Geosciences professor performs pioneering research on newly discovered undersea volcano

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

West Mata Volcano, the world’s deepest volcanic eruption ever observed, opens up new world of scientific study

Lava tubeUniversity of Tulsa Geosciences Professor Peter Michael is part of a group of marine geologists studying an active volcanic eruption in the South Pacific that is taking place 4,000 feet beneath the sea. The volcano is located more than 2,000 miles east of Sydney near the Fiji Islands in an extremely active region of volcanic activity.

The first chemical analyses of the volcanic rocks from the West Mata Volcano were performed on TU’s electron microprobe. Michael presented his findings about the newly erupted volcanic rocks at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco Dec. 17, where the announcement about the discovery of the world’s deepest undersea erupting volcano took place.

Scientists at several other institutions are also studying the volcanic rocks, as well as volcanic fluids, and volcanic processes from the remarkable video. Imagery includes large molten lava bubbles three feet across bursting into cold seawater, glowing red vents exploding lava into the sea, and the first-observed advance of lava flows across the deep-ocean floor.

“By analyzing the chemistry of the volcanic glasses, we think we can identify four separate lava flows at West Mata Volcano including the ongoing eruption,” Michael said. “There are at least four other flows on Northeast Lau Ridge, a spreading center nearby.”

This part of the Tonga region is important for understanding volcanism in what geoscientists call the Pacific Ring of Fire, where tectonic plates are converging at the fastest rate on Earth and producing a very active magma flow. The West Mata Volcano is producing boninite lavas, believed to be among the hottest on Earth in modern times, and a type seen before only on extinct volcanoes more than one million years old.

An expedition funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was dispatched to Tonga in May 2009 and discovered a spectacular undersea eruption upon the first lowering of the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason 2 to the seafloor. Using Jason 2, scientists collected rock samples, hydrothermal fluids and interesting organisms that live in the hydrothermal springs. The ROV also shot spectacular video footage that can be viewed on the NSF Web site.

Michael did not participate in the expedition but was one of a team of shore-based researchers who have active NSF-funded projects to study this undersea volcanic activity. Other expedition participants were affiliated with Oregon State University, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Western Washington University, Portland State University, Harvard University, California State University's Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, the University of California Santa Cruz and Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory.

For more information about the West Mata Volcano discovery, visit

Photo courtesy of NSF/NOAA

Amethyst Cavallaro