Undersea robot captures rare deep-sea eruption

Scientists get an up-close (and high-def) look at molten lava and billowing ash in the deepest underwater volcanic eruption ever seen.

Science buffs got an early Christmas present when rare video was released showing a spectacular undersea volcanic eruption deep in the Pacific Ocean.

The West Mata volcano sits nearly 4,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific in an area bordered by Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. It was discovered in May by scientists with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation. Lucky researchers managed to catch high-definition video of the eruption with the help of a remotely-operated underwater robot named Jason.

Jason's cameras captured masses of lava bubbling up into the cold seawater, chunks of debris breaking off vents and falling to the seafloor, and enormous clouds of volcanic ash billowing into the water.

The discovery is significant for several reasons. For one, it is the deepest erupting volcano ever seen. As marine geologist Bob Embley said, "Since the water pressure at that depth suppresses the violence of the volcano's explosions, we could get the underwater robot within feet of the active eruption. On land, or even in shallow water, you could never hope to get this close and see such great detail."

It's also the first deep-water eruption observed in the last 25 years of submarine volcano research by NOAA and the NSF. In addition, the kind of lava spewing from the West Mata volcano is rare. Known as boninite lava, it's believed to be among the hottest on the planet. Prior to the West Mata discovery, it had only been seen on extinct volcanoes that were more than a million years old.

Despite the volcano's incredible depth and an environment as acidic as battery acid, the area is far from lifeless. Tim Shank, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (which operates the Jason robot), discovered shrimp thriving in the area of the eruption. He is now comparing the DNA of the West Mata shrimp to that of shrimp found in similar environments 3,000 miles away to determine whether they are the same species.

Scientists presented their work Thursday at an annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

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Jennifer Guevin is managing editor at CNET, overseeing the ever-helpful How To section, special packages, and front-page programming. As a writer, she gravitates toward science, quirky geek culture stories, robots, and food. In real life, she mostly just gravitates toward food.

 

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