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Underwater Volcano Off The Northwest Coast Could Erupt In Weeks

(Source: NOAA/National Science Foundation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geology is fascinating and terrifying for many reasons. There’s so much to be learned from the history of the planet, beyond what we can see on the surface. Understanding the various ways that the earth was formed and changed helps to understand the ways that the planet will change in the future, and allows for some warnings of future directions the weather might turn.

Volcanoes as Forces of Nature

Volcanoes are one of those forces of nature that makes itself known in a big way, and terrifies those without an understanding of what they are. Volcanoes are mountains, yes, but they are mountains that lead down into the depths of the earth.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Volcanoes, in simple terms, act like vents for the planet. They are small openings in the Earth’s mantle that allow magma from underneath the crust to boil up to the surface, and when the molten rock breaches onto the surface, it rapidly cools and turns into the form that we know as lava.

Important Geologic Events

Volcanic eruptions have held very important roles in the past. It’s believed that some extinction events on the planet have been driven by volcanic activity, and the climate change that can come afterwards. They also provide an opportunity to understand how new earth is formed.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lava is simply molten rock that boils up from underneath the surface of the earth, and when it comes into contact with the surface, the air rapidly cools the rock and allows it to turn into a more significant, malleable form. The soil and earth that is formed from volcanic rock is incredibly fertile, as well as incredibly sturdy.

Hawaii Formed by Volcanoes

For instance, the state of Hawaii was once formed due to volcanic activity. The various islands that make up the Hawaiian archipelago are the result of magma erupting from the middle of the tectonic plate below. This is a phenomenon called a “hot spot” in geology.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Due to the fact that the hot spot is in the middle of the tectonic plate below, rather than erupting between tectonic plates as is more common, the hot spot moves. This explains why the Hawaiian archipelago is made up of more than 100 tiny islands and surfaces; the constantly moving hot spot underneath is always creating new ones.

Study to Mitigate Disaster

Volcanic eruptions are incredibly important for geologists to study, especially when examining ways to mitigate future disaster. One such disaster that is still being studied and understood is the massive eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s in Washington, which is still one of the most significant American geological events after nearly 50 years.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mt. St. Helen’s erupted in 1980, when a series of volcanic explosions and pyroclastic flows began at the mountain. A series of blasts occurred from the summit and escalated, until a major explosive eruption, which was rated a 5 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index.

The First Major Eruption in Decades

The Mt. St. Helen’s eruption was the first to take place in the United States since the much smaller eruption of Lassen Peak in California, which took place in 1915. And, though it’s been more than forty years since the explosion, it is still declared to be the most disastrous volcanic eruption in United States history.

Source: Paleontological Research Institution

The eruption was preceded by a two-month series of earthquakes and steam-venting episodes, which were caused by an injection of magma at shallow depth below the volcano. This created a large bulge, and a fracture system on the mountain’s north slope that was ultimately the place where the mountain exploded, letting out massive quantities of magma and ash into the air.

Averting Future Disaster

Understanding the why of the Mt. St. Helen’s explosion is crucial for scientists who want to avoid a major disaster like it in the future. The aftermath of the explosion was significant in how it affected the landscape as well as people’s lives, given that 57 people were killed in the eruption and more than $1.1 billion ($3.3 billion in 2022 dollars) was estimated to be the cost of the damages.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

With other major climate events occurring with greater and greater frequency around the country, there are many scientists that believe that it’s possible that the earth will see an uptick in volcanic activity. Washington is, yet again, the focus of recent research into volcanic activity, though this activity is nowhere near as destructive as the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption.

A “Swarm” of Earthquakes

A “great swarm” of earthquakes that has been detected by scientists in recent days is raising alarm bells over the possibility of more volcanic activity sometime in the future. The earthquakes are taking place off the coast of Washington, and scientists have clocked as many as 200 micro-earthquakes in one hour in recent days.

Source: Flickr/Mike Lyvers

Scientists at the University of Washington have stated that it’s possible that the quakes could lead to the Juan de Fuca Ridge erupting within a few weeks or years. If the volcano does erupt, though, it’s likely to be mild and not affect anybody’s life in any significant way.

The Juan de Fuca Ridge

The Juan de Fuca Ridge is a volcano that sits more than 16,000 feet beneath the Pacific ocean, and about 150 miles off the coast of Washington. It is a mid-ocean spreading center and divergent plate boundary, and runs generally northward.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Scientists have observed a significant uptick in geologic activity regarding the ridge in recent days. More than 1000 tiny earthquakes were detected in one day as scientists watched, and it is this pattern of increasing behavior that leads the geologists to believe that an eruption of the volcano is on the horizon, sooner rather than later.

Unique Research Opportunities

An eruption of this particular volcano would provide researchers with some unique opportunities. It would allow them, through the data collected, to understand how Earth’s crust formed over time by cooled magma.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The process would occur through a geologic event which is called a “magmatic rupture.” This is when the Earth’s crust splits open for some reason, and spills molten rock out to help form new ocean floor. It is a natural phenomena that scientists don’t often have the luxury of observing in real time.

How Underwater Volcanoes Work

When lava spills up from a crack in the Earth’s crust, it also heats up the water around it. It’s likely that this sudden influx of heat will make the ocean boil and fizz, much like a soda whose can has been shaken and then suddenly opened.

Source: Sciworthy

As the lava hardens, it reveals a new layer of seafloor. This process gives an explanation for how the earth’s crust first formed, and though scientists have been studying this spot for approximately 30 years, this is the first opportunity that’s been provided to see the creation of new seafloor in real time.

Understanding Sea Life Around Underwater Volcanoes

The Juan de Fuca Ridge offers other unique opportunities for research as well. In addition to the chance to observe the creation of seafloor firsthand – with sound and temperature recording equipment for the very first time – the seafloor vents also create a harsh environment that has created strange sea life to study.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

All of the new equipment that scientists can use to study the ridge and the vents that make it up are in addition to the seismographs that have been in place since the last undersea eruption at the site, which occurred from 1999 to 2005.

A Multi-Decade Event

Researchers expect this particular event to occur approximately every 20 years. “We can use earthquake activity to track the level of built-up stress at the Endeavor segment in real-time using seismic data provided by Ocean Networks Canada,” said Zoe Krauss, a marine seismology PhD candidate at the University of Washington.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

She concluded, “The NEPTUNE observatory dataset has allowed us to observe significant increases in earthquake rates over the last few years.” The instruments allow for new understanding of the seismic activity, compared to the last eruption which only had seismometers to detect the shaking of the earth in anticipation of the eruption.

The Public Won’t Be Affected

Despite the importance of this particular geologic event, the researchers studying the ridge have been quick to assure the public that this is not something that will affect their lives in any major way. It’s very likely that those on land won’t even sense the eruption, and the only importance it will have will be for the researchers.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

With all of that known, though, this is still an incredibly important time for geologic observation. Understanding how the Earth was formed is crucial for addressing some of the ways that human activity has impacted the planet, and the seafloor is as good a place to start with that research as any.

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James Cross

Written by James Cross

James Cross, an enigmatic writer from the historic city of Boston. James' writing delves into mysteries, true crime, and the unexplained, crafting compelling narratives that keep readers and viewers on the edge of their seats. His viral articles, blog posts, and documentary-style videos explore real-life enigmas and unsolved cases, inviting audiences to join the quest for answers. James' ability to turn real mysteries into shareable content has made him a sensation in the world of storytelling.

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