January 28, 2017

Exploring underwater volcanoes from down under

Posted by Lauren Lipuma

By Lauren Lipuma

Yesterday, I arrived in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, after a dizzying 30-hour trip from Washington, DC. I exchanged the frigid cold of the US East Coast for the warm 70-degree weather of this tiny island off the coast of Australia. It’s by far the furthest south I have ever been.

What am I doing here? I’m attending the AGU Chapman Conference on submarine volcanism that will take place next week. At this point you may be wondering: what’s a Chapman Conference? And what the heck is submarine volcanism?

AGU Chapman Conferences are small gatherings of 100 or so scientists that meet to discuss a scientific topic in greater depth that can be accomplished at larger meetings. This particular conference is focusing on submarine volcanism – volcanoes under the sea. These volcanoes usually exist where two or more of Earth’s tectonic plates meet. As it turns out, 70 percent of Earth’s volcanoes are hidden beneath the surface of the ocean. These underwater eruptive machines go largely unnoticed by humans but are responsible for three-quarters of Earth’s magma output and can have huge influences on life above and below the ocean.

My path to Tasmania.

Being located at the bottom of the ocean makes submarine volcanoes difficult (and expensive) to study, but scientists have learned a great deal about them over the past few decades. The interesting thing is that scientists who study volcanoes on land – called subaerial volcanoes – usually don’t interact with scientists who study submarine volcanoes, even though both groups study basically the same geological features. The point of this meeting, according to the conveners, is to bring the two groups of scientists together to share their knowledge and hopefully propel the field of submarine volcanism forward.

Seventy percent of Earth’s volcanoes are underwater, but they are poorly understood.
Credit: NOAA/NSF.

The main goals of the conference are to establish a baseline of knowledge about submarine volcanoes and identify the most important questions to focus on in future research. Tasmania is an ideal location for the conference because the island itself was partly formed by ancient volcanoes and researchers at the University of Tasmania have made huge strides in understanding ancient submarine volcanoes over the past two and a half decades.

I’m tagging along with the 100 volcanologists attending the meeting to share their findings with the wider world. Over the next five days, I’ll learn about submarine volcanoes at plate boundaries, volcanic island arcs, lab experiments that simulate underwater eruptions and what’s next for this rapidly growing field. I’ll even go on a field trip to see exposed submarine volcanic rocks around the island and see some of those famous Tasmanian Devils! Follow my explorations here on The Field or on AGU’s social media accounts: twitterFacebook and Instagram.

—Lauren Lipuma is AGU’s public information specialist. She is attending the AGU Chapman Conference on submarine volcanism in Hobart, Tasmania.