Jan. 14, 2004 A team of Michigan State University scientists is taking a close look at frozen magma, or lava, taken from a very active Japanese volcano in order to determine why some volcanoes tend to erupt more violently than others.
The MSU team is part of an international group of researchers whose mission, said MSU geological sciences professor Thomas Vogel, is to “figure out how volcanoes work.”
“You need to know the chemical and mineralogical composition of the frozen magma in order to determine how these systems operate,” Vogel said.
“Volcanoes are disruptive because of their explosiveness,” said Lina Patino, an assistant professor of geological sciences. “Right now we have no idea why sometimes volcanoes are highly explosive and other times they just ooze lava out.”
To get to the heart of the matter, Vogel and Patino have joined a team of scientists who are literally drilling into Mount Unzen, one of Japan’s more active volcanoes, to extract frozen magma from it. Vogel called the work “risky business.”
“This is not a trivial exercise. It can be very dangerous,” he said. “The fact is we’re drilling into an active volcano and trying to find out how it works.”
In the early 1990s, a number of explosive eruptions from Unzen left 44 people dead and caused $2 billion in damages.
Specifically, the MSU team is bringing back to campus samples of the frozen magma, which are taken from a conduit of the volcano. Here it is analyzed to determine its chemical composition.
There are two types of magma, the researchers said – one that is stored at relatively shallow levels and continues to evolve by crystallization, and another that is “newer,” magma that comes up from the depths of the earth and mingles with the “older” magma.
“Our specific job,” Vogel said, “is to look at the interaction of these two magmas. We do chemical analyses of the rocks and the minerals within the rocks, determining their major- and trace-element composition.”
Other members of the research team include scientists from the University of Tokyo and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Mount Unzen is one of 75 active volcanoes in Japan. Located in the southwest part of the country, the mountain stands more than 4,400 feet tall. It last erupted in 1995.
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