Day 4 : When magma meet water

Reasons to be dazed and speechless…
Reasons to be dazed and speechless…

Wednesday began with the return of dazed or speechless individuals at breakfast, all had been hit by remote effects of the Clierzou volcano, to be precise, the night spent in a cave on its slope. After this brief return to cave life, there were obvious signs of exhaustion and grumbles of low tolerance for such anachronisms as pneumatic mattresses. Modern brews, however, had been welcome.

After breakfast we left our rural resort of Laschamps and drove East, down to the Limagne graben (see €u(ro)ck November 2003), where is located the city of Clermont Ferrand. In spite of its 1/4 million population the step there is slow on a hot day in the narrow streets of the old centre.

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The cathedral

Our first visit was to the cathedral, a prominent landmark on a hill. From the earliest stages of its construction, in 1248, the cathedral still retains its gothic style, although it took another 650 years to complete. The building material is mainly the dark Pierre de Volvic (Volvic lava). With the distant backdrop of the Puy De Dome, its 50-meter high Bayette tower signals the volcanic character of the town. The cathedral had been built on top of an early basilica, of which the only visible memory is the crypt. Although the region had been rocked by religious conflicts from the 12th century onwards, this cathedral was relatively unscathed as it had been soberly furnished. Today its dark atmosphere contrasts with colourful stained glass windows of the 12th, 13th, 15th and 20th century. It still contains treasures of roman art, 13th century frescoes, statues and polychromes pietas, and a very beautiful 13th century carving of the Virgin in Majesty, painted black in 1830.

Our next visit was to Clermont University’s Department of Earth Sciences and volcanology laboratory : Experimental Magmatology

Nico guided us to his alma mater and introduced us to professor Benjamin De Vries and his assistant Stephanie. Professor De Vries presented the modelling experiments conducted in the department’s experimental magmatology section.

In these small-scale models of volcanic events, a 5 mm layer of laboratory -prepared mixture may represent a 200 meter high sediment layer, while pressures obtained in pascals stand for corresponding rock pressure equivalents of tens of mega pascals. Materials used include silicon putty, sand and plaster, which can be mixed in the desired proportions to obtain viscous, brittle, elastic, or bouncy pastes of variable cohesions as well as to build dykes.

These experiments are very sensitive, and the slightest error in slopes can falsify the effects obtained. With great precision tectonic processes are reproduced and their effects on volcanoes observed. The modelling experiments cover many aspects of volcanic activity. They can focus on the behaviour of different types of magma or ejecta on different slopes, and lateral deformation from sloping strata.

Extension zones are also recreated in small-scale, as well as debris avalanche, caldera formations, intrusions as well as extrusions.

Pyroclastics can be fluidized by introducing gases through the column, or modified by raising the temperature, possibly as high as 600 degrees celsius. Waterbased experiments are also conducted, to obtain a more viscous flow than in gas-supported pyroclastics.

The predictive value of these experiments is high, without any strong contradiction observed so far.

The faculty has a very international involvement, with publications in English and Spanish, and work on site in such active volcanic regions as Indonesia, South America, The Reunion.

Parc and Musee Lecoq

After this visit, the nearby Parc Lecoq, with its cooling green and pond was a perfect site for lunch. The park is named after the 19th century professor Henri Lecoq. A nearby natural history museum, le Musee Henri-Lecoq, houses his collections in a bourgeois building which had been the professor’s residence.

Some of our group chose to visit this museum. There the displays testify of his eclectic mind, with excellent presentations in mineralogy, petrography, paleontology, zoology and botanics. It was a surprise to see a 19th century display cabinet housing the 59 native orchid types of the Auvergne. Professor Lecoq’s personal library also remains opened to researchers.

My personal bias took me to the mineralogy collection, which is organised in two sections. Samples of world minerals are excellent, but the local mineralogy was of particular interest. The most striking specimens of fluorite are on display, as the Auvergne is an important source of this mineral. Very sizeable samples include many colours – along with tables describing the causes of colour - as well as various mineral overgrowths, such as barytine. A special display is dedicated to minerals directly associated to volcanism. This includes the constituents of volcanic rocks, minerals linked to the eruptions and those which formed in later stages, such as calcites and aragonites, of hydrothermal origin.

Amethysts, also abundant in Auvergne, holds an important place, in the rough as well as in 19th century artifacts and carvings.

The wine shop

Although many go to the Auvergne “pour prendre les eaux” and enjoy the healthy effects of thermal waters, our group’s objective to complete the day was Nico’s favourite wine shop. As in most regions in France local wines are produced. To be fair the shop had relatively few bottles of the local goods - Chateaugay, St Pourcain - which are not produced in very large quantity. But down narrow winding steps we reached a very well stocked cellar, with wines from all origins. On closer inspection the vast cellar, whose very constant temperature provides an optimal environment for wine conservation, consists of pale material with a brecciated structured. Dug deep in the ground it offers a fine image of was the the Limagne maars.

