice would collapse and turn over, as it does in sea glaciers around Antarctica. Dust on the ice will absorb sunlight, melt the underlying ice, and sink in. Quickly it develops pockets, and later ponds, of typically half a meter deep, which can be filled with liquid water and covered with thin ice. In this way, an equatorial dust band could provide the conditions for life to continue, and for photosynthesis to take place, without the need to artificially keep the equatorial ocean ice-free. It would also explain why the atmosphere never became fully anoxic, even during the depth of snowball Earth. Life in the cold ponds would be slow, but possible.

The final models propose that life continued on land, in ice-free locations perhaps similar to the dry valleys of Antarctica. Could cyanobacteria perhaps survive millions of years of complete dessiccation?

Later in the snowball, the slowly rising temperatures would make the presence of liquid surface water more likely. The coldest period during the first ten million years would be the most difficult to survive.


In the end, life survived everything life threw at it. Fossils show that the diversity of life suffered tremendously: there is a poverty of species, and low numbers, in the fossil record of the snowball Earth and of its immediate aftermath. But the recovery was spectacular. When the Cryogenian ended, the next geological epoch was ready to go: the Ediacarian. This was the time of the most amazing fossils, which look like nothing we know today. And after that came the Cambrian, with the explosion of life which Darwin already wondered about. After the Christmas flood basalt of Victoria Island, and the long winter with its false spring, came the real Spring where life sprang to new life. And after that came Summer, the never-ending days of warmth and of dinosaurs and of birds and mammals, the playtime of the Earth.

The Sun is brighter now than it was in those days, and there may never be another snowball Earth. But it is good to remember. Once, long ago and far away, a volcano brought a winter which almost ended life on Earth. Other volcanoes brought back the warmth, but it took a long long time and the recovery almost brought its own disaster. Life survived hanging by a thread. But survive it did, against all odds, and how it flowered in the next season of the Earth.

Victoria Island, in winter a place of desolation and human suffering, in summer springs to life when it becomes a place of wild beauty. It is a place of hope.

Albert, December 2021

A Christmas puzzle

To provide hours of entertaining: trace the curved line

(addendum, June 2022) For the latest on snowball Earth: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-022-00950-1

396 thoughts on “White Christmas

  1. Is no one going to mention the final graphic in Albert’s excellent article? (the optical illusion).

    That’s one of the best examples of optical illusions I’ve seen. My guess as to how it works is that the human eye perceives a bit differently outside of its focal center, so things seen in peripheral vision aren’t anywhere near as detailed as our brains make us think they are. Hence, the shading of the dots is done to create curves of low contrast, seen only in peripheral vision (which due to being less detailed is more influenced by contrast differences).

    • Interestingly with advanced glaucoma (little peripheral vision) I see no tracks at all.

      • That is an interesting observation. Yes, the straight lines appear curved (fairly randomly) in the peripheral vision. Without much peripheral vision you would be immune to it

    • Thank you: Today, I’ve learned something new.

      D’uh, had thought it dysergic combination of broken nights, weary ‘Computer Glasses’, anti-histamines to mitigate misery of ‘Winter Bronchitis’ {Sinus_Stream, Cough, Wheeze etc etc} plus excess of chocolate and cheese bought for guests who, in the end, dared not visit..

      ( You’re never *entirely* alone with three tabby cats, but these spend Winter eating like Hobbits, between sleeping even more than usual… )

  2. Kilauea pause has just ended, right now at time of this comment 🙂

    • As of 2 pm Iceland time Dec 28 the Geldingadalir cone is definitely smoking with white vapors emitted now not just the pale blue vapors. I am not saying this is an eruption but pointing out that the last three days warming has occurred

      • It can also be weather, the colder it is in the air, the more visible the condensation will be.

        • not going strictly by vapor emission, there was increased infra-red emissions visible in the Samsung camera at night time. These spots changed and new ones appeared.

      • The tremors can loosen the rocks in the FAF cone and expose more hot interior
        Does not have to be new activity

        • This seems the best explanation. The hot spots are quite cool this past night (30-Dec) so the quakes have enable the hot gases to escape.

  3. Hope you had lovely Christmas, everyone =)

    Regarding FAF, the dike expanding “tremor” declined over the last few days in average…so slowing down perhaps :/
    What about shallowness of the quakes?

    @Albert, thanks in advance for the article, I will read it soon 🙂

  4. 1/2 – Last night our superstar head of the Natural hazards monitoring at Vedurstofan
    was on the news. She did a brilliant job explaining the situation at hand. In summary, many things still unknown. The magma is at ca. 2 km deep under Fagradalsfjall…
    2/2 … a) The dike is extending in a similar way as in Feb.-March this year. b) Seismic activity outside Fagradalsf. is due to changes in tension caused by the dike, nothing to do with magma! c) Not possible to predict when an eruption occur. D) STAY AWAY FROM FAGRADALSFJALL!

    • Luis, your second Twitter link has wild footage from central Java of a pyroclastic flow this morning on Mt. Merapi.

  5. Writing my first post for VC.
    Typical a thing a person with Aspbergers can do, this requires alot of tought and addiction to the subject.

    Nyiragongo deserves much much more attention to the common Public

    Its a dangerous volcano that threatens alot of pepole, the worlds most dangerous effusive volcano.

    I will also try To answer my own thesis in it, But its not made exactly like an university paper
    Since its just a popular sicence post.

    Here my Aspbergers is really useful

    • A bit of advice, dont write about the topic in the comments 🙂
      That is what kept me from writing my own articles for so long.

      Also if it is meant to be really in depth maybe break it into two parts so it is less to think about at once.

    • Already come a long way on my VC post. It just some more stuff to add to it and freshen it up. Albert and others Will improve it later, it will be a long post but also condensed so its not too long.

      I haves to write something for VC
      It also makes me feel a little better putting my own fun stuff on the internet

      • A bit of advice, if anyone who has experience of doing this offers advice/help then take it.
        I get the impression you do not routinely have papers published and there are many pitfalls.
        Indeed I know people very experienced at producing papers and the routinely get a colleague to pre-read it and criticise before the edit and expose it to the world.
        My 10c worth.

      • Albert and the other dragons will have a serious look first at it, It haves to be as good as possible first, Im going to improve the text before submitting it to VC. I have already written alot, and its going to be improved by Myself first.

