National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2019

A recent volcanic eruption discovered on the central Mariana back-arc spreading center

Chadwick, Jr., W.W., S.G. Merle, E.T. Baker, S.L. Walker, J.A. Resing, D.A. Butterfield, M.O. Anderson, T. Baumberger, and A.M. Bobbitt

Front. Earth Sci., 6, 172, doi: 10.3389/feart.2018.00172 (2018)

Submarine volcanic eruptions are difficult to detect because they are hidden from view at the bottom of the ocean and far from land-based sensors. However, most of Earth’s volcanic activity is in the oceans along tectonic plate boundaries, and modern tools of oceanography now allow us to find and study recent eruptions in the deep sea. The first known historical eruption on the Mariana back-arc spreading center was discovered in December 2015 during exploration of the southern back-arc for new hydrothermal vent sites. A water-column survey along the axis of the back-arc showed hydrothermal plumes over the site characterized by low particle concentrations and relatively high reduced chemical anomalies. A dive with the autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry collected high-resolution (1 m) multibeam sonar bathymetry over the site, followed by a near-bottom photographic survey of a smaller area. The photo survey revealed the presence of a pristine, dark, glassy lava flow on the seafloor with no sediment cover. Venting of milky hydrothermal fluid indicated that the lava flow was still warm and therefore very young. A comparison of multibeam sonar bathymetry collected by R/V Falkor in December 2015, to the most recent previous survey of the area by R/V Melville in February 2013, revealed large depth changes in the same area, effectively bracketing the timing of the eruption within a window of less than 3 years. The bathymetric comparison shows the eruption produced a string of lava flows with maximum thicknesses of 40–138 m along a distance of 7.3 km (from latitude 15∘22.3′ to 15∘26.3′N) between depths of 4050–4450 m bsl (meters below sea level), making this the deepest known historical submarine volcanic eruption on Earth. The cross-axis width of the lava flows is 200–800 m. The Sentry bathymetry shows that the new lava flows are constructed of steep-sided hummocky pillow mounds and are surrounded by older flows with similar morphology. In April and December 2016, two dives were made on the new lava flows by remotely operated vehicles Deep Discoverer and SuBastian. The pillow lavas have many small glassy buds on the steep flanks of the mounds, locally thick accumulations of hydrothermal sediment near the tops of mounds, and small cones of radiating pillows at their summits. The 2015–2016 observations show a rapidly declining hydrothermal system on the lava flows, suggesting that the eruption had occurred only months before its discovery in December 2015. The morphology of the pillow lavas is similar to other historical eruption sites, so the greater depth and ambient pressure of this site had no apparent effect on the processes of lava extrusion and emplacement. This study reveals that some segments of the Mariana back-arc have active magmatic systems despite the relatively low spreading rate, and that other eruptions are possible in the near future.

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