National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2001

Direct observation of a submarine volcanic eruption from a sea-floor instrument caught in a lava flow

Fox, C.G., W.W. Chadwick, Jr., and R.W. Embley

Nature, 412, 727–729, doi: 10.1038/35089066 (2001)

Our understanding of submarine volcanic eruptions has improved substantially in the past decade owing to the recent ability to remotely detect such events and to then respond rapidly with synoptic surveys and sampling at the eruption site. But these data are necessarily limited to observations after the event. In contrast, the 1998 eruption of Axial volcano on the Juan de Fuca ridge was monitored by in situ sea-floor instruments. One of these instruments, which measured bottom pressure as a proxy for vertical deformation of the sea floor, was overrun and entrapped by the 1998 lava flow. The instrument survived—being insulated from the molten lava by the solidified crust—and was later recovered. The data serendipitously recorded by this instrument reveal the duration, character and effusion rate of a sheet flow eruption on a mid-ocean ridge, and document over three meters of lava-flow inflation and subsequent drain-back. After the brief two-hour eruption, the instrument also measured gradual subsidence of 1.4 meters over the next several days, reflecting deflation of the entire volcano summit as magma moved into the adjacent rift zone. These findings are consistent with our understanding of submarine lava effusion, as previously inferred from seafloor observations, terrestrial analogues, and laboratory simulations.

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