Revealing Hidden Volcanic Triggers

Revealing Hidden Volcanic Triggers

Tamsin Mather, Professor of Earth Sciences, was recently awarded an ERC consolidator grant of €2 million for research into “Revealing hidden volcanic triggers for global environmental change events in Earth’s geological past using mercury (Hg)” (V-ECHO).

Rapid global change events such as mass extinctions punctuate Earth’s geological history. These events have driven life’s evolution, shaping the world today. However, the exact processes that trigger or control them remain enigmatic. Episodes of large-scale volcanism, namely large igneous provinces (LIPs), are a prime contender. Large igneous provinces represent gargantuan volcanic episodes, producing at least 100,000 km2, of magmas either erupted or emplaced at in the crust within an extremely short geological time interval: typically a few million years or less.

A major obstacle to unravelling the role of LIPs in rapid global change has been lack of a direct/unique marker for volcanism in the sediments that record mass extinction events. Without one, determining LIP occurrence and linking this to global events is challenging, especially where the rock record of these volcanic episodes may be incomplete. Recent studies have revealed the huge promise of mercury (Hg) as a marker of large-scale volcanism. However, while techniques to analyse Hg in the rock record are gaining pace, there is still much we have yet to understand about how Hg behaves in order to realize its full potential as this vital proxy. The V-ECHO project funded by the ERC grant, will test the overarching hypothesis: widespread mercury ‘spikes’ in the geological record are definitive evidence of LIP volcanism even in the absence of coeval lavas.

Crater at Masaya Volcano, Nicaragua

V-ECHO will take an integrated and interdisciplinary approach to understand the importance of LIP perturbations to the global Hg cycle and how these translate into sedimentary records. It will address key questions on Hg sources (emission from magmas or thermal metamorphism of intruded rocks) and sinks (deposition pathways and sedimentary preservation). The project will combine new measurements with novel experimental techniques and explore key differences in the global Hg cycle deep in Earth’s past. V-ECHO will test whether we can ‘sniff out’ the sedimentary echoes of lost LIPs, especially in the Palaeozoic and Neoproterozoic where the LIP record becomes ever sparser. It will also explore proposed volcanic triggers for major Earth change events (e.g., oceanic anoxic events, ‘snowball Earths’) in unprecedented ways.

Mercury metal is widely recognised for its liquid form at room temperature. However it is also found in the Earth’s atmosphere and is naturally produced as a component of the gases released by volcanic eruptions. Photo credit, Sue Cunningham / Worldwide Picture Library

The V-ECHO project aims to provide a step-change in our understanding of environmental impacts of LIP volcanism throughout Earth history.

The President of the European Research Council, Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, commented: “This ERC funding will allow ambitious scientists to establish or strengthen their teams in Europe and be truly creative in their research. Beyond a push to the grantees’ careers, this European support will offer an excellent working environment for younger researchers at doctoral and post-doctoral levels. We look forward to see many of these daring ideas come to fruition, to the benefit of Europe at large.”’