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Rapid rates of growth and collapse of Monowai submarine volcano in the Kermadec Arc


Most of Earth’s volcanoes are under water. As a result of their relative inaccessibility, little is known of the structure and evolution of submarine volcanoes. Advances in navigation and sonar imaging techniques have made it possible to map submarine volcanoes in detail, and repeat surveys allow the identification of regions where the depth of the sea floor is actively changing. Here we report the results of a bathymetric survey of Monowai submarine volcano in the Tonga–Kermadec Arc, which we mapped twice within 14 days. We found marked differences in bathymetry between the two surveys, including an increase in seafloor depth up to 18.8 m and a decrease in depth up to 71.9 m. We attribute the depth increase to collapse of the volcano summit region and the decrease to growth of new lava cones and debris flows. Hydroacoustic T-wave data reveal a 5-day-long swarm of seismic events with unusually high amplitude between the surveys, which directly link the depth changes to explosive activity at the volcano. The collapse and growth rates implied by our data are extremely high, compared with measured long-term growth rates of the volcano, demonstrating the pulsating nature of submarine volcanism and highlighting the dynamic nature of the sea floor.

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Figure 1: Regional bathymetric map of the Monowai Volcanic Centre showing the cone and caldera.
Figure 2: Detailed bathymetric maps of Monowai Cone as it appeared in September 2004, May 2007 and May–June 2011.
Figure 3: Perspective views of the bathymetry of the summit of Monowai Cone with time.
Figure 4: Time-series plots of hydroacoustic T-wave data recorded at Rarotonga (IRIS station RAR, IU network) spanning the R/V SONNE repeat swath bathymetric surveys of 14 May and 1–2 June.
Figure 5: Swath bathymetry of the summit of Monowai Cone as it appeared on 14 May and 1–2 June 2011.
Figure 6: Progressive southward growth of the south flank of Monowai Cone and the rate of volcanism.


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We are grateful to the Captain L. Mallon and the officers and crew of R/V SONNE for their help at sea. M. Grossmann and R. Angermann processed the swath bathymetry data at sea. B. Scott and K. Fenaughty (GNS) provided frequent updates of T-wave data at Rarotonga, M. Clark and G. Lamarche (NIWA) encouraged us to undertake a new survey of Monowai and N. Mitchell (Manchester) provided helpful comments on a first draft of the paper. The figures were constructed using GMT (ref. 25), MB-System (ref. 24) and Fledermaus and the project was financially supported by UK Natural Environment Research Council grant NE/F005318/1.

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A.B.W. led the field survey. C.P. co-led the field survey. I.G. and C.E.J.d.R. collaborated on the field survey. D.B. assisted in swath bathymetry and T-wave data processing and participated in the field survey. M.P. assisted in backscatter data processing and participated in the field survey. W.S., J.A.H. and L.M.K. participated in the field survey. A.B.W. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to A. B. Watts.

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Watts, A., Peirce, C., Grevemeyer, I. et al. Rapid rates of growth and collapse of Monowai submarine volcano in the Kermadec Arc. Nature Geosci 5, 510–515 (2012).

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