Orange Alert

Lava Man

Jeffrey Karson's latest trip to Iceland was one of seismic proportions

Oct. 16, 2014, by Rob Enslin

Jeffrey Karson
Jeffrey Karson

Iceland is once again erupting onto the world stage, thanks to a spectacular volcanic system that has been spewing lava since early September.

Jeffrey Karson, a Syracuse University geologist who recently traveled to Iceland to monitor the early stages of the eruption, says the lava field now covers more than 22 square miles (or 14,000 acres), nearly the size of Manhattan.

Iceland, which is made up of lava flows, hasn’t witnessed anything of the sort in 40 years. The country's most recent major eruption took place in 2010, when ash from the Eyafjallajökull volcano disrupted air travel for more than a week across parts of Europe.

"The lava that erupted at Eyafjallajökull was much less extensive than what we’re seeing now,” says Karson, an Earth sciences professor in Syracuse’s College of Arts and Sciences. “This one doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.”

An expert in structural geology and tectonics and the co-founder of the Syracuse University Lava Project, Karson regularly travels to Iceland to study faulting and volcanic structures. His latest trip in September gave him a first-hand glimpse—much of it from close range—of the ongoing eruption fed by the Bárðarbunga volcano, located under the country’s most extensive glacier. On average, the system produces enough lava, every five minutes, to fill an area the size of a football field.

Incandescent orange lava magnifies cracks in the black outer crust. Steam formed when the lava flowed into a nearby river.
Incandescent orange lava magnifies cracks in the black outer crust. Steam formed when the lava flowed into a nearby river.

"The eruption is the result of the spreading apart of two tectonic plates [i.e., the Eurasian Plate and North American Plate], which are literally pulling Iceland apart,” says Karson, who is collaborating with investigators at the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences. “As the plates diverge, magma from deep in the Earth is injected upward to fill the gaps. Individual eruptions can last for months, or even years."

Open fissures above the subsurface magma conduit feed the volcano's eruptive vents.

Karson making infrared camera measurements at the eruption site. He had to don a gas mask and protective eyewear because of wind and hot, poisonous gases.

Karson adds that the eruption has been one of the most closely studied ever: “Iceland is a natural laboratory that allows us to study volcanoes and faulting across a range of disciplines, including geochemistry, geophysics, geology, and petrology. Everything we learn there adds to our understanding of how the Earth works.”

Housed in The College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Earth Sciences specializes in the teaching and study of tectonics, ancient climates, and hydrology.

See brief video clip of an eruption taking place at the foot of an Icelandic glacier. The video was shot by a Phantom aerial drone, operated by Bryndís Brandsdóttir, a senior research scientist at Iceland. 


Jeffrey Karson Professor Emeritus: Tectonics & Magmatism of Rifts and Transform Faults

Media Contact

Rob Enslin