The Impact of Ice Caps on the Mechanical Stability of Magmatic Systems: Implications for Forecasting on Human Timescales

Lilian C. Lucas, John A. Albright, Patricia M. Gregg, Yan Zhan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Monitoring the activity of subglacial volcanoes along the Aleutian Arc in Alaska is important to the safety of local populations, as well as air traffic flying through the region. However, observations of volcanic unrest are limited by accessibility and resources, particularly at glacier-covered systems, making investigations of their stability challenging. Westdahl Peak, a subglacial volcano on Unimak Island in the Aleutian Arc has experienced significant unrest and uplift since its most recent VEI three eruption in 1991-1992. Given the magnitude of observed uplift, previous investigations suggested the potential for eruption by 2010, but no such event has occurred. One hypothesis to explain this prolonged unrest is that the 1-km thick glacier may increase the stability of the magma system. However, the impact of ice caps and glaciers on the short-term stability of volcanoes is not well understood. In this study, thermomechanical finite element models are used to evaluate how the stability of a glaciated volcano is impacted by variations in ice cap thickness, magma chamber depth, geometry, magma flux rate, and seasonal changes in ice cover thickness. Our numerical experiments indicate that the presence of an ice cap (1–3 km thick) increases the average repose interval for a magma system. Among models with different magma chamber geometries, depths, and flux rates, the greatest increases in repose interval are observed in prolate systems where the increase is up to 57% for a chamber located at 5 km-depth. Spherical and oblate also experience smaller, yet significant, increases in repose interval. Additionally, the percentage increase in repose interval is not impacted by variations in magma flux rate for a given ice cap thickness and magma chamber geometry. However, flux rates do influence the timing of eruptions when the system is experiencing seasonal variations in ice thickness. Our results show that systems with low flux rates are more likely to fail when the ice thickness is at its lowest. The numerical estimates further suggest that the ice cap on Westdahl Peak, which is ∼1 km, may slightly increase the stability of the magma system. In general, given flux rates and magma chamber geometries estimated for the Westdahl system, the repose interval can increase by ∼7 years due to the Westdahl glacier. This increase is small on a geologic scale but is significant on human time scales and the impact of glaciers must be considered in future forecasting efforts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number868569
JournalFrontiers in Earth Science
StatePublished - Apr 29 2022


  • volcano
  • finite element method
  • viscoelastic
  • seasonality
  • westdahl
  • flux rate
  • subglacial

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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