        Will be my first VC post, and I will not be a frequent poster for soure, writing VC posts is an art form by itself
        : D never tryed before

    • Wish you all the best, Jester, in your post writing (and in every else of course too =) )
      I like effusive volcanoes/activity (except maybe for Hawaii, but that is a personal issue of mine^^)
      Absolutely looking forward! =D

      • Hawaii is awsome volcanism
        It too is capable of some very serious action, having a very huge constant magma supply. The 2018 Leilani eruption was as Big as Holuhraun and even faster than Holuhraun and let loose in the neighburhoods of Kilaueas east rift zone a real hellflood. And Hawaii is capable of fast lava flow events much much much much larger than that.
        We are just used to Hawaii as slow and steady, because that is what it have done now since 1983. Hawaii is also capable of gigantic lava fountains and ring fault eruptions.

        But its true that Hawaii is very far away and I too perfer To live in Iceland where its a much easier goal

        • I think the perception of Iceland having bigger eruptions comes from two things. One is that unlike Hawaii its record of eruptions is continuous since the island was discovered, and more of its eruptions are explosive owing to Vatnajokull. The other major case is that of Laki, but I think we are being unrealistic to consider that anything but an extraordinary event. Laki was one of the biggest Holocene eruptions in Iceland.

          Hawaii has not seen a really big eruption in the historic period until 2018. Mauna Loa didnt end its last active phase with a caldera collapse, and Kilauea had just done that shortly before official records began, so neither volcano has demonstrated its true potential. Mauna Loa is capable of eruptions on land of similar volume and magnitude as most of the eruptions at Veidivotn, doing so at least 4 times in the last 2000 years and as recently as 1710. Kilauea is probably capable of eruptions as big as Laki but such an eruption would be out in the deep sea, largely invisible, except for the massive caldera that would be formed. The last of these might have been around 1200 years ago with the final formation of the Powers caldera, some 10 km3 of magma. Halemaumau chamber now has got such a volume, just saying… 🙂

          • You are not correct here.
            Skaftáreldar was a fairly typical sized “fires” style eruption for Iceland, just one of many. I could just out of memory rip out a list of at least 10 that was considerably bigger.

            The record is quite clear that on average you get a Skaftáreldar (the correct name of the 1783 eruption, Laki proper was 5000 years prior) sized eruption about every 530 years or so on average, with 1 or 2 5km3 ranged in between.

            In the last 1000 years we have had 3, so slightly above average. In order of occurancy we have Eldgjá, Veidivötn (5km3 + 10km+ in tephra) and Skaftáreldar itself.

            The largest 3 are just out there compared to let us say Hawaii. In turn those are the 50km3 Theistareykjahran, 30km3 Thjorsahraun, and the 50km3 explosive Saksunarvatn III.

            Hawaii is more about building very large volcanoes, not having very large eruptions.

            Note, there have been way bigger eruptive sequences in Iceland, but those occur roughly once every million years or so, not something to be around really. Trap-formations even on a comparatively small scale is not cool to be around. 🙂

      • But its true that Nyiragongo is the worlds most dangerous effusive volcano.
        Its close to a very large city population as a steep pyroclastic tephra cone with catastrophic lava lake drainouts

      • The largest Icelandic single lava flows may involve up towards 150 km3 of lava, they are almost mini flood basalt flows. They are very rare, may only been 5 souch flows during the entire pleistocene history of Iceland, they where more common in the miocene in Iceland. The bigger they are the rarer they get. Lakis are rare on human timescales and bigger even rarer.

        But really huge, real LIP flows can have volumes of 10 000 km3 perhaps even more, with 5000 to 7000km3 being common volumes for induvidual large flows, of the monster LIP s and Iceland does not do these

        Iceland is a kind of LIP submarine lava plateau, But its a very slow one too. And perhaps not even a real one. The Iceland LIP is a product of combination of Plume and Ridge rising up an Igenous platform

  6. Albert, this is one of the best articles I’ve read here out of all the brilliant pieces you guys have gifted us with!

    Seriously, phenomenal stuff. I personally find the climactic ebb and flow of past geological epochs to be fascinating in the extreme, and how all facets of existence of different periods are tied together (volcanism, tectonics, chemistry of ocean and sky, etc) just makes for such a compelling and deeply engrossing read.

    I want more sir!

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone here, my favorite place on the internet.

  7. Tuesday
    28.12.2021 14:29:36 63.930 -22.038 5.3 km 3.9 99.0 4.9 km NNE of Krýsuvík

  8. I’m looking at Reykjanes GPS stations and the trajectories are slowing down in exactly the same way as they did in March the days before the eruption started. It seems likely that an eruption is very close now.

    • EQs with a depth of 2km or less.

      Source: https://skjalftalisa.vedur.is/#/page/map

      In March, the shallow eqs which preceded the eruption at Geldingadalir were further north along the dike. So the fact that there is a cluster now at Krysivík may be a “red herring” (faults accommodating the uplift?).

      • Quakes at Krýsuvík and Grindavík are so called trigger quakes. The expanding dyke under Fagradalsfjall puts stress on faults in nearby systems, causing earthquakes there. There’s no magma rising at those locations, only under Fagradalsfjall. I don’t think the depth of the trigger quakes is a good indicator for the depth of the magma.

        • That’s confirmed by gas emissions and other measurements?

          • By GPS and InSAR measurements. They clearly show a magma intrusion in the upper crust under Fagradalsfjall. Just like before the eruption in March.

  9. “In the end, life survived everything life threw at it.” Very clever. Made me laugh.

  10. A friend just sent me a link to a report in Fréttablaðið about Hekla. https://www.frettabladid.is/frettir/hekla-farin-ad-rumska-almannavarnir-i-vidbragdsstodu/ Before anyone gets too excited, Hekla is showing green on the IMO eruption page, but I’m even less tempted to go near it now.

    Here’s the article (via GiggleTrans):

    Hekla is beginning to expand and has reached the same level as before the eruption in 2000.

    The Civil Defense and the Chief of Police in the South have decided to activate SMS messages that will be sent to people who enter a pre-defined area around Hekla.

    This is stated in an announcement from the Civil Defense. The chief of police in the South warns people not to go for a walk on Hekla.

