Recently Nathan took you on a comfortable journey into the Eifel volcanic field. But what is the origin of this intraplate volcanism and where will the journey go?
About 400 million years ago during the Devonian, the Age of Fish, when only plants and insects roamed the land, Laurussia and Gondwana converged into the supercontinent of Pangaea forming the European Variscan Belt. It includes vast mountain ranges stretching from Portugal to Turkey. The Rhenish Massif in central Europe is one of the outcrops of this period, others are the Massif Central in France or the Bohemian Massif in Czech Republic and Poland.
The Rhenish Massif is mainly made of highly folded sedimentary metamorphic rocks, mostly slates, hence the name “Rheinisches Schiefergebirge” or “Rhenish Slate Range”.
When the Age of the Mammals dawned and Africa started to collide with Eurasia, a whole lot of volcanic activity started north of the rising Alps. This belt was termed European Cenozoic Volcanic Province by Meyer and Foulger. In the Alpine forelands extensional rift systems developed with the Rhine graben as a prominent feature. Volcanic activity of that period can be found in France (Massif Central), Germany (High Eifel, Westerwald, Vogelsberg, Rhön), The Czech Republic (Eger graben) and Poland (Lower Silesia).
The ductile and tough shale and slate bedrock of the Rhenish Massif presumably was incompatible with extensional rifting. Instead the region acted as a hinge between shear rifting along the Upper Rhine Graben and extensional rifting at the Lower Rhine Basin (Illies et al. 1981).
The Eifel volcanic field is situated west of the Rhine river near Koblenz in the center of the Rhenish Massif. Fluvial deposits prove that this area was uplifted up to 300 m since the Pliocene epoch 5 million years ago and that the uplift had accelerated during the last 800,000 years with maximal elevation around the Eifel volcanic field. Since then the Rhine river and its tributaries were forced to cut deep valleys through the Rhenish Massif, flowing past Hunsrück and Taunus, Eifel and Westerwald, Ardennes and Süder Uplands.
The most recent volcanic activity in the West and East Eifel volcanic fields coincides with this uplift which amounts to 0.35 mm per year on average. The dome building may be a combination of widespread uplift of the so-called Rhenish Shield due to horizontal deformation from Alpine orogeny (Illies et al., 1979 and 1981; Meyer and Stets, 2002) and more locally by uplift due to the Eifel mantle plume (Schmincke, 2007).
To study the deep structures of the Eifel region the Eifel Plume project temporarily deployed a large network of seismic stations in 1997. A shear wave velocity model suggested a 100 km wide low-velocity structure extending down at least 400 km into the upper mantle which could indicate an area of increased temperature and partial melting. It remains debated whether this anomaly caused the Eifel volcanism. Other volcanic areas of the European Cenozoic Volcanic Province lack clear evidence of deep mantle plumes and the spacial distribution and timing of eruptive phases is not consistent with movement of the European plate over a fixed hot spot.
Alternative models could be a magma source derived from previous Alpine subduction or local decompression melting from passive rifting caused by tectonic deformation of the crust. Notably, the Mohorovičić discontinuity (Moho) is only 30 km deep below the Eifel while under the Alps it goes down to about 50 km which could give rise to some mantle turbulence and convection.
There is an overwhelming amount of literature about the recent quaternary activity of the 300+ volcanoes in the Eifel, sadly most of it paywalled or even without online access, because published in books or exotic German journals. So the following is taken from secondary literature. The eruptive history was e.g. summarized by Schmincke in Mantle Plumes (2007), Schmitt et al. (2010) (see Fig. 1 here for a map of geological map of the East Eifel volcanic field) and is nicely illustrated in this German blog post.
In summary, there seem to have been at least four main eruptive phases:
700,000 to 450,000 years before present: the main bulk of monogenetic volcanoes, small cinder cones and short lava flows erupted in the West Eifel and late some in the East Eifel. Their lava contained leucite (potassium rich) basalts, poor in SiO2, indicating an upper mantle source.
The West Eifel then fell dormant for several hundred thousand years.
430,000 to 360,000 years before present: In the East Eifel the Rieden complex (“Riedener Kessel”) west of the Laacher See had its most productive episode sputtering out several cubic km of lava in larger cinder cones and kilometer long phonolithic lava flows out of a 4 km diameter caldera system.
215,000 to 190,000 years before present: In the East Eifel the Wehr volcano (“Wehrer Kessel”, a 2 km diameter depression) west of the Laacher See and many large scoria cones in the Neuwieder tectonic basin erupted several cubic km of dense rock equivalent. The lava was highly differentiated phonolitic and rich in SiO2, indicating that country rock had been partially melted. During this time the first Maars were blasted out of the West Eifel volcanic field.
100,000 to 10,000 years before present: the West Eifel field was peppered with Maars still erupting the original lava, the last one to be the Ulmener Maar. Simultaneously, a new kind of lava, basanites, poor in potassium, hence leucite free, presumably from the asthenosphere, created large cinder cones and lava flows sometimes right next to the Maars (e.g. Meerfelder Maar next to the Mosenberg).
In the East Eifel only the Laacher See erupted 12,900 years ago, without doubt the most powerful eruption of all time in the Eifel probably equalling the total output of the West Eifel volcanic field. The Laacher See erupted more than 6 cubic km of magma within days, with an at least 25 km high eruptive column spreading tephra from Italy to Sweden. The magma is thought to have differentiated over several thousand, possibly tens of thousands of years, showing zonation from mafic to evolved phonolite and carbonatite. Pyroclastic flows temporarily built a dam in the Rhine river which eventually broke unleashing torrential floods, illustrated here (in German). Finally the emptied magma chamber collapsed leaving this recreational lake.
So the Eifel volcanism occurred in tens to hundred thousand years periods intermitted by hundred thousand years of dormancy. There was a general trend of eruptions starting in the NW progressing to the SE. Eruptions became increasingly voluminous and explosive with time and there was a shift of lava from an upper mantle source to partially melted crust.
Today the Eifel volcanism is dormant. As already featured in Nathan´s post abundant CO2 emission is a sign that the Eifel volcanic field is not extinct. But also seismically the region is active. Earthquakes during the past 36 years are almost exclusively confined to the upper 15 km. There is no indication of magmatic origin so far. The highest earthquake density is east of the Laacher See and west of the Neuwieder basin along the Ochtendunger fault zone on a NW to SE axis, aligned to the general tectonic setting in the Rhenish Massif.
And here a 3D plot:
Since 1975 up until January 2013 over 1180 local earthquakes were reported by the seismic station Bensberg (University of Cologne) with some increased frequency in the last years.
Helium and other noble gases that are found in high concentrations around the Laacher See are indicators of the volcanic origin of the Mofettas. Helium isotope 4 (4He) is naturally formed in earth´s crust. Another rare Helium isotope, Helium 3 (3He), is produced by fission and bombardement with high-energy cosmic rays, so what we find on earth was created before our solar system formed. In the atmosphere it escapes into space. Looking at the 3He to 4He ratio in volcanic gases relative to the ratio in earth´s atmosphere (Ra) gives a clue about the source of the magma. If it´s of deep origin, it still should contain relatively high 3He. The 3He/4He ratio measured from Mofettas from the Laacher See is 5.5 Ra, indicating an upper mantle source, but it is less than measured at mid oceanic ridges (8 Ra), thus there is mixing with 4He from the crust.
So there we are today. Was this the end of it for the next 100,000 years? As long as the Brubbel squirts and the earth rumbles occasionally we can´t be sure of it. Maybe the ants will tell us one day.
And just in case: a list of webcams
Many thanks to Nathan for discussion and support!