Woods Hole Scientists Make Big Deep-Ocean Discovery

Jan 22, 2018

Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have discovered the largest volcanic eruption on record in the deep ocean.

Their findings were published on January 10 in the journal Science Advances.

In 2012, a raft of floating pumice roughly the size of Philadelphia formed in the ocean to the northeast of New Zealand. A few years later, an international team of scientists used WHOI's autonomous underwater vehicle, Sentry, and their remotely operated vehicle, Jason, to explore what they thought was a typical deep-sea explosive eruption.

However, they were surprised by what they found.

High-resolution seafloor topography of the Havre caldera mapped by the autonomous underwater vehicle, Sentry, shows red lava from the 2012 eruption. The top of the volcano is 650 meters below sea level and nearly a mile deep.
Credit Rebecca Carey and Adam Soule / University of Tasmania and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

"What we found in this eruption (were) pumices that were the size of an SUV, so, really huge blocks of pumice that I had never seen before," Adam Soule, WHOI co-chief scientist, said. 

Soule said giant pieces of pumice usually only form during gentle eruptions underwater. 

It’s the sheer volume of material released by Havre volcano, which was nearly 1.5 times more than that of the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens, that makes it the largest deep-ocean eruption recorded in the past century. 

Soule said this discovery will help scientists understand more about how deep sea volcanoes work, since they don’t know much about how the volcanoes function.

“That’s not because they don’t erupt but more because it’s a big ocean," Soule said. "It’s a deep ocean and we don’t really know when (the eruptions) occur.”

This work, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, was conducted by an international research team with representatives from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. The lead author of the paper is Rebecca Carey from the University of Tasmania.