    Tourists entering the area near Hekla will receive an SMS stating that there is little notice to respond if an eruption begins. The last eruption was in Hekla in 2000 and before that 10 years passed between the last eruptions. It can not be ruled out that the SMS message reaches people only outside a defined area and the public is therefore asked to keep this in mind.

    The Civil Defense says that measurements of overheating show that magma pressure in the magma chamber under Hekla reached the same level in 2006 as it was before the eruption in 2000.

    “There are no special omens that Hekla is closer to erupting now than before, but it is appropriate to use this technology to inform people who go to this area about the danger,” says a statement from the Civil Defense.

    Here’s a link to the Almannavarnir page – scroll down for English: https://www.almannavarnir.is/frettir/tilkynning-um-virkjun-sms-skilaboda-a-reykjanesi-og-umhverfis-heklu/

    It’s hard to tell whether Almannavarnir have recently become more concerned about Hekla because of its recent behaviour – they’ve just decided to send out similar messages re Fagradalsfjall – or whether they just think it prudent in any case to warn people about its unpredictability.

    • Hekla hasnt got a shallow magma chamber, so it is nearly impossible for it to show typical deformation signals. It probably did have a shallower chamber before 1104 when it was mostly rhyolite but that seems to be gone now.

      USGS did an article on Pavlov, which is much more active but shares this feature of a deep magma system, it also erupts with very short warning.

        • That uplift could be only indirectly related to Hekla though. Vatnafjoll is also there and seems to be a little bit less asleep than before (or maybe a lot less asleep, Carl will say 🙂 ) and it is close enough that deformation could be from there instead. I remember reading a while back there was inflation for a 30 km area around Hekla, which includes Vatnafjoll in the boundary. Magma composition lends these to be different volcanoes but tectonically they are undoubtedly connected somehow, even if the magma doesnt mix.

          I do look forward to Carls article, there is precious little information on Vatnafjoll anywhere.

          • The current little signal is due to readjustment after the large earthquake at Vatnafjöll and the dyke intrusion that occured afterwards.
            There is nothing special going on at Hekla, more than the slow and steady influx of lava that is typical.

            It could erupt in 32 minutes, or in 30 years. No way to know really. 🙂

    • This is really looking dangerously runny. 😮
      Keep up writing your post 🙂

      • Writing on it, written alot, it haves to be good too remeber that, will improve the words and structure, wont be too long, But will be a longer post.

        Albert will do the final fresh up: But It haves to be good too, will be weeks to months with improving it from me, before I feels ready to submitt it to Albert, It haves to be good, and not too long
        My style of writing is quite dull and robotnic, I allow improvment from Albert and other dragons

      • Yes its very very fluid, But perhaps mostly because of fast eruption rates, similar fluidal splash features can be found in Hawaii and Fagradalshraun close to the vents. But yes Nyiragongo haves very low viscosity, but perhaps not much lower than a hot basalt

        Still very fluid, near these fissures its really a flood of Nephelinitc Glass …. It flowed so quickly it did not even set serious fire to those trees, the degassed nature of the lava may help it to look more fluid, But similar features been seen in gas rich vents

    • https://mhalb.pagesperso-orange.fr/kivu/images4-diapo/photo14.htm




      More Photos of the 2002 eruption showing the extraodinary low viscosity of Nyiragongos Nephelinites at least near the vents .. fluid enough to cover twigs and boulders in thin shells of lava glass and coat everything.

      The 1977 ”glass flood” killed a whole elephant herd, leaving elephant molds with the trunk and everything visible in the lava.

      If you are close to the fissures when they erupts, then you cannot out runn it

      • This is confusing. How can plants still be there (looks like corn stalks) after a lava flow of at least several inches washes around them? I would assume that should be impossible. They should evaporate. No amount of Leydenfrost can save them. Something more solid and with more water inside, like a tree trunk or an elephant, maybe, but the leaves of a corn plant? Seems weird.

        Is it really clear that this was not some type of mudflow that solidified?

      • Groundhog look at the trees they are seared and black and a little black: its lava 🙂 the lava flowed very quickly and the eruption lasted very shortly. Trees contains alot of water and these are tropical trees too with high mostire content. Wood is also a very very poor conductor of heat. But indeed its very spectacular, specialy the twigs covered in lava glass. I also think that Nephelinite is perhaps not as hot as most other normal basalts. But Indeed an extraodinary sight

        I dont know if the Elephants did burn away, they are mostly water too, the Maurice Kraftt photographs of the ”Elephant Molds” was taken sometime after the 1977 with New plants growing in the molds, perhaps the charred remains decomposed. The eruption lasted less than one hour

        Indeed an extraodinary lava eruption! and If you are near the fissures You can never out – runn the lava

      • The corn plants are strange But the lava formed a pahoehoe skinn That was flexible, the skinn is probaly not that hot. But yes extraodinary that they are not burned away. But probaly leidenfrost there too

    • Snow at Nyiragongo ❄️ since the whole Virunga Province is uplifted 1 kilometers above sealevel the true height of Nyiragongo is 3 470 + 1000 that yeilds a true height of Nyiragongo Thats 4470 meters above sealevel

      • Are you certain that the general uplift isn’t included in the total height of Nyiragongo? I keep finding references to the elevation being 3,470 meters. Generally elevation statistics use “above sea level” as the measure. But I don’t know… might not be the case in this instance. Could be they do things differently there.

      • Jesper the 3470 figure is above sea level, Nyiragongo is about 2 km tall above its base, so not a huge volcano though probably is big for its age.

      • Nyiragongo is tiny, only
        10 kilometers wide for the edifice. And its probaly a very young volcano, formed by tall lava fountains, only recently becomming an open conduit that degassed the whole system. An overgrown Puu Oo is indeed quite an analouge as you say.

  11. I’m a bit confused looking at the GPS numbers on here: http://brunnur.vedur.is/gps/reykjanes.html

    Fagradalsfjall inflation is back to where it was before this swarm started, meanwhile the nearby stations at Litla and Krisuvik show still ongoing inflation. What is going on here? Maybe there is a natural explanation that I’m missing?

  12. OT
    Anybody know where is the barman? I think VC bar is closed.

    Happy holidays to all of you and many many….thanks for
    good writing and nice behavior.

