Sea-floor sensors detect possible volcanic eruption

"This exciting sequence of events documented by the OOI-Cabled Array at Axial Seamount gives us an entirely new view of how our planet works," said oceanographer Richard Murray.
By Brooks Hays  |  May 1, 2015 at 9:41 AM
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SEATTLE, May 1 (UPI) -- Just a year ago, a deep sea volcanic eruption might have gone unnoticed (at least, initially). Most everything that happens 300 miles offshore and a mile beneath the ocean surface happens without onlookers.

But just last week, scientists at the University of Washington were able to observe the eruption of Axial Volcano in real time -- thanks to a system of high-tech seabed sensors deployed last summer.

"It was an astonishing experience to see the changes taking place 300 miles away with no one anywhere nearby," John Delaney, a professor of oceanography who helped install the sensors, said in a press release.

"And the data flowed back to land at the speed of light through the fiber-optic cable connected to Pacific City -- and from there, to here on campus by the Internet, in milliseconds."

Last week, as scientists gathered to discuss how the new sensor technology might change the way they do their work, seismic activity began to pick up in the deep northern Pacific. Seismometers went from recording hundreds of quakes per day to picking up thousands.

On April 23, the newly installed sensors recorded a six-foot drop in the center of the volcanic crater.

"The only way that could have happened was to have the magma move from beneath the caldera to some other location," Delaney explained, "which the earthquakes indicate is right along the edge of the caldera on the east side."

The sensor technology measures ground movement by recording overhead water pressure and accounting for the influence of the tides and waves. Changes in water pressure reveal the sea floor's vertical changes.

The Axial Volcano lies along the Juan de Fuca Ridge. The seamounts in the North Pacific are part of a submarine volcanic mountain range that weaves its way across the entire globe -- following a line of mid-ocean ridge faults for 43,500 miles and touching every ocean.

While the Axial seamounts make up the most active volcanic hot spot in the region, researchers believe the tectonic forces playing out there are representative of the seismic and volcanic activities shaping ocean floors all over the world.

"This exciting sequence of events documented by the OOI-Cabled Array at Axial Seamount gives us an entirely new view of how our planet works," said Richard Murray, division director for ocean sciences at the National Science Foundation, which provided funding for the project.

"Although the OOI-Cabled Array is not yet fully operational, even with these preliminary observations we can see how the power of innovative instrumentation has the potential to teach us new things about volcanism, earthquakes and other vitally important scientific phenomena."

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