"The Ring of Fire
The "Ring of Fire" is a circular arc of active volcanoes that surrounds the Pacific Ocean basin. Much is known about the volcanoes on land within the Ring of Fire (for example, in the Aleutians, the Cascades, the Andes, etc.), but comparatively little is known about the submarine volcanoes, simply because they are underwater and more difficult to observe. This multi-year project aims to explore submarine volcanoes within the Ring of Fire in two very different tectonic settings on either side of the Pacific—one in which new seafloor is created and the other in which old seafloor is destroyed.
Volcanoes and Plate Tectonics
The Earth is covered with "tectonic plates" that are in constant motion over the partially molten interior. Almost all the volcanoes on Earth occur where tectonic plates are either moving apart or are moving together. Where tectonic plates are moving apart, molten rock—magma—rises up from deep within the Earth to fill the gap, and in doing so, creates new ocean floor. The boundaries between separating plates are called "spreading centers" or "mid-ocean ridges." They are the sites of frequent submarine volcanic eruptions. Explorer Ridge in the northeast Pacific, which was the focus of the first year of this project in 2002, is an example of a mid-ocean ridge.
|Kavachi Seamount 5/14/2000|
Volcanoes in these two different settings have very different characteristics. Mid-ocean ridge volcanoes tend to be linear and look like long low ridges, whereas arc volcanoes are cone-shaped, centralized, and isolated. Mid-ocean ridge volcanoes also have more primitive lava compositions because the lava comes more or less directly from the Earth's interior without changing much.
On the other hand, the lava that reaches arc volcanoes rises through a longer path from its source region to the surface. So its composition can be significantly changed along the way. This difference in compositions is reflected in the fact that mid-ocean ridge eruptions are generally non-explosive, whereas arc eruptions often are explosive.
Volcanoes, Hydrothermal Vents, and Life
Seafloor hot springs called "hydrothermal vents" are common in areas where submarine volcanoes bring hot magma near the seafloor or erupt lava at the surface. Seawater that circulates deep within a submarine volcano gets heated before it returns to the seafloor. Hydrothermal vent fluid is rich in dissolved chemicals, and these hot springs support a unique ecosystem of microorganisms and animals that is independent of sunlight. Biotech companies are particularly interested in the heat-tolerant microbes that live on and below the seafloor at submarine volcanoes because they have novel enzymes that may be useful for creating new medicines. Because the DNA of organisms living at seafloor hot springs is very primitive, some scientist believe that life on Earth may have originated at deep-sea hydrothermal vents on submarine volcanoes."
Image caption: "In contrast to relatively gentle eruption of basaltic submarine volcanoes, island arc volcanoes often erupt lavas with a higher silica content and more dissolved gases. When such lavas erupt at the lowered pressure at the earth's surface, the effect is similar to opening a warm soda bottle. Consequently, eruptions of these volcanoes tend to have more explosive volcanic activity such as seen in this photograph of a shallow submarine eruption at Kavachi Seamount on May 14, 2000. Little is known about what deeper submarine eruptions of this type would look like. Courtesy of Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Corporation (CSIRO). For more information, visit the Global Volcanism Program Image courtesy of Submarine Ring of Fire 2002, NOAA/OER.".