Nearly 4,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, in a region bordered by Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, scientists have for the first time captured high-resolution video and images of a deep-sea volcano erupting in a project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.
The deep-sea eruption of the West Mata volcano is producing what are known as boninite lavas, believed to be among the hottest on Earth.
For the first time, scientists have been able to observe these deep-sea eruptions through high-definition video and audio, thanks to a hydrophone that was later matched to the video footage.
In this image, we see an explosion near the summit of the West Mata volcano spewing ash and rock. The area shown is about six feet across in an eruptive area about 100 yards which runs along the summit of the volcano at nearly 4,000 feet.
The water emitted from the volcano has been found to be extremely acidic. Sample tests showed the level of acidity to be similar to the levels of battery acid or stomach acid.
Areas of hydrothermal activity have long been known to host a rich diversity of undersea life. Despite the harsh conditions at this site nearly 4,000 feet deep, Tim Shank, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), has found shrimp thriving in the acidic vent water near the eruption. NOAA and the NSF hope that continued study of active deep-ocean eruptions such as these will provide a better understanding of oceanic cycles of carbon dioxide and sulfur gases, and how life adapts to some of the harshest conditions on the planet.
Close-up view of the shrimp living in the harsh high temperature, acidic conditions at summit of the West Mata volcano. Scientists believe these may be the same species as those found at similar eruptive sites more than 3,000 miles away.
Jason is a remotely-operated, precision multi-sensory imaging and sampling vehicle. It is seen here gathering fluid at an eruptive area near the summit of the West Mata volcano using its three-foot-long sampling wand.
The West Mata volcano, circled on this bathymetric map of the region showing a three-dimensional view of the ocean floor, is not the largest volcano in the Lau Basin, but it is one of the most geologically active. The Tonga Trench, shown in dark blue in the upper right of the map, is nearly seven miles deep.