  13. La palma, lava cleaning operations on la laguna halted by lava wall rock.

  14. With all quiet on the Fagradalsfjall Front, I’m left to stare at all the light pollution displayed by the MBL.IS panorama camera at night.

    • …looked somewhat too good to be true, didn’t it?
      So yaaa, looks like it was just making a small joke.
      Completely boring again right now.

  15. Interesting quake cluster just north of Selfoss, 35 events so far. Were there similar events in the past? Probably tectonic, but interestingly the depths vary?

  16. Interesting “waves” on the Fag fra drum plot.
    I’ve taken a screenshot but can’t figure out how to upload it.

    • If you’re looking at the lowpass plot, there are two events that show up. First, in the afternoon, there’s the moderately sized quake at Bárðarbunga. Then, in the evening, there’s the wiggly waves from the M7.3 in Indonesia.

      • Ah thank you, that must have been it. I keep watching or patterns to restart!

  17. Thank you Albert, for this marvelous and “cold” piece!
    Though I like snow, this would have possibly been just a meter too much of it 😀
    Absolutely outstanding how you put exploit all the relevant disciplines to arrive at the final result!
    When I last heard from snowball earth it was more of a wild hypothesis. But now it seems to be pretty much established, also judging from the article on Wikipedia.
    I wish you all the best!

  18. It’s very quiet at Fagradalsfjall. I think it cannot be ruled out that the dyke intrusion might stall – even if it was smiliar in spring. Looks like there is not enough pressure to proceed.

    • Movements of GPS in the area are far less raving compared to the event in march.
      It is not over yet, but was thinking the same.

  19. This a very nice article: indeed snowball earth is really really really scary stuff, it was a real world Fimbul winter, great freeze of doom

  20. HVO released a picture today of the lava lake basin during a pause, it is apparently 12 meters deep. So total volume of liquid lava is around 850,000 m3. The return of lava is pretty fast, somewhere between 60 and 120 m3/s effusion rate, and it seems possibly even higher at the start of last fill, which only lasted a day. Will be interesting to see when it returns now.

  21. The previous night and tonight (8 pm Iceland time) the hot spots on the Geldingadalir cone have cooled off, definitely and are barely visible on the Samsung camera https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTOZxPb-UCo. 3 and 4 nights ago, they were clearly visible in the camera, but things have cooled down as of present.

  22. The latest on Fagradalsfjall, Google translate:

    The Meteorological Office’s experts say that a new satellite image, received today, indicates that the magma under Fagradalsfjall is still on its way to the surface and that it is now at a depth of about sixteen hundred meters.

    This means that the magma has pushed up about four hundred meters in the last three days, but on Monday it was estimated to be at a depth of about two thousand meters.

    If the magma continues to move upwards at the same speed, about 130 meters per day on average, a simple projection says that it will take it twelve days to reach the surface. According to this, an eruption could be expected around 11 January.

    Earthquakes have otherwise been at least in the turbulent area over the last 24 hours.


    • Can someone explain how a satellite image can indicate the depth and/or velocity of magma?

        • I get that insanely clever InSAR imaging can measure ground deformation from space, but clearly the surface isn’t rising 130 meters per day, which is the statistic quoted above. The surface must move just a small fraction of that amount.

          Is there some rule where, say, if the ground deforms by x mm, that means that the magma underneath has moved xx M? If so, is this learned from observing prior eruptions?

          Since I don’t understand it, it seems like voodoo.

          • I posted this link higher up in the thread, but the pictures in it are useful to illustrate the ground deformations involved, so I’ll post it again:


            The dyke does not only affect the ground directly above it, but influences a wide area around the intrusion. The pattern changes with the depth of the intrusion. Given that the intrusion has the form of a vertical dyke, the amount and shape of ground deformation in the area can be matched to the dimensions of the dyke so that depth and width can be estimated.

            Note also that the ground above the dyke isn’t pushed up. The sides of the vertical dyke are pushed aside, so the rock directly above it becomes stretched. That makes the ground actually sink above the dyke. Further away, the rock is instead compressed, which makes the ground rise. That’s why you see both uplift and subsidence, depending on which GPS station you look at.

          • Dikes push sideways, not up, so no upwards rising. You would see upwards rising if there was a shallow magma chamber. You would also see upwards rising from a sill, which is what happened just north of Grindavik in early 2020. A sill is also the sort of intrusion we saw at Kilauea in August, when we all thought it would erupt southwest of the caldera.

            Really we are only going to see anything from this probably within the day it erupts, there will be visible ground cracking and then heavy fuming, followed by lava fountaining. Magma is 1.5 km deep, I think if it was going to erupt from the original cone it would probably have already done that by now, or at least the cone would be degassing heavily. It isnt really though, so more likely is that the eruption will be somewhere else. A lot of sources are saying in Natthagi or Natthagakriki, south of the existing cone pretty much on trail A.

          • That’s backwards terminology.

            Sills are horizontal. Dykes are vertical

      • They use a model for how a magma chamber deforms the surface. Obviously the size and volume of the magma is important. Also note that the volume of the magma does not change, but the magma chamber (the dike) extends a but closer to the surface. The shape of the surface deformation (width, average height, centre height) shows how the magma chamber changed.

        Typically, the width of the deformation shows how deep the magma is. Say a change of +1cm over a width if 1 km would mean a depth of 1 km (very roughly)

    • So no new years eve fireworks then.
      Well don’t need that, gunna make my own anyways, pure oxygen rulez hard =D

    • Seems To be a very slow moving dyke
      This is why we does not get curtains of fire when fagradalshraun erupted.

      • If Reykjanes Erupts now it wont be a curtain of fire? The dyke is not rising fast enough?

        But But Kapelluhraun, Ögmundahraun was very fast short lived channelized
        ”Aa” lava flows that sourely had impressive startups and specialy Ögmundahraun

        • Krysuvik has got a magma chamber, not a shallow one like Hengill but within the crust, I think it should count as a central volcano. Svartsengi and Reykjanes do too, possibly it is the same in those two actually. Fagradalsfjall does not, so cant erupt fast yet. It might form something if it lasts long enough though.

