She discovered cracking magma

Steffi Burchardt is a senior lecturer at the Department of Geosciences.

Hello Steffi Burchardt, Senior Lecturer of Earth Sciences. You have been appointed a Wallenberg Academy Fellow and have received a lot of attention for your discovery that liquid magma can crack as it penetrates the crust of the Earth. How did you find that out?

“Doctoral student Tobias Mattsson and I were on Iceland in the summer of 2016 and we investigated an ancient magma chamber that is 11.7 million years old. We made some measurements, took some rock samples and were able to see there were strange cracks in the solidified magma. Later, when we examined them through a microscope, we realised that it was actually the magma that was deformed and cracked as it penetrated the magma chamber.”

What is it like to make a completely new discovery?
“We read many articles about experiments and lava flows and searched everywhere for answers but it took about six months until we finally understood. It was a very exciting process. You go from total confusion to a sort of euphoria.”

The aim of your research is to understand how cracks in magma influence, for example, predictions of volcano eruptions, how noble metals and oil reserves are formed and the extraction of geothermic energy. How are you going to proceed with your research?
“The magma chamber we studied was 500–1,000 metres below the surface of the earth so we are planning to investigate magma chambers that are at a lower level. We also want to find out whether magma chambers of this sort can have explosive outbreaks or whether they are stable. We are also going to investigate some other locations where there may be cracking magma, for example, in Argentina.”

What does your field work involve?
“Measuring structure is an important component, for example, different layers that can be measured with a geological compass. Nowadays, there are apps you can use in your phone. Then you can use the measurements and the map to make 3D models in your computer. We have also used a drone so we have been able to combine our observations with images taken from the drone.”