First successful forecast of underwater volcano

For the first time, researchers successfully forecast the eruption of an underwater volcano.

Following a Flow from Earth Institute on Vimeo.

Columbia University announced August 9, 2011 that researchers have, for the first time, successfully forecast an underwater volcanic eruption. Volcanic eruptions are notoriously difficult to predict, making the forecast a real coup. The researchers say their forecast could lead to improved monitoring of volcanoes on land.

Bill Chadwick of Oregon State University and Scott Nooner of Columbia University, a geologist and geophysicist respectively, were the scientists who spotted the eruption. They say it began at Axial Seamount off the coast of Oregon in April of this year. It took scientists a few months to detect Axial’s lava flow with the help of an underwater robot named Jason. The team officially “discovered” Axial’s eruption on July 29, 2011.

Axial’s last eruption was in 1998. Chadwick and Nooner have been tracking it since then and, in a 2006 paper in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, they forecast that Axial Seamount would erupt again before 2014. From Columbia’s press release:

Loading underwater robot Jason into the water. Image Credit: Bill Chadwick

Chadwick, Nooner and colleagues have monitored [Axial] ever since [1998], using precise bottom-pressure sensors – the same instruments used to detect tsunamis in the deep ocean – to measure vertical movements of the floor of the volcano’s crater, or caldera, much like scientists use satellite ground-positioning instruments on land to measure movements of the ground. Before the eruption, the surface of the volcano was gradually inflating like a balloon, at the rate of 15 centimeters (six inches) a year, indicating that magma was rising and accumulating under the summit. When Axial erupted in 1998, the caldera floor suddenly deflated 3.2 meters (10.5 feet), as magma poured out onto the seabed. The scientists said that the volcano would be ready to erupt again when re-inflation pushed the caldera floor back to its 1998 level.

They said this eruption would happen before 2014 and, in fact, it did. At first glance, this might not seem like much of a volcano forecast, because the forecast window (i.e., “sometime before 2014”) seems awfully broad. But, when you consider that volcanic action occurs at a geologic pace – it can take eons for explosion-worthy pressure to build inside a volcano – the window begins to appear much smaller.

Sampling New Lava from Earth Institute on Vimeo.

Columbia’s press release explained why the researchers believe their forecasting efforts on the Axial Seamount were so successful:

“Forecasting the eruption of most land volcanoes is normally very difficult at best, and the behavior of most is complex and variable,” said Nooner. “We now have evidence that Axial Seamount behaves in a more predictable way than many other volcanoes.” Nooner said this was likely due to the volcano’s robust magma supply, coupled with its thin crust and its location on a mid-ocean ridge where the crust is constantly spreading.

On land, scientists have spent decades refining techniques for tracking dangerous volcanoes like Italy’s Mount Vesuvius and Washington’s Mount Rainier. Despite this, mother earth is still serving up surprises: take, for example, the unexpectedly powerful 1980 explosion of Washington’s Mount St. Helens.

Such surprises won’t cease, but, said Nooner, the research at Axial could shed light on the the potential behavior of other volcanoes across Earth.

Bottom line: Bill Chadwick of Oregon State University and Scott Nooner of Columbia University were the scientists who spotted the eruption of an underwater volcano at Axial Seamount off the coast of Oregon. It took scientists a few months to detect Axial’s lava flow with the help of an underwater robot named Jason. The team officially “discovered” Axial’s eruption on July 29, 2011.

Beth Lebwohl