Crustal deformation and volcanism at active plate boundaries

Open Access
Geirsson, Halldor
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 16, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Peter Christopher Lafemina, Dissertation Advisor
  • Peter Christopher Lafemina, Committee Chair
  • Kevin Patrick Furlong, Committee Member
  • Charles James Ammon, Committee Member
  • Barry Voight, Committee Member
  • Derek Elsworth, Committee Member
  • crustal deformation
  • GPS
  • magma movements
  • eruption
  • volcanoes
  • earthquakes
  • hydrothermal systems
  • fault mechanics
Most of Earth’s volcanoes are located near active tectonic plate boundaries, where the tectonic plates move relative to each other resulting in deformation. Likewise, subsurface magma movement and pressure changes in magmatic systems can cause measurable deformation of the Earth’s surface. The study of the shape of Earth and therefore studies of surface deformation is called geodesy. Modern geodetic techniques allow precise measurements (~1 mm accuracy) of deformation of tectonic and magmatic systems. Because of the spatial correlation between tectonic boundaries and volcanism, the tectonic and volcanic deformation signals can become intertwined. Thus it is often important to study both tectonic and volcanic deformation processes simultaneously, when one is trying to study one of the systems individually. In this thesis, I present research on crustal deformation and magmatic processes at active plate boundaries. The study areas cover divergent and transform plate boundaries in south Iceland and convergent and transform plate boundaries in Central America, specifically Nicaragua and El Salvador. The study is composed of four main chapters: two of the chapters focus on the magma plumbing system of Hekla volcano, Iceland and the plate boundary in south Iceland; one chapter focuses on shallow controls of explosive volcanism at Telica volcano, Nicaragua; and the fourth chapter focuses on co- and postseismic deformation from a Mw = 7.3 earthquake which occurred offshore El Salvador in 2012. Hekla volcano is located at the intersection of a transform zone and a rift zone in Iceland and thus is affected by a combination of shear and extensional strains, in addition to co-seismic and co-rifting deformation. The inter-eruptive deformation signal from Hekla is subtle, as observed by a decade (2000-2010) of GPS data in south Iceland. A simultaneous inversion of this data for parameters describing the geometry and source characteristics of the magma chamber at Hekla, and geometry and secular rates across the plate boundary segments, reveals a deep magma chamber under Hekla and gives a geodetic estimate of the current location of the North-America Eurasian plate boundary in south Iceland. Different geometries were tested for Hekla’s magma chamber: spherical, horizontally elongated ellipsoidal, and pipe-like magma chambers. The data could not reliably distinguish the actual geometry; however, all three models indicate magma accumulation near the Moho (~20-25 km) under Hekla. The February – March 2000 eruption of Hekla gave another opportunity to image the magmatic system. In Chapter 5, I used co-eruptive GPS and InSAR displacements, borehole strain, and tilt measurements to jointly invert for co-eruptive deformation associated with the 2000 eruption and found a depth of approximately 20 km for the magma chamber, in accordance with my previous results. Telica is a highly seismically active volcano in Nicaragua. The seismicity is mostly of shallow (<2 km deep) origin, and shows a high variability in terms of the number of seismic events per time unit. The highest rates exceed one earthquake per minute averaged over 24 hours, but overall trends in seismic activity, as observed since 1993, do not have an obvious correlation with eruptive activity. This variability causes difficulties for hazard monitoring of Telica. Telica erupted in a small (VEI 2) explosive eruption in 2011. Eruptions of this style and size seem to occur on decadal time scales at Telica. In Chapter 3, I used an extensive multidisciplinary data set consisting of seismic and GPS data, multivariate ash analysis, SO2 measurements, fumarole temperatures, and visual observations, to show that the eruption was essentially an amagmatic eruption of hydrothermally altered materials from the conduit, and that short-term sealing of hydrothermal pathways led to temporary pressure build-up, resulting in the explosions. No significant crustal deformation was detected before or during the eruption, in accordance with low (<2 km) plume heights and small (<10^5 m^3) eruptive volumes. The primary signal observed in the 10-site continuous GPS geodetic network on and near Telica is shear on the Caribbean plate – fore-arc plate boundary, which our measurements show crosses Telica. Thus, like at Hekla volcano, Iceland, it is important for volcano geodesy to consider the plate boundary deformation within volcanic arcs in geodetic studies of volcanoes. The August 27, 2012 Mw = 7.3 earthquake offshore El Salvador was the largest event to rupture this segment of the subduction interface for at least 95 years. The earthquake ruptured shallow (<20 km depth) parts of the subduction zone. Co-seismic deformation, as observed on land, was less than 2 cm, and was exceeded by post-seismic deformation within the first year after the earthquake, signifying low coupling on the subduction zone offshore El Salvador and Nicaragua.