  23. Wow wow! Nyiragongo released 109 tons of Sulfur Dioxide yesterday, that shows What a beast this volcano is growing into. Thats alot of gas If the numbers are true, big deep forces are behind this, perhaps a top of an emerging mantle plume under the Albertine Rift have started to melt? Intense volcanism in the arera started 20 000 years ago with birth of Nyiramuragira. Rest of Albertine rift is quite passive. But Thats alot of gas from Nyiragongo

    ” Nyiragongo activity: Medium SO2 emission detected Yesterday 29-12-2021, with up to 109.90 tons!”


    • Lol tought as it as 109 thousand tons
      Well then the real Numbers are much lower 😂

      Still the birth of 2002 – 2021 lava lake in 2003 did 50 000 tons a day

  24. https://fb.watch/aea3merDLm/

    Kilauea lava lake as it starts to fill. Really is pretty crazy, the fill rate migth be only 1-2 m3/s over the day but that gets to be much faster if the whole lake fills in an hour. This video was only 45 min ago and the lake is already filled to overflowing in the webcam now.

    Nice little lava geyser too, if only someone could add some zeroes on the height 🙂

  25. Aha! Iceland: Fagradalir. At last we have some tremor on the drum plot, and it includes a mild version of the “Fagradallic Pulses” (Trademark) we saw in the main eruptive period.

    I double checked the weather and it’s quiet today (winds due Saturday).

    We might see some arrival of the intrusion at the surface before long?
    Or it might just die off again. (I don’t really know to be honest.)

    • 1500 meters deep at last notice. I think it will accelerate as it gets higher though, SO2 and water coming out of solution above this depth. Given how gas rich the first eruption was I think it will be quite obvious when the lava has surfaced, no glowing holes or anything, there will be lava fountains somewhere. Will probably look a lot like when that second fissure opened up in April.

    • The drumplot will scale its gain according to the largest signals present. Since there have been no large quakes in a while, the gain has been turned up so that small signals become visible, including the background noise. Look at the tremor plot. It’s really low now.

    • Do you reckon Natthagi is the most likely place for it to break through? It seems to be slightly further south than last time.

  26. Where is the Geldingadalir camera situated, can someone tell me what I’m seeing from left to right?

    • This is a panoramic view from Stóri Hrútur. If you go back to night time you see three bright areas. Those are, from left to right, Grindavík, Keflavík and Reykjavík. The small cone shape in front of the Reykjavík lights is Keilir. The previous eruption cone is in the center, just below the Keflavík lights.

      • Thanks Tomas. Natthagi valley is likely out of sight to the left then.

        • Nátthagi is visible. It’s the black lava furthest to the left. This panorama really shows a lot of the eruption site.

  27. While on the subject of Icelandic volcanoes, I found this very nice cloud free aerial view of Hekla just now.


    Google Earth is unfortunately completely clouded over and has been for a long time now.

    • You mean Hekla’s desertic twin, Dubbi volcano.

      • Was waiting for someone to notice 🙂

        The similarities between the two are frankly extraordinary. It seems much less active, maybe going centuries to millennia between eruptions, but it is a real monster when something does happen. 1861 was 1 km3 of basalt that then triggered a VEI 5 rhyolite eruption including a lateral blast, and that was followed by even more basalt, 3 km3 in total of lava and more than 1 km3 of rhyolite. It looks like most of the lava was erupted in only a few days too, only one spot shows pahoehoe and tubes, the rest is just sheet a’a.

        Really wondering if there is actually nothing particularly weird about the form factor of Hekla, it is a young volcano that doesn’t erupt constantly so maybe has had trouble centralizing. It is close though, the post 1947 eruptions definitely had significant radial component.

  28. Is the increase in tremor real on the faf highpass plot or just weather related? I am assuming that the approaching storm could already have large waves ahead of it. Could this be causing the disturbance does anyone think?
    The plot I am refering to can be seen at the bottom of this site.

    • Bad weather is due Saturday. So this is for real.
      Except note Tomas Andersson’s proviso. So, it could just be auto-adjustment after the quakes.

      • Thanks for the reply Clive. Oh yes, I had forgotten to check for other posts. Interesting development if real, Here’s to a new year of volcano watching with Iceland volcanoes always being my first love.

        • The tremor line is definitely starting to thicken in the last hour too.

          • I reckon it is for real! (But shhh…don’t tell Tomas…) 🙂

          • I’m entirely with Tomas, here.
            According to the acme.to page they have 18 m/s from the east, so it is due to scaling and bad weather.

          • It’s still very breezy there. A couple of people on one camera – coats flapping a lot.

            I see the drum plot chart has now been rescaled down – happened since my previous post.

            Nothing likely to happen yet but worth keeping a general eye on it.

  29. It’s been a while since I checked the mila Geldingadalur webcam, looks like a bit of a heat haze with some gas emissions at the cone. I assume this has been ongoing since the eruption paused or is this new?
    Thanks and Happy New Year’s to all ☺

    • Hi Inannamoon. I have been watching that cone closely in the past week and if anything the heat and steaming from the cone has decreased. When I first saw it after a long break I like you wondered if there was increasing heat but was assured it was just the normal residual heat in the cones walls.

  30. Geologyhub on twitter say that the dike is now 1500 metres from the surface and at current rate will erupt on January 11th? I’d say it’s likely to be a bit sooner than that but not entirely sure where.

      • Oh yes! Polly the dog is one of the best behaved dogs I have seen for a long time. She is a true beauty!

        • Best wishes to everyone and hoping for a new year and a new eruption.

  31. I know your pain Albert. You just made a great article concerning a fascinating topic but the least dangerous volcano in history is rumbling so all of the attention must go to that. I made a volcanic winter article once as well but no one talked about it about because people were talking about steam and other minor things happening with a minor eruption.

    Let the rage flow, let the hate mold you, let it guide you. Don’t listen to the others; listen to me. It’s okay. It’s okay to bathe in cynicism and anger, the negativity will grant you strength and intellect beyond your wildest imagination. It’ll give you true happiness and knowledge and all you have to do is take my hand and join me…

    • Albert I can almost guarantee is NOT feeling pain tonight. :}
      Besdies after following Volcano cafe for too many years I am 100% sure Albert is happy to see any volcanic eruption.

