The timing couldn’t have been better. As scientists began a conference here to plan a new observatory for a huge offshore volcano, the mountain shook with the most powerful eruption ever recorded at the underwater peak.
“This is great,” said a jubilant Chris Fox, a geologist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration who has been tracking the thousands of earthquakes tallied since the volcano awoke Saturday night.
The research into seismology, geology, chemistry and the strange organisms that live on and beneath the mountain and the mysterious undersea Juan de Fuca Ridge “will keep us busy for years,” he said Wednesday.
The volcano, whose peak is nearly 4,000 feet below the Pacific Ocean’s surface, poses no danger to the public, Fox said. Rather, he and other researchers say, its eruption could shed light on subjects as diverse as the origin of life, new genetic compounds and whether life might be possible on Jupiter’s moons.
Although no one has seen the eruption yet, Fox and other researchers say it’s likely that rivers of red-hot lava are flowing out of the volcano, called Axial Seamount, along with giant plumes of scalding, mineral-rich water carrying microbes that thrive beneath the ocean floor. It’s possible the eruption could last weeks or longer.
“Just based on the number of earthquakes, quite a volume of lava is moving,” Fox said.
Late Saturday, three small earthquakes were recorded at Axial, which rises nearly a mile off the ocean floor about 300 miles west of Cannon Beach, Ore. That was nothing unusual, said Fox, at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory at Newport Beach, Ore., but the magnitude 4.5 quake at the mountain at noon Sunday was.
That quake and two more, measuring 4.5 and 4.7, were strong enough to be felt by landbased seismometers from California to Canada’s Vancouver Island. Along with smaller quakes that have been measured at a rate of nearly 100 an hour since Sunday, they indicate a huge flow within Axial’s crater, Fox said.
On Monday, a conference opened at NOAA’s regional center here to discuss summer explorations at Axial, including the creation of the New Millennium Observatory, or NEMO, a permanent underwater network of sensors at the site.
Word of the eruption quickly dominated the meeting by 30 researchers, said Steve Hammond, director of NOAA’s ocean vents program.
“I think everybody was extremely excited … it’s an amazing thing when an eruption goes off,” Hammond said. “When an eruption goes off in the deep ocean, it’s an environment that’s so strange to us in many regards, it immediately conjures up discovery.”
Although the summer research will go on, the scientists are scrambling to get to the volcano as soon as possible. Fox said the Oregon State University research ship Wecoma, which is returning to Newport from a research trip off the Northern California coast, will probably be sent to the mountain in early February in an expedition sponsored by NOAA and the National Science Foundation.
Unlike Mount St. Helens, which devastated hundreds of square miles with its 1980 explosion, Axial is more likely oozing lava similar to volcanoes on Hawaii. Indeed, Hammond said, the undersea mountains along the Juan de Fuca Ridge in some ways resemble the Hawaiian Islands, which are volcanoes that grew from the ocean floor to eventually break the surface.
Axial, a relatively young volcano at 500,000 to 750,000 years old, rises about 4,500 feet from the ocean floor, which is about 8,250 feet deep at that point.
“It’s the youngest volcano in a whole chain of volcanoes that stretch out to the northwest,” Hammond said.
The Juan de Fuca Ridge, which runs north and south about 400 miles, is part of a zigzagging breach in the ocean floor where two of the plates that form the Earth’s crust are spreading apart. Since its initial mapping in the 1970s and ‘80s, scientists have found numerous signs of seismic activity, including other eruptions.
Researchers have extensively studied the ridge, including eruptions observed in 1993 and 1996, and have some monitors in place at Axial, Fox said. The scientists also listen for activity in the area with help from the Navy’s top-secret acoustic surveillance system, installed to search for enemy submarines.
“It’s an area we know extremely well,” Hammond said. “We’re going to be very, very anxious to see what sort of changes occur.”
Studying the ridge has helped reveal how the Earth’s crust is formed. It also has led to the discovery of strange organisms, including clams, worms and crabs, that thrive in high temperatures and pressures and are part of a food chain based on bacteria in the volcanic vents.
The 1993 eruption disclosed the presence of an entire ecosystem of primitive bacteria and viruses in the volcanic rock of the sea floor, where they live on hydrogen sulfide gas associated with volcanic activity.
When there is a hydrothermal event, they reproduce very rapidly and are blasted upward throughout the water column - one reason scientists want to get to the volcano as soon as possible, Fox said.
Some scientists think that such underwater vents might be the source of life on the planet, and that the bacteria could contain genes a billion years old. Studying those organisms not only might illuminate how life arose on Earth, but could describe scenarios where life might exist in hostile environments elsewhere in the solar system, including Jupiter’s moons, Fox said.
On a more practical level, he said, the bacteria’s genetic material is of great interest to biomedical and other research companies who hope it can be used to produce new products.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CLICK FOR INFORMATION Information on the eruption is available at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory’s Web site at www.pmel.noaa.gov
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