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During the first ever scientific expedition into a volcanic magma chamber, climber Einar Stefánsson rappels into Iceland's dormant Thrihnukagigur volcano in October. Magma chambers supply the molten rock that oozes or bursts onto Earth's surface during an eruption. Thrihnukagigur, which last erupted about 3,000 years ago, contains only ancient magma—though the volcano could come back to life at anytime, experts say.
"Thrihnukagigur is unique. … It's like somebody came and pulled the plug and all the magma ran down out of it," said volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson. Thrihnukagigur is located about a hundred miles (160 kilometers) from Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which blew last April and grounded airplanes for several days with its ash clouds. While people have ventured inside the relatively shallow volcanic craters located close to Earth's surface, the 2010 expedition was the first to explore a volcano's deeper chambers.
"Everywhere inside the chamber, you had a plastering of magma on the walls," Sigurdsson said. "It looked like a beautiful plaster of Paris, and, in places that peeled off, you could see the geological makeup of the volcano underneath."
James Quick, a volcanologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas
"We knew from geophysical tools what the plumbing system inside of a volcano looked like, but we only knew it in the crudest way,"
The magma chamber itself is bottle shaped, Sigurdsson said. The bottom half is about a hundred feet (30 meters) across, while the "neck" that connects to the surface is only about 10 feet (3 meters) wide. The entire chamber is about 450 feet (137 meters), from top to bottom. Branching off from the main "bottle" are various veinlike vertical chutes and horizontal channels where magma once flowed.