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News

Researchers discover underwater Volcano-within-a-Volcano

National Science Foundation : 27 May, 2005  (Company News)
A team of scientists led by researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, has discovered an active underwater volcano near the Samoan Island chain. During a research cruise to study the Samoan hot spot, scientists uncovered a submarine volcano growing within the summit crater of another larger underwater volcano called Vailulu'u. Researchers exploring a unique biological community surrounding the site were amazed to find an 'Eel City' , a community of hundreds of slithering eels.
A team of scientists led by researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, has discovered an active underwater volcano near the Samoan Island chain.

During a research cruise to study the Samoan hot spot, scientists uncovered a submarine volcano growing within the summit crater of another larger underwater volcano called Vailulu'u. Researchers exploring a unique biological community surrounding the site were amazed to find an 'Eel City' , a community of hundreds of slithering eels.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Australian Research Council. The discovery included investigators from oceanographic institutions in the U.S. and Australia.

'This active submarine volcano-within-a-volcano is an exciting find, and will yield a variety of geological and biological discoveries in the future,' said Rodey Batiza, program director in NSF's division of ocean sciences, which funded the research.

This new volcano, dubbed Nafanua after the ferocious Samoan goddess of war, did not exist just fours years ago, according to Scripps geologist Hubert Staudigel and Stan Hart, a geochemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. With a growth rate of at least eight inches per day, the volcanic cone has rapidly emerged since the scientists' last expedition to this area in May 2001. Nafanua now stands at 300 meters, or nearly 1,000 feet.

'To have a documented case of an underwater volcano that has emerged within a short period of time is very rare, this is one of those cases,' said Staudigel.

Scientists were tipped off to the volcano's existence when they profiled the seafloor of the Vailulu'u crater using multi-beam mapping. Existing maps of the seafloor in the area gave little indication that this volcano existed. When sound beams were directed into the crater, they measured an unusually shallow depth. These results prompted further investigation of the area using the manned submersible Pisces V, a submersible that has the capability to dive to depths of more than 6,000 feet and is operated by NOAA's Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory.

The water surrounding the volcanic cone is extremely turbid due to hydrothermal activity. The vigorous vents that produce this volcanic 'fog' are obscured, according to Staudigel. Although visibility from the submersible was less than 10 feet, the researchers were able to observe the unique biological community surrounding the newly formed volcanic cone.

Much of Nafanua is covered with yellow 'fluff,' microbial aggregations that are produced by microscopic life feeding on chemical energy from the volcano's hydrothermal system. As the scientists explored this area, they discovered large communities of eels inhabiting the fragile cavernous rock pillars surrounding hydrothermal vents. As the submarine landed near this area, scores of eels, each approximately a foot long, emerged from the rock caves and crevices. The scientists named this novel marine hydrothermal community 'Eel City.'

'At this point we do not know why we found such extensive eel communities surrounding this volcano. It's a mystery that we hope to learn more about on future cruises,' said Staudigel.

Within decades, continued growth of Nafanua could bring the summit of this volcano from its current depth of 600 meters to a depth of approximately 200 meters, close enough to the sea's surface that it could provide a potential hazard to ocean navigation and coastal communities. Such hazards may include the explosive reaction of red-hot lava and seawater, or tsunamis that may be caused by the collapse of the newly built volcano.

'It is a good idea for us to keep our eye on this area, but there is no real reason for concern about immediate danger,' said Staudigel.
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