NSS Convention ~ July 25-30, 2021

USGS Volcano Image

Submarine Volcanoes

  • By Robert I. Tilling, U.S. Geological Survey
Schematic of a submarine eruption.

Schematic representation of a typical submarine eruption in the open ocean.

Submarine volcanoes and volcanic vents are common features on certain zones of the ocean floor. Some are active at the present time and, in shallow water, disclose their presence by blasting steam and rock-debris high above the surface of the sea. Many others lie at such great depths that the tremendous weight of the water above them results in high, confining pressure and prevents the formation and explosive release of steam and gases. Even very large, deep-water eruptions may not disturb the ocean surface.

The unlimited supply of water surrounding submarine volcanoes can cause them to behave differently from volcanoes on land. Violent, steam-blast eruptions take place when sea water pours into active shallow submarine vents. Lava, erupting onto a shallow sea floor or flowing into the sea from land, may cool so rapidly that it shatters into sand and rubble. The result is the production of huge amounts of fragmental volcanic debris. The famous "black sand" beaches of Hawaii were created virtually instantaneously by the violent interaction between hot lava and sea water. On the other hand, recent observations made from deep-diving submersibles have shown that some submarine eruptions produce flows and other volcanic structures remarkably similar to those formed on land. Recent studies have revealed the presence of spectacular, high temperature hydrothermal plumes and vents (called "smokers") along some parts of the mid-oceanic volcanic rift systems. However, to date, no direct observation has been made of a deep submarine eruption in progress. [Edit: Since this series of articles was written, multiple observations have been made of deep oceanic eruptions.]

NOAA Ocean Today: Deep-ocean Volcanoes

During an explosive submarine eruption in the shallow open ocean, enormous piles of debris are built up around the active volcanic vent. Ocean currents rework the debris in shallow water, while other debris slumps from the upper part of the cone and flows into deep water along the sea floor. Fine debris and ash in the eruptive plume are scattered over a wide area in airborne clouds. Coarse debris in the same eruptive plume rains into the sea and settles on the flanks of the cone. Pumice from the eruption floats on the water and drifts with the ocean currents over a large area.


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