Undersea Volcano Chain Found Off Antarctica

A little over a week ago, scientist located a chain of volcanoes off Antarctica.  Located near the United Kingdom territories of Georgia Islands and South Sandwich Islands, the volcanic discovery proved much more vast than expected.  Volcanologist Phil Leat was quoted as saying, “It was amazing finding them.  There were so many of these volcanoes we had no idea about.”

The dozen or so undersea volcanoes were located through research by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).  The British Antarctic Survey “is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council.”  For over 60 years, BAS has stood at the helm of Britain’s scientific research on Antarctica and the surrounding islands.  Based in Cambridge, the organization is considered the premier research and logistic group in Britain.

According to National Geographic’s website, BAS was undergoing a month long expedition, working to fill in gaps of existing seabed maps.  The team used multibeam sonar survey to conduct research covering a 370-mile by 90-mile range.  Researchers acknowledged they expected to find volcanoes, based on the fact that the South Sandwich Islands are actively volcanic and a 1962 incident of a passing British naval ship that encountered large patches of pumice – a rock formation formed by trapped gases in lava.  However, scientists were taken aback by the sheer scope of their discovery.

Some of the giant volcanoes rose to heights within 225 feet of the water’s surface.  Collected data placed measurements of the mammoth volcanoes in the same scale as Japan’s Mount Fuji, which scrapes the sky at 12,388 feet or just over two vertical miles.  In previous documented seabed charts, areas where the volcanoes lie where considered nothing more than deep water.  Phil Leat said the mass of the volcanoes could be unnerving, but also very exciting discovering a huge volcano that was previously unknown.

The new discovery will also help scientist monitor potential tsunamis.  As on land, volcanoes can collapse causing landslides.  Underwater, a collapsing volcano can produce devastating tsunamis.  Fortunately, the South Sandwich Islands provide an ideal research area were no islanders would be in danger.  Scientists hope to continue conducing research to discover how volcanoes generate tsunamis.

Researchers also hope to explore volcanic sea life.  Active volcanoes are known to have hydrothermal vents, which “provide unique habitats for life, some of which might be analogous to organisms that might survive around hot springs on other worlds, such as Jupiter’s Europa.”  Leat said there is no coral on the volcanoes, but the vents act as coral allowing sea life to exist.  He continued by saying previous areas similar to these have lead to findings of new species. 

In related undersea mapping, a United States Navy research is underway to create detailed charts of the ocean floor from South Africa to Chile.  Research ship Melville, setoff from Cape Town in mid-February.  With the use of a sonar system, the ship has reported mountains around 14,763 feet high.  Melville hopes to contribute efforts of providing more accurate seabed mapping.  Many of the sea charts used today were done via satellite data, making charts not nearly as precise.  However, sonar systems cost a great deal more than satellite data.  The cost difference allows for only about 7% of deep water ships to use updated means of mapping.  Professor of geophysics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, David Sandwell, said time also can pose a problem using sonar.  He went on to state “it would take a single ship equipped with a sonar scanner 125 years to map the deep ocean basin completely.”            

Photo Credit:  nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=100385                

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