Image: Schmidt Ocean Institute

The West Mata volcanic complex, located near the small island nation of Tonga in the western Pacific, is one of the most unique places on Earth. It’s literally where fire and water meet. Scientists aboard the R/V Falkor are poking around it and exploring a series of 12 underwater volcanoes for the next two weeks in an attempt to unlock its deepest secrets. Doing so could help them unravel a whole host of mysteries from how to improve volcanic eruption predictions, to how the ocean food web works, to what ocean acidification could mean for ecosystems closer to the surface.

“We know much more about volcanoes on land than those in the oceans, yet [about] 75 percent of the volcanic activity on Earth happens (generally unseen and undetected) deep underwater,” Bill Chadwick, the acting head of PMEL’s Earth-Ocean Interactions Program and one of the scientists on board, told Earther in an email from sea. “So it’s an important process on the planet, but one we know relatively little about. Plus, volcanoes are just cool!”

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Hard agree with that last point, Bill.

And this volcano is particularly cool. It’s one of the only places researchers have witnessed an underwater eruption, which happened in 2009 and was recorded on a spectacular video. The volcano produced boninite lava, which is among the hottest lava that currently flows on Earth.

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Cooler still is the use of robots to explore the volcanoes and livestream the expeditions on Facebook, something which Chadwick and his colleagues are doing almost daily. So far, they haven’t seen any eruptions, but they have detected signs of eruptions since 2009. They’ve also happened upon black smokers—underwater volcanic vents—and tons of aquatic life while gathering rock and ash samples from the vents and ocean floor.

All this is being done to answer a few questions. The water around the volcanoes is a weird brew. It’s hot and full of minerals and carbon dioxide. That makes for interesting geologic features and ocean creatures around the vents and could help answer interesting science questions from across the ocean about the food web.

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“From studying life at hydrothermal vents we learn about the limits of life on Earth and potentially on other planets,” Chadwick said. “Hydrothermal vents also emit heat and chemicals into the oceans that effect marine ecosystems.”

Iron in particular plays an important role in the oceanic food chain. It’s the food that fuels plankton, microscopic organisms that feed everything from fish to whales, and getting a handle on if it’s increasing or decreasing could help researchers understand changes higher up the food chain.

All the carbon dioxide also means the water is more acidic, making the region a natural lab for understanding what oceanic acidification will do to sea creatures closer to the surface. Ocean acidification has already wrought huge problems for the Northwest’s shellfish industry and it poses a growing threat to fisheries around the U.S. and the world.

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Despite the acidic waters, sea life is plentiful. Researchers found what their followers have dubbed “shrimp city” by one of the hydrothermal vents. They’ve also seen ghostly white crabs. How these creatures thrive in challenging conditions could unlock clues to help adapt our ecosystems closer to home.

Researchers are also looking at the tectonic plates underlying the region to understand both eruptions and earthquakes. The expedition blog lays out why this area is so geologically unique:

“...two of the plates that make the surface of the Earth meet here, moving very quickly. One of them–the Pacific plate–is the fastest on our planet. Next to it, a smaller microplate is spreading apart and rotating, which is causing it to break. Such conditions, the scientists believe, contribute to much more active volcanism than normal. The oceanic crust is literally being ripped apart, the edge pulling down, wrinkling and ripping, allowing a plethora of simultaneous volcanic activities to take place.”

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Chadwick said being able to observe all these processes in one relatively confined area could yield a treasure trove of data that could help with predicting volcanic eruptions both underwater and on land.

The best part of all this is anyone can go along for the discovery. The researchers are livestreaming much of their work, allowing you and I to get a look at one of the most mysterious places on the planet.

“Having the capability of transmitting live video from the seafloor is rather extraordinary and the immediacy of it helps convey the excitement of doing ocean science,” Chadwick said. “A lot of what we are doing is exploring places we haven’t been before so this gives anyone one who tunes in the chance of sharing in the discoveries.”

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Correction [Dec. 7]: This post has been updated to reflect the expedition is taking place in West Mata, not Niua, which is adjacent to the study area.