The phreatomagmatic events in the Limagne are 156 000 years old. They involved the encounter of magma with a deep watertable within the oligocene sediments in the graben. The hydrostatic pressure opposes the rise of magma but as the water temperature rises water vapour builds up to a point of pressure superior to the mass of the water table. At this point the violence of the eruptions projects to great distances a mix of debris of all sizes. In the
Limagne much of this debris originated from the sedimentary substratum, which accounts for the relatively small size of the breccia seen in the wine cellar.

Nico explained how difficult it is to assess risks in such eruptions: Although the rising magma creates seismic activity, it is not so easy to monitor this in sediments. Since the main trigger is the meeting of magma and water, how deep the water is, at what depth the meeting will occur as well as the volume of water and magma involved are the essential controles in the eruption, much of this, however, very difficult to monitor.

The wine of the month was tasted, some of the ware purchased, and time had come to return to leave Clermont Ferrand and return for a last night in Laschamps.

Brigitte Revol MacDonald

Day 5 : Strato-volcanoes, pumice, calderas and the Two Towers

On Thursday, we moved southwest towards Monte Dore and the Massif du Sancy. We were relocating to new accommodation today so an extended company left Laschamps to travel to our next Gîte in Courbanges. Our first stop en route was Rochefort Montagne. This was a huge deposit of pumice estimated to be 25-30 metres deep which was the airfall deposit of a strato volcano.

Strato-volcanoes build over thousands of years. When they erupt, they initially produce a very high plume – a plinian eruption. On collapse, it is followed by a pyroclastic flow and then by huge volumes of ignimbrites as the magma chamber empties. If the magma chamber empties rapidly the top of the volcano collapses forming a caldera (calderas being much bigger than craters.)

Pumice has a low density. It is a glass and is full of elongated bubbles. The distinctive shape of the bubbles was created by air pressure due to the force of the eruption from the volcano. Vast quantities must have been produced as it can be found 10-15 km from the source and is still very deep. It is believed that, deep as this deposit is, it was laid down within an extremely short time scale of hours, a day at the most.

Rochefort Montagne
Rochefort Montagne

We moved on to Orcival. This pretty village was on the pilgrim route. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch and took the time to visit the very picturesque Romanesque church which has a beautiful chapel in the crypt.

Driving on south through the Col de Guery, we stopped and climbed down to a viewpoint to see the Roches de Tuillières and Sanadoire in the distance. The road down to these impressive rocky towers (did JR Tolkien pass this way?) took a little searching out – we almost managed to lose a car or two in our company by swiftly turning into various car parks, completing a quick circuit and doubling back. Enough to confuse anyone not concentrating on our elusive leader, Nico. Succeeding in locating the correct road, we found ourselves at the foot of these huge basalt columns. The loose rubble lying around here is phonolite, a very basic rock, undersaturated and very viscous.

Our final stop of the day was at a quarry of Le Chiex. This apparently deserted quarry in a country location was surprisingly well guarded because within minutes of us scrambling under or around the barrier, security guards arrived.
While most of the group stood around at a loss, Nico used his charm to reassure the guards that, despite appearances to the contrary, we were harmless and just liked rocks! We were allowed to proceed. On a previous visit, Nico had seen debris avalanches at this location but much work had been done in the interim and he needed to run up and down the (steep) paths to locate this exposure while most of us followed more slowly behind him, ‘admiring the view’.

The gîte at Courbanges turned out to be most attractive and comfortable. This small hamlet is at an altitude of 1143m with spectacular views from the garden of the surrounding mountains which rise to 1800m and proved to be a most enjoyable final destination for our final 2 days.

Janet Hiscott

Day 6 : Protrusions and dykes: the plumbing system

Author providing scale for the Dent de la Rancune (tooth of rancour?)
Author providing scale for the Dent de la Rancune (tooth of rancour?)

On this day we commenced at the Vallèe de Chaudefour Réserve Naturelle.

We were looking for other evidence of volcanism in the form of dykes eroded in relief, glaciation of deposits, and hot springs, all to be expected in proximity to volcanic activity.

We walked through the Fôret Danuale de Chaudefour and were treated to a splendid view of the eroded end face of Dent de la Rancune, showing in relief.

We then came to a waterfall, Cascade de la Perouse, which cascaded about 10m down the hillside.

La source St Anne: A natural spring, working on the principle of an artesian well. The water percolates to depth and in doing so dissolves minerals into solution. These minerals are the expected ones in such a location: CO2, H2S, SO2. Dissolving of minerals into solution is much facilitated if the temperature of the circulating waters is elevated.

The spring water was not warm at the outlet but tasting the water revealed iron (Fe) and sulphur. H2S is after all hydrogen sulphide, which smells like rotten eggs! There was plentiful evidence of the deposition of iron and sulphur from the waters. Any residual heating due to the volcanism was not evident.

Brenda abseils into the abyss
Brenda abseils into the abyss

This was the end of geological field trips and after lunch at Lac Chambon, at which some of the party had an enjoyable swim, the party then headed over to Lac Pavin (occupying the crater of an extinct volcano) where some members of the party were instructed in the arts of abseiling down a small cliff by the lakeside under the expert tuition of Nicolas, our guide and mentor, who provided the equipment.

Frank Bailey

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