Submarine Volcanism

(Image credited to Anthony Watts, University of Oxford)

Most volcanism on Earth occurs beneath the oceans, but submarine volcanoes are difficult to study. Advances in seafloor monitoring have opened up an unprecedented view of eruptions on the seabed. In this web focus we present opinion pieces and research articles that document the cycle of inflation and deflation, lava flows, and growth and collapse of two volcanoes beneath the Pacific Ocean during eruptions in 2011.


News and Views

Submarine volcanism: Hot, cracking rocks deep down pp444-445

Neil Mitchell


Most volcanism on Earth takes place under water, yet little is known about submarine eruptions. Monitoring of two volcanic seamounts beneath the Pacific Ocean reveals the pulsed nature of their eruption cycles.



Seafloor deformation and forecasts of the April 2011 eruption at Axial Seamount pp474-477

William W. Chadwick Jr, Scott L. Nooner, David A. Butterfield & Marvin D. Lilley


The Axial Seamount submarine volcano exhibits an inflation–deflation cycle comparable to similar volcanoes on land. Measurements of ocean bottom pressure document the entire inflation–deflation cycle between eruptions at Axial Seamount in 1998 and 2011, and imply that the timing of submarine eruptions could be more predictable than that of their subaerial counterparts.

Seismic precursors and magma ascent before the April 2011 eruption at Axial Seamount pp478-482

R. P. Dziak, J. H. Haxel, D. R. Bohnenstiehl, W. W. Chadwick Jr, S. L. Nooner, M. J. Fowler, H. Matsumoto & D. A. Butterfield


For volcanoes at submarine rift zones, a direct link between seismicity, seafloor deformation and magma intrusion has not been demonstrated. Recordings from ocean-bottom hydrophones and bottom-pressure recorders map an increasing rate of seismicity at Axial Seamount, northeast Pacific, over several years before its eruption in April 2011.

Repeat bathymetric surveys at 1-metre resolution of lava flows erupted at Axial Seamount in April 2011 pp483-488

David W. Caress, David A. Clague, Jennifer B. Paduan, Julie F. Martin, Brian M. Dreyer, William W. Chadwick Jr, Alden Denny & Deborah S. Kelley


At frequently active submarine volcanoes, it is difficult to distinguish between new and pre-existing lava flows. A combination of high-resolution bathymetric surveys taken before and after an eruption at Axial Seamount in 2011 allows detailed mapping of the 2011 lava flows, and highlights the tendency of new flows to mimic older ones.



Rapid rates of growth and collapse of Monowai submarine volcano in the Kermadec Arc pp510-515

A. B. Watts, C. Peirce, I. Grevemeyer, M. Paulatto, W. Stratford, D. Bassett, J. A. Hunter, L. M. Kalnins & C. E. J. de Ronde


The vast majority of Earth's volcanoes are under water, but little is known of the structure and evolution of submarine volcanoes. A bathymetric survey mapping the Monowai submarine volcano in the Tonga–Kermadec Arc twice within 14 days reveals dramatic changes in bathymetry of up to 71.9 m, associated with volcanic activity.


From the archives


News and Views

Volcanology: Carbon below the sea floor

David Goldberg


Magma from the mantle meets the ocean at seafloor spreading centres. At young rifts, basalt sills may heat overlying sediments and induce natural carbon release; basalt flows elsewhere may offer secure reservoirs for sequestration of anthropogenic carbon.

Submarine volcanism: Deeply explosive

Richard Arculus


Volcanic activity is much more common beneath the oceans than on land, yet has been observed only rarely. Direct measurements of an eruption in the southwest Pacific Ocean reveal unexpectedly explosive activity at great depths.



Ring of fire


Verena Tunnicliffe, Robert W. Embley and their colleagues sank their remotely operated vehicle into a boiling pool of molten sulphur in their vigour to sample the deep ocean floor.



Survival of mussels in extremely acidic waters on a submarine volcano

Verena Tunnicliffe, Kimberley T. A. Davies, David A. Butterfield, Robert W. Embley, Jonathan M. Rose & William W. Chadwick Jr


Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are causing ocean acidification, compromising the ability of some marine organisms to build and maintain support structures. An analysis of mussels from a submarine volcano setting with natural low-pH conditions shows low shell thicknesses and growth rates, but survival over up to four decades.

The role of magma injection in localizing black-smoker activity

William S. D. Wilcock, Emilie E. E. Hooft, Douglas R. Toomey, Paul R. McGill, Andrew H. Barclay, Debra S. Stakes & Tony M. Ramirez


The mechanisms for localization of black-smoker systems at mid-ocean ridges remain to be fully understood. Seismic data for a segment of the Juan de Fuca ridge with long-lived black-smoker vents reveal ongoing magma recharge into the crustal magma chamber, thereby providing an explanation for the localization.

Carbon release by off-axis magmatism in a young sedimented spreading centre

Daniel Lizarralde, S. Adam Soule, Jeff S. Seewald & Giora Proskurowski


Continental rifting creates narrow ocean basins, where coastal ocean upwelling and enhanced silicate weathering remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Evidence from seismic data, sonar backscatter and seafloor images, and geochemical water analyses suggest that in young sedimented rifts, active magmatism occurs in a broader region than appreciated and releases carbon from the sediments.

Explosive eruptions at mid-ocean ridges driven by CO2-rich magmas

Christoph Helo, Marc-Antoine Longpré, Nobumichi Shimizu, David A. Clague & John Stix


Volcanism at mid-ocean ridges is usually effusive, but some explosive eruptions have been documented. Measurement of the carbon dioxide content of lavas erupted at the Juan de Fuca Ridge, Pacific Ocean, indicate that elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide in the upper oceanic mantle could drive these explosive eruptions.



Young off-axis volcanism along the ultraslow-spreading Southwest Indian Ridge

Jared J. Standish & Kenneth W. W. Sims


Mid-ocean ridges grow through tectonic and volcanic processes. Uranium-series dating of volcanic rocks at the ultraslow-spreading Southwest Indian Ridge reveals widely dispersed, young, off-axis volcanism that is spatially coincident with fault surfaces. Faults may therefore provide a mechanism for the wide dispersal of magma at ultraslow-spreading ridges.

Active submarine eruption of boninite in the northeastern Lau Basin

Joseph A. Resing, Kenneth H. Rubin, Robert W. Embley, John E. Lupton, Edward T. Baker, Robert P. Dziak, Tamara Baumberger, Marvin D. Lilley, Julie A. Huber, Timothy M. Shank, David A. Butterfield, David A. Clague, Nicole S. Keller, Susan G. Merle, Nathaniel J. Buck, Peter J. Michael, Adam Soule, David W. Caress, Sharon L. Walker, Richard Davis, James P. Cowen, Anna-Louise Reysenbach & Hans Thomas


Boninite lavas are erupted during the early stages of subduction, however they have previously been found only in the ancient geological record. Discovery of an active boninite eruption shows that abundant volatile gases derived from the subducting slab drive this violent eruptive activity, even in the deep sea.

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