    • I would hope that Albert has been / is toasting in the New Year 😀

    • Well done., Tallis. Happy New Year to you, Albert, Carl, Héctor, Chad, the dragons and who else is here!

    • No pain. I enjoy the writing and teaching, and aim to learn something new myself from every post I write. I think goal was achieved, so I am happy.

      • This is a fantastic article
        Snowball Earth where indeed stuff of nightmares
        Luckly perhaps never going to happen again as long as Earth is habitable

  32. couple of quakes along the south end of the dike that are at about 1 km depth, magma must be getting very shallow now. Must also mean another nice slow eruption is on the way again, probably would have already erupted now if it was more powerful. This one might open up down on the flat ground next to Fagradalsfjall, so very easy to get to but probably going to destroy the road quite fast too…

    As a serious question, the last eruption is considered over as it has been more than 3 months since last activity, and this upcomign eruption would be a second separate eruption from the system. Does that mean its lava field will get a new name or is it still Fagradalshraun?

  33. Happy New Year to all VC Patrons!
    There is probably a new post in the offing, but I want to at least thank Albert for this article.
    Given my interest in weather and climatology, this article may have been the most interesting (to me) of all of Albert’s storied posts. Thank you very much, Albert.
    But, I do have one question:
    Is there anyway to “estimate” the average CO2 released over the course of a year for the Franklin LIP? Given the eruption sequence lasted for at least a million years, I would guess the daily emission rate was rather low, but constant.
    What I’m driving at is I wonder how the current rate of global CO2 increase that we’re seeing in today’s world would compare to the CO2 rate of increase coming from a massive basaltic/effusive eruption(s) like Franklin?
    In the past, you’ve noted that AGHG emissions dwarf that coming from volcanic activity on a yearly basis…and I wonder how this statement would be altered if an LIP/flood basalt event were to happen?

    • The current human CO2 emissions is similar to a very large flood basalt, thats quite scary. If allowed To keep going, we will reach cretaceous- eocene CO2 levels by year 2200 so its rising very quickly.

      Still the large icesheets in Antartica and the Siberian Winter high remains today despite 450 PPM, but alot more CO2 is needed to kill of the terestrial winter sub zero temperatures. Will be intresting when the CO2 reach that point where Northen winters are killed off competely, not there yet

      I maybe able to live to year 2100, by then, Europe will become much warmer and more humid, IF CO2 levels is allowed to keep rising, Miocene – Oligocene Subtropical forests may return to Europe and Sahara soon If climate keeps getting warmer

      • Where? There’s a difference between deserts and tropical rainforests. So where the desert, where the rainforest?

        • A warmer climate means More evaporation from the ocean and more cloud formation and increased atmospheric humidity

          As paradoxal at it sounds, deserts did not exist at PETM Eocene Supergreenhouse, it was only tropical rainforest with even higher rainfall than today

          Deserts appeared when the Ice Age glaciations was underway, Sahara appeared during the Pilocene Cooling as well as the Australia desert. A cooler Earth means less rainfall and cloud formation

          During the Glaciations the deserts where at their largest, Earth was much drier when it was cold, the Ice Ages had a cold dry earth, with limited evaporation and rainfall. Sahara was gigantic during the Last Glacial Maximum

          • The cloud formation theory resulting from warmer surface temps is misleading as far as global warming is concerned.
            Depends a lot where the clouds form.
            Clouds aloft, which are ice crystals, reflect sunlight and produce a net cooling effect.
            Clouds near the surface, like fog and stratus, act like an insulating blanket that traps heat near/at the surface. This sets up an inversion…which results in a stabilized atmosphere which is not conducent for cyclone development to wring out the atmosphere.
            While it’s true that increased convection is likely, that would only last long enough for the increase in cloud cover to lower temps that in turn would inhibit further convection…i.e. check and balance (equilibrated feedback loop).
            Lastly, note that the stratosphere is cooling, as heat that normally would radiate upwards is being trapped by GHG at the surface.
            With cooler air aloft, subsidence is enhanced, which suppresses convection (up to a point), while also retarding vertical moisture transport…i.e. while the lower atmosphere gets real juicy, it’s not being lifted enough to form more meaningful cloudiness.

      • The Greenhouses before complex life got up to land, must have been surreal, heavy rainfall on the land deserts where No plants where yet growing. That changed very quickly in the Late Silurian as the invasion of the land was underway

        • I don’t comment here often, mostly a lurker, but I wonder if the land was covered pretty quickly in algae, wherever it was wet enough? If so, everything would have been green and squishy.

          • The greening of the land very plausibly started with algae, providing a very moist environment for various animals to venture into. This would happen on tidal ranges, flood plains, etc., not in-land. When could it have happened? Before the invention of oxygen, there was no ozone layer and therefore lethal UV radiation. That would have put a damper on the aerial algae. On the other hand, stromatolites can stick out above the low tide line, so can provide a partly dry environment where algae can survive, shielded by the sediment it attracts at high tide.

    • At present, global SST’s are rising about 0.13C every decade.
      At this rate, in 1,000 yrs, SST’s will have rising by 13C.
      To reach the 60C mark that Albert’s article mentions, it would take only a bit more than 5,000 yrs to drive SST’s to the same temperature as during the Franklin flood basalt.
      The Franklin LIP likely took 100x that amount of time for SST’s to reach the same 60C threshold.
      If this is correct, then SST temps are currently rising at a rate that far exceeds that would be created by the most massive of all possible volcanic eruptions possible.

