For the first time, scientists have caught on camera an erupting underwater volcano.
The spectacular footage shows enormous glowing bubbles of lava, 1m across, bursting into the Pacific Ocean and lava flowing across the sea floor over 1km below the surface. It’s a type of volcanic eruption – called a boninite eruption – only seen before in extinct, million year old volcanoes.
The West Mata Volcano was visited by the unmanned submersible vessel, Jason, as part of a major research project involving a huge group of collaborating scientists from across the US. Volcanic explosions are suppressed by the enormous pressure so deep down underwater allowing the vessel to get extremely close to the erupting volcano – up to a few feet away – much closer than is possible on land or in shallow water. There is a lot we can learn from this underwater volcano.
The detailed footage and samples collected will reveal many of the secrets of how ocean islands and underwater volcanoes are born, what goes on as one tectonic plate is subducted under another, and how heat, carbon dioxide and sulphur are cycled between the deep interior of the earth and the surface.
This is very important because it is thought that 80% of all the eruptive activity on earth takes place in the oceans and most, like this one, are in the deep sea and we know very little about.Surrounding this volcano are some of the harshest conditions on earth, and yet life has found a way.
Researchers found a diverse community of microbes living around the volcano despite the immense pressure and acidic waters: directly above the volcano the water was as acidic as battery acid or stomach acid. They also found shrimp thriving around the volcanic vent and have taken DNA samples to how closely related they are to shrimp species living on other submarine volcanoes thousands of miles away.
It all goes to show that there is still so much we don’t know about the earth and how it works, and reminds us of what extraordinary things there are still waiting to be discovered.