Research Article

Gradual caldera collapse at Bárdarbunga volcano, Iceland, regulated by lateral magma outflow

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Science  15 Jul 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6296, aaf8988
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf8988

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Driven to collapse

Volcanic eruptions occur frequently, but only rarely are they large enough to cause the top of the mountain to collapse and form a caldera. Gudmundsson et al. used a variety of geophysical tools to monitor the caldera formation that accompanied the 2014 Bárdarbunga volcanic eruption in Iceland. The volcanic edifice became unstable as magma from beneath Bárdarbunga spilled out into the nearby Holuhraun lava field. The timing of the gradual collapse revealed that it is the eruption that drives caldera formation and not the other way around.

Science, this issue p. 262

Structured Abstract


The Bárdarbunga caldera volcano in central Iceland collapsed from August 2014 to February 2015 during the largest eruption in Europe since 1784. An ice-filled subsidence bowl, 110 square kilometers (km2) in area and up to 65 meters (m) deep developed, while magma drained laterally for 48 km along a subterranean path and erupted as a major lava flow northeast of the volcano. Our data provide unprecedented insight into the workings of a collapsing caldera.


Collapses of caldera volcanoes are, fortunately, not very frequent, because they are often associated with very large volcanic eruptions. On the other hand, the rarity of caldera collapses limits insight into this major geological hazard. Since the formation of Katmai caldera in 1912, during the 20th century’s largest eruption, only five caldera collapses are known to have occurred before that at Bárdarbunga. We used aircraft-based altimetry, satellite photogrammetry, radar interferometry, ground-based GPS, evolution of seismicity, radio-echo soundings of ice thickness, ice flow modeling, and geobarometry to describe and analyze the evolving subsidence geometry, its underlying cause, the amount of magma erupted, the geometry of the subsurface caldera ring faults, and the moment tensor solutions of the collapse-related earthquakes.


After initial lateral withdrawal of magma for some days though a magma-filled fracture propagating through Earth’s upper crust, preexisting ring faults under the volcano were reactivated over the period 20 to 24 August, marking the onset of collapse. On 31 August, the eruption started, and it terminated when the collapse stopped, having produced 1.5 km of basaltic lava. The subsidence of the caldera declined with time in a near-exponential manner, in phase with the lava flow rate.

The volume of the subsidence bowl was about 1.8 km3. Using radio-echo soundings, we find that the subglacial bedrock surface after the collapse is down-sagged, with no indications of steep fault escarpments. Using geobarometry, we determined the depth of magma reservoir to be ~12 km, and modeling of geodetic observations gives a similar result. High-precision earthquake locations and moment tensor analysis of the remarkable magnitude M5 earthquake series are consistent with steeply dipping ring faults. Statistical analysis of seismicity reveals communication over tens of kilometers between the caldera and the dike.


We conclude that interaction between the pressure exerted by the subsiding reservoir roof and the physical properties of the subsurface flow path explain the gradual near-exponential decline of both the collapse rate and the intensity of the 180-day-long eruption. By combining our various data sets, we show that the onset of collapse was caused by outflow of magma from underneath the caldera when 12 to 20% of the total magma intruded and erupted had flowed from the magma reservoir. However, the continued subsidence was driven by a feedback between the pressure of the piston-like block overlying the reservoir and the 48-km-long magma outflow path. Our data provide better constraints on caldera mechanisms than previously available, demonstrating what caused the onset and how both the roof overburden and the flow path properties regulate the collapse.

The Bárdarbunga caldera and the lateral magma flow path to the Holuhraun eruption site.

(A) Aerial view of the ice-filled Bárdarbunga caldera on 24 October 2014, view from the north. (B) The effusive eruption in Holuhraun, about 40 km to the northeast of the caldera. (C) A schematic cross section through the caldera and along the lateral subterranean flow path between the magma reservoir and the surface.


Large volcanic eruptions on Earth commonly occur with a collapse of the roof of a crustal magma reservoir, forming a caldera. Only a few such collapses occur per century, and the lack of detailed observations has obscured insight into the mechanical interplay between collapse and eruption. We use multiparameter geophysical and geochemical data to show that the 110-square-kilometer and 65-meter-deep collapse of Bárdarbunga caldera in 2014–2015 was initiated through withdrawal of magma, and lateral migration through a 48-kilometers-long dike, from a 12-kilometers deep reservoir. Interaction between the pressure exerted by the subsiding reservoir roof and the physical properties of the subsurface flow path explain the gradual, near-exponential decline of both collapse rate and the intensity of the 180-day-long eruption.

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