      • Then Thats really insane indeed! We needs to stop burning fossil fuels and find other fuels like biofuels and better batteries etc

        Earths natural systems tries To combat this, But soon the planet will break down into climate mayhem because of the massive CO2 input from humans

      • Sorry but each doubling of CO2 has half the effect of the previous doubling as per the Beer Lambert law. It only takes 20ppm to reach 50% saturation according to the IPPC. Also GHG cool the atmosphere at the same time as insulating the surface. So while increasing GHGs become saturated in their warming ability, they grow in a linear fashion in their cooling ability (if energy is available.)
        Meanwhile evaporation grows exponentially with temp, ~35 deg C is the maximum temperature open surface water can reach with the maximal 800w/m2 from solar radiation until evaporative equilibrium is reached. (3.4W from CO2 is insignificant) And the energy being transferred directly into water vapour creates convection, since water vapour is lighter than air and absorb shortwave energy. That bypasses the GHG effect.
        Combining a cooling stratosphere with a warming surface creates and increased density differential and leads to negative feedback via convective cooling.
        The positive water vapour feedback that CAGW was dependant upon is falsified.
        Relative humidity is not homeostatic. Increased convection dries out the upper atmosphere as the observations show.
        2/3rds of the global warming are caused changes in cloud cover due to natural cycles that effect zonal/meridional patterns.
        Zonal patterns reduce atmospheric mixing, resulting in decreased albedo and warming, Meridional patterns the opposite. And so far Solar appears to be best explanation for this, although its likely to be a multifactorial process.
        Claiming that CO2 is the driver of climate is not supported by evidence. its psedo-scientific wishful thinking by people who clearly fail the 4 mertonian norms (ethos of science) of universal scepticism, disinterestedness, communalism, and universalism. https://embassy.science/wiki/Theme:Ae22e8ee-47a5-4f9d-bc00-a10de0011c76

        • I suggest you read the IPCC reports. Al the physics is in there, including numbers and uncertainties, and these leave no doubt about what is going on. The physics is in fact remarkably simple and was understood already in the late 1800’s! You have some catching up to do

        • CO2 is only the “primer” for the total GHG bomb.
          The GHG that affects the troposphere most is water vapor….a far more potent GHG than CO2.
          So, the CO2 is indeed not the “driver” but just the spark that sets off the bulk of the gun powder.
          I forgot where I read it, but 1ppm increase in CO2 results in ~3ppm increase in WV….and
          according to NASA, the potency of WV as a GHG doubles the effects of CO2.
          And lastly as I noted, there is little/none data to suggest natural forcing has ever gone so haywire as to result in the environmental catastrophes that are now common-place on a global scale….for most of the history of the earth, there has always been an underlying trigger for major climate change events.
          In the absence of an LIP-type event, asteroid impact, gamma-ray burst or some other “trigger”, the only known/remaining variable is the crap that humankind has/is thrown into the atmosphere, water and ice.

    • LIP s are massive events, But indeed difficult to know how the eruptions exactly was on Earth, on Earth LIP surfaces are always eroded away, Mars and Venus are scary examples of perseved flood basalts that can have lava flows more than 1600 kilometers long with lava channels 50 kilometers wide. There are a lava channel that are 6800 kilometers long on Venus, and recent Mega flood basalts on Mars like Athabasca Valles flowed over a thousand kilometers seemingly in a week!

      But they may not be analougs to Terestrial flood basalts, or perhaps they indeed where. Earth is larger than Mars and haves a hotter interior, it should have even more scary mantle plume capabilities than Mars haves.
      But Earth haves plate tectonics, that vent the heat slowly over time. Mars and Venus totaly boils over.. after long long times of rest being stagnant lid planets with thick litospheres

      • It’s becoming more and more apparent that virtually every major climate shift is related to some form to an “external” trigger….meaning different from the “normal” land-sea/polar-equator natural forcing that regulates (and stabilizes) our atmosphere through checks and balances.
        The most prominent of these are “black swan” events like volcanic activity and asteroid impacts.
        Then there are the Milankovitch cycles that alters the amount of insolar heat received from the sun due to orbital changes…of which there is irrefutable evidence of correlation to ice-ages (not necessarily snowball Earth…but given the 50,000,000 million years the Earth was frozen, it went through hundreds of Milankovitch cycles).
        So what’s happening in today’s world?
        Has there been any major asteroid impacts recently? = No.
        Has there been any flood basalts happening for the last 100 years that we don’t know about? = Most likely No
        Where are we in the latest Milankovitch cycle? = Insolar enrgy is decreasing and Earth should be cooling down.
        So, in absence or any of the “known” external triggers for global climate change, and that the normal checks and balance feedback loops have never deviated to such a point as to trigger such major changes as we see today in such a short period of time….that leaves only one possible external trigger for climate change…and it’s us.

        • I have a problem with the ice ages. Firstly as albert’s paper so brilliantly explains there are two stable states for the earth’s surface. One is ice-covered with 90% of the incipient energy reflected back into space, and the other is a greenhouse world (hopefully short of positive feedback with water vapour).
          The last few tens of million years have been in ice ages, but bizarrely only partial. Given that albedo has an effect measured in 10+% of absorbed sunlight but the milankovitch cycle struggles at a few % I find the orbital argument completely unconvincing, grasped at because there are no better alternatives.
          The other oddity is the truly vast amounts of water that get frozen into ice onto the continents. Although they are really a circular band they are huge, enough to massively drop sea levels worldwide and this apparently at a time when low temperatures worldwide should produce less atmospheric water vapour.
          The thing that sticks out to me is that if a hot world with large hot oceans and massive thermal mass starts producing massive snowstorms that are too thick to vanish in summer. The (now hot) equatorial oceans can pump vast amounts of snow poleward making things worse, and we flip into a partial snowball earth, then colder seas cannot maintain the required snow precipitation rate, co2 levels ride due less bioactivity and an interglacial results.
          Anyway, whatever the mechanism, we have definitely thrown a spanner into the gearbox.

          • The current Ice Age as it is usually known began when Panama was created and ocean currents couldnt glow between the Atlantic and Pacific. I think possibly the gulf stream being a warm current going so far north might well have the effect you talk about, allowing increased evaporation in a polar region. The opening of the Drake Passage was when the Earth began to cool generally, and when Antarctica began to glaciate. The circumpolar current is what keeps the deep ocean around Antarctica so cold, the surface water can be warmer but the deep sea now is much colder than it was in the Eocene.

            I think that this effect will mean our activities will nto be permanent or geologically long lived, because such causes are only going to change through plate tectonics and take millions of years. But in the maybe couple of millennia that our footprint is dominant it is for sure going to have a huge impact. There will probably be something in the distant future that sees an anomalous and extremely brief period in the middle of a glaciation that the sea level rose 80 meters and a lot of unnatural geological formations suddenly appeared, bizarre distribution of metals, huge CO2 spike, unnatural decay chains or remnants thereof. Maybe most obviously a mass extinction of basically everything and a huge overabundance of a few species.

