Guest post by Steven Goddard
Scientific American has reported that global warming may cause an increase in volcanic eruptions, due to increased magma formation at lower pressures as glaciers melt.
This caught my attention because I used to work as a volcano researcher and igneous petrologist.
That report said that about 10 percent of Iceland’s biggest ice cap, Vatnajokull, has melted since 1890 and the land nearby was rising about 25 millimetres (0.98 inch) a year, bringing shifts in geological stresses.
They estimated that the thaw had led to the formation of 1.4 cubic km (0.3 cubic mile) of magma deep below ground over the past century.
At high pressures such as under an ice cap, they reckon that rocks cannot expand to turn into liquid magma even if they are hot enough. “As the ice melts the rock can melt because the pressure decreases,” she said. Sigmundsson said that monitoring of the Vatnajokull volcano since 2008 suggested that the 2008 estimate for magma generation was “probably a minimum estimate. It can be somewhat larger.”
Interesting theory, but does it work quantitatively? Magmas, as with most solids, do show a direct relationship between the melting point and pressure. As the pressure increases, so does the melting point. (Ice is a noticeable exception to this, and shows an inverse relationship. The reason that people can ice skate is because the pressure under the blade creates a thin later of melted ice which lubricates the surface.
Below is a phase diagram of a basaltic magma similar to that found in Iceland, showing the relationship between temperature and pressure. The melting temperature does decrease at lower pressures. From 100 km depth to 0 km the melting point drops about 300°C. That is about 3°C / km. Ice is about one third as dense as basaltic magma, so the loss of 1 km of ice lowers the melting point by about 1C, or less than 0.1%.
More precisely, this study from the Carnegie Geophysical Institute did an empirical measurement of the relationship for one basaltic mineral – diposide. They found the relationship to be
Tm = 1391.5 + 0.01297 * P
Where Tm is the melting point in degrees C and P is the pressure in atmospheres. One atmosphere pressure is equal to about 10 metres of ice, so one additional metre of ice increases the melting point by about 0.0013°C. The loss of 100 metres of ice would therefore lower the melting point by about one tenth of a degree. The thickest ice in Iceland is only 500 meters thick, so complete loss of all ice would only alter the melting point by about 0.5°C, or less than 0.05%.
The geothermal gradient of the earth is typically about 40°C per km, so a 0.5°C change in temperature is equivalent to a depth change of about 20 metres. Near mid-ocean ridges this gradient is steeper, so the equivalent depth change in Iceland would be less than 20 metres. Is it credible that a 0.5°C decrease in the melting point could stimulate excess volcanic activity? Short answer – no. Volcanic activity is caused by magma rising to the surface, not glaciers melting. However, the loss of the glaciers would reduce the amount of steam and ash generated. Ash is formed when magma is cooled and fractured by steam. So the loss of the glaciers would reduce the size of the steam/ash cloud and make the Iceland volcanoes behave more like Hawaii volcanoes.
In short, the loss of all ice in Iceland would make the volcanoes less destructive.
BTW – On Al Gore’s planet, the geothermal gradient is much higher, with core temperatures averaging millions of degrees.