The “Trail by Fire” project, funded by the 2015 bursary from Land Rover and the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) is an ambitious scientific expedition which will attempt to quantify the total amount of volatiles released by volcanoes along the Nazca subduction zone. Land Rover have turned a Defender 110 into the world’s first 4×4 volcano observatory, able to reach and measure active volcanoes never studied before.
The atmosphere that allows our planet to sustain life was formed early in the Earth’s history, from gases emitted by volcanoes.
These gases, or volatile elements, are constantly recycled back into the deep earth at subduction zones, where tectonic plates sink into the mantle. During this process the sinking plate subjected to increasing heat and pressure releases volatiles which, added to the mantle, induce melting and fuel volcanic explosions, completing the cycle. While this depiction of the earth’s giant recycling factory is well established conceptually, we do not know how efficient it is. Scientists can estimate how much goes in, but have little idea what proportion is released back to the atmosphere, and what proportion remains trapped at depth. This question is crucial if we want to understand how our atmosphere formed and our planet became able to sustain life. In the present-day context, characterizing how much gas comes out of the giant recycling factory is also key to understanding volcanic effects on climate, volcanic emissions being significant but poorly constrained parameters in current climate models.
During their four month expedition from Peru to Southern Chile, the Land Rover has served as the team’s transportation, living space, and workshop. Through special modifications installed by Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations, it has provided a power supply for the instruments and computers, and even became a volcanic monitoring tool itself – fitted with spectrometers for traversing volcanic plumes. In effect, the Land Rover has been the seventh member of the team.