          • Ice ages are dry and the feedback you mention will have some effect. There are two main reasons why the current ice age did not go global. The first is that the sun is brighter now. It increases by something like 1% every 100 million years. Over these time scales, that is significant. The second reason is that the polar and subpolar regions have much less effect on the global temperature balance. They cover a much smaller area than the tropics and subtropics: to compare the area above 60 degrees latitude, draw a circle on the globe around a point on the equator with radius 30 degrees. It covers only a 6th of the area 30 degrees from the equator. And the sun comes in at a very shallow angle at high latitude, so this area intercepts very little sun light compared to the tropics. The further south the snow comes, the larger its effect. It becomes unstoppable only when it reaches the subtropics and the current ice age was never severe enough to do that.

          • There are three different Milankovitch cycles of orbital and tilt variation (Eccentricity (the elliptical changes in the earths orbit around the sun)
            Obliquity (the tilt of Earth’s axis toward and away from the sun) sand
            Precession (the wobble of Earth’s axis toward and away from the sun).
            These different cycles can overlap and either constructively or destructively interfere.
            As we know, it only takes fractions of a degree change for water to fall as snow, and the presence of snow cover provides positive feedback for further cooling while liquid/vapor water does the opposite.
            So, providing the ambient atmosphere is a conducent state, once snow cover starts to advance over time, the OLR/albedo changes accordingly, and the runaway train leaves the station.

          • Those cycles also were present in the snowball earth. There is evidence that the land glacier waxed and waned over time, and this could have been influenced by the Milankovitch cycles. The sea ice was not affected. On our current earth, the cycles have a strong effect, but that has only been the case in the last million years. Before that they had no notable impact. That was before the current series of ice ages.

      • True its humans behind
        The Earth is not very volcanicaly active at the moment, and there is No supercontinent breakup either

        Humans are indeed behind this CO2 addition, I wonder How much CO2 levels will be allowed to rise

        • Easy. Until social order breaks down enough for humanity to revert to a wood-based medieval society with a world population of about 500M.
          Until this happens no individual and thus no ruler/politician will accept substantially lower standards of living and a reduced world population.
          That’s what will happen, possibly with a limited nuclear war.
          When is unknown but the west has to realise that it doesn’t control much of the world, and the rest of the world will and does do as it likes, see for example:
          brazil, china, india even N. Korea.

      • Albert How will Earths climate look like in 300 million years? 3% brigther sun, will it be a last greenhouse ”paradise” before Earth becomes too hot and sillicate weathering too active

        How long will the planet be habitable?

    • Nice video. Mice and vikings were everywhere. The sheep poo is interesting. The Greenland settlements that Albert described were found late, so a dicovery here one day cannot be excluded. Sete Cidades?

  34. The quake patterns on Reykjanes for the past few days look very similar to what was seen just before the last eruption, small clusters that are mostly on the stress points, with a few on the dike itself. There is speculation this might have failed, to me this looks like it is screaming in our faces for a repeat of March and onwards.

    • You could be right. There are more shallower earthquakes at c. 1.5km or less; they are spread out a bit so are most likely what Iceland call triggered earthquakes. Magma would appear to be having more of an impact nearer to the surface.

        • Correction: should have started at the 21st Dec for a proper comparison.

      • Yes, there is speculation that the eruption will be on the 11th, as magma seems to be rising at a rate it will reach the surface that date. But at 1 mile depth is when water and SO2 come out of solution, so its ascent should be faster. Icelandic magma especially this far from the plume is pretty low in volatiles but it also is not given a chance to degas anywhere in advance so it should be quite the firework show upon arrival.

        I looked at the comments on here for the last few days before the eruption in March and it was only in the final 3 days that this ‘calm before storm’ was at play. There was also no warning of the breakout, it might even have been missed if it began during the day, I think it will be the same now.

        I am also going to make the bold prediction that this is far from the last time we see this, there will be many eruptions here for many more years, even decades. In 2030 there will be the new mountain of Tjadsfjall on the Reykjavik skyline 🙂

        • If March is anything to go by, magma rises fairly rapidly through the “aseismic zone” under Geldingadalir.

          I’d’ve predicted an earlier data than Jan 11th.; magma was last reported at 1.5km deep; a few days before that it was 2km deep – 500m ascent in a few days.

        • I fully agree. As long as the conduit to the mantle is open, there will always be periods of activity followed by pauses when the pressure is not enough.

          I‘m wondering if we are going to see more eruptions closer to Keilir over time.

          • There seems to be an open conduit somewhere between Keilir and Fagradalsfjall, it ends about 6 km down. That is pretty deep, about as deep as the distance between the two mountains, so I think we are being misled into thinking the spurce is close to Keilir. Eruptions are likely here long term but probably not any more than an eruption down in Natthagi, or near the ocean. I guess eventually the whole rift will see eruptions of some sort is my best guess.

  35. The cloud formation theory resulting from warmer surface temps is misleading as far as global warming is concerned.
    Depends a lot where the clouds form.
    Clouds aloft, which are ice crystals, reflect sunlight and produce a net cooling effect.
    Clouds near the surface, like fog and stratus, act like an insulating blanket that traps heat near/at the surface. This sets up an inversion…which results in a stabilized atmosphere which is not conducent for cyclone development to wring out the atmosphere.
    While it’s true that increased convection is likely, that would only last long enough for the increase in cloud cover to lower temps that in turn would inhibit further convection…i.e. check and balance (equilibrated feedback loop).
    Lastly, note that the stratosphere is cooling, as heat that normally would radiate upwards is being trapped by GHG at the surface.
    With cooler air aloft, subsidence is enhanced, which suppresses convection (up to a point), while also retarding vertical moisture transport…i.e. while the lower atmosphere gets real juicy, it’s not being lifted enough to form more meaningful cloudiness.

    • A warmer Earth will be more humid
      More evaporation and more rainfall and cloud formation

      Previous Supergreenhouses been competely forested and without deserts. Sahara was a tropical rainforest during the PETM as well as rest of the world

      Deserts and Grasslands only appeared in Oligocene – Pliocene coolings and onset of Antartica Glaciation.

      The man made warming is warming so fast that the climate zones can barely react

  36. I see Thor has sneezed on the Fagradals web cams. Hope someone goes to clean them up.

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