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Explosive research

Two University of Otago geologists are taking an unparalleled opportunity to study the biggest explosive submarine volcanic eruption known in history.

Professor James White and PhD student Arran Murch (Department of Geology) are being supported by the Marsden Fund to research the massive 2012 volcanic eruption on the seafloor in the Kermadecs that rivalled the 1980 Mt St Helens eruption on land.

White, who specialises in the study of volcanoes, explains that eruptions to the surface from such depths were unknown, yet this eruption produced a 400-square-kilometre pumice raft and a plume of vapour seen from satellites.

White and Murch were on board a United States-funded research ship in 2015 that launched remote-controlled submarines to produce what White describes as an “amazing” topographical map of the volcano and collect an “extraordinary suite of samples” as big as buckets.

He says that they will be conducting experiments on some of those samples as part of a multinational project that also embraces scientists from the United States, Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom.

“We are going to remelt rocks from the eruption and explode them again to look at the fragments, and then measure the heat transfer and plug that into models to understand how it all works.”

White says that nothing like this eruption's scale, information about it, or intensive multinational follow-up study, has occurred with previous explosive submarine eruptions, and the study will gain a rigorous understanding of how explosive volcanism operates in the deep sea.

Photo: Graham Warman
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