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Thematic Articles

Volcanoes: Characteristics, Tipping Points, and those Pesky Unknown Unknowns

The geological record of volcanic eruptions suggests that scientists are some way from being able to forecast eruptions at many of the world’s volcanoes. There are three reasons for this. First, continuing geological discoveries show that our knowledge is incomplete. Second, knowledge is limited about why, how, and when volcanic unrest turns into eruptions, and over what timescales. Third, there are imbalances between the studies of past eruptions, and the geophysical techniques and observations on modern events, versus the information needed or demanded by society. Scientists do not yet know whether there are other, presently unknown, factors that are important in controlling eruptions, or if there is an inherent unknowability about some volcanic systems.

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Dynamic Magma Systems: Implications for Forecasting Volcanic Activity

Magma systems that supply volcanoes can extend throughout the crust and consist of mush (melt within a crystalline framework) together with ephemeral magma accumulations. Within a crystal-rich mush, slow processes of melt segregation and heat loss alternate with fast processes of destablisation and magma transport. Magma chambers form by two mechanisms: incremental magma intrusion into sub-solidus rocks or the segregation and rapid merging of melt-rich layers within mush regions. Three volcanic states reflect alternations of slow and fast processes: dormancy, unrest and eruption. Monitoring needs to detect processes of melt and fluid movements in the lower and middle crust during destabilisation to improve forecasting.

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Volatiles and Exsolved Vapor in Volcanic Systems

The role of volatiles in magma dynamics and eruption style is fundamental. Magmatic volatiles partition between melt, crystal, and vapor phases and, in so doing, change magma properties. This has consequences for magma buoyancy and phase equilibria. An exsolved vapor phase, which may be distributed unevenly through reservoirs, contains sulfur and metals that are either transported into the atmosphere or into ore deposits. This article reviews the controls on volatile solubility and the methods to reconstruct the volatile budget of magmas, focusing particularly on the exsolved vapor phase to explore the role of volatiles on magma dynamics and on eruption style.

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What Does a Magma Reservoir Look Like? The “Crystal’s Eye” View

Crystals within volcanic rocks contain records of the changing chemical and thermal conditions within the magma reservoirs in which they resided before eruption. Observations from these crystal records place fundamental constraints on the processes operating within the reservoirs. Data from volcanic crystals are in accord with recent conceptual models of magma reservoirs being composed dominantly of crystal mushes, with small volumes and/or small fractions of melt present. The implication is that magma reservoirs have differing modes of behavior: magmas are stored over the long term in largely crystalline, quiescent, conditions, punctuated by brief episodes of intense activity during the decades to centuries immediately prior to an eruption.

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Global Volcano Monitoring: What Does it Mean When Volcanoes Deform?

Currently, it is only possible to look inside an active volcano using indirect geophysical methods. One such method is to measure surface deformation, which results from subsurface magmatic or hydrothermal processes. Modern satellite data allows deformation to be measured at hundreds of volcanoes without relying on limited ground instrumentation. As a result, the number of known deforming volcanoes has increased from 44 in 1997 to over 220 in 2016. This article reviews the diverse ways by which volcanoes can deform, the typical rates and durations of such deformations, and the processes that drive deformation.

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Down the Crater: Where Magmas are Stored and Why They Erupt

Magmas are erupted from a wide range of depths. Olivine compositions, for example, indicate magma storage in the lower crust and upper mantle, while clinopyroxene and amphibole record middle to upper crust storage. Pre-eruptive magmas also often cool by 100–300 °C, frequently at middle–upper crust depths, indicating clogged, ephemeral volcanic pathways. These coolings imply that mafic recharge is not a sufficient cause for eruption and that crystallization-induced vapor saturation is a more proximal eruption trigger. But an improved understanding of eruption mechanisms require precise identifications of what are herein termed “ultimate”, “proximal,” and “immediate” causes of eruption.

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On the Emergence of a Proto-Metabolism and the Assembly of Early Protocells

Life as we know it is completely dependent on metal ions. Gradients of metal ions drive metabolism, metal centers often form the active sites of enzymes, and metal-ion coordination is largely responsible for protein and RNA folding. This dependence on metal ions likely reflects the environment from which cellular life emerged. However, long chain biological polymers were not present on prebiotic Earth. Therefore, the chemical reactions leading to Earth’s first cells must have made use of alternative catalysts that were later superseded by RNA and protein. Here, we discuss the similarities between free metal ions, minerals, and biological enzyme catalysts, and how cellular life could have exploited prebiotic metallocomplexes.

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Metal Catalysts and the Origin of Life

Life as we know it is completely dependent on metal ions. Gradients of metal ions drive metabolism, metal centers often form the active sites of enzymes, and metal-ion coordination is largely responsible for protein and RNA folding. This dependence on metal ions likely reflects the environment from which cellular life emerged. However, long chain biological polymers were not present on prebiotic Earth. Therefore, the chemical reactions leading to Earth’s first cells must have made use of alternative catalysts that were later superseded by RNA and protein. Here, we discuss the similarities between free metal ions, minerals, and biological enzyme catalysts, and how cellular life could have exploited prebiotic metallocomplexes.

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From Foundation Stones to Life: Concepts and Results

Systems consisting of mineral surfaces, water, salts and organic molecules are considered to be plausible models of early Earth’s prebiotic environments. The probable involvement of clays, highly soluble minerals, sulfides and other minerals at the beginning of life have spurred a number of experimental studies to investigate organic molecule adsorption, polymerization and catalytic reactions of relevance to prebiotic chemistry. This article reviews current ideas in how life originated, summarises experimental results and presents some of the existing challenges that still beset the field of the origins of life.

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Incubating Life: Prebiotic Sources of Organics for the Origin of Life

The onset of life on Earth was preceded by prebiotic chemistry in which complex organic molecules were formed from simpler ones in the presence of energy sources. These prebiotic organics were either synthesized on Earth itself (endogenously) or synthesized extraterrestrially (exogenously) and then delivered to Earth. Organics have been detected in space and have been successfully synthesized under experimental conditions simulating both extraterrestrial environments and early Earth environments. Homochirality and enantiomeric enrichment of organic molecules, which were once considered to be biosignatures, can, in fact, be achieved abiotically. It is important to determine conditions that allow the formation of prebiotic organics and those that preserve them against degradation.

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