UNCW Associate Professor Authors "Science" Journal Paper about Axial Seamount, a Nearly Mile-High Undersea Volcano

Friday, December 16, 2016

Research conducted by UNC Wilmington and Oregon State University geologists may provide scientists more insight into the workings of volcanoes.

In September 2014, UNCW associate professor Scott Nooner, Oregon State professor William Chadwick and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) successfully forecast the eruption of underwater volcano Axial Seamount. The submarine volcano, located about 300 miles off the coast of Oregon and Washington, erupted in 2015.

The geologists based their forecast on some of their previous research, which showed how the volcano inflates and deflates like a balloon in a repeatable pattern as it responds to magma being fed into the seamount.

Nooner served as the first author of a paper about their findings presented in Science, a top international scientific journal. Their research, also featured in a second Science paper and a paper in Geophysical Research Letters, was released at the annual American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting held Dec. 12 -16 in San Francisco. 

“Axial Seamount is a great natural place to study volcanic systems as it has a relatively simple structure and erupts frequently. It is also relatively close to land making it easy to get to and yet does not pose a risk to people,” said Nooner, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences and a researcher at the UNCW Center for Marine Science.

The research incorporates data collected by the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) Cabled Array, funded by the National Science Foundation, that came online just prior to the eruption, said Nooner. This observatory will allow scientists to monitor the volcano in real time, improving forecasting abilities in the future.

The National Science Foundation’s OOI Cabled Array, launched in late 2014, expands and builds upon past observation networks, adding a state-of-the-art seafloor observatory with monitoring instruments that provide real-time, high-resolution data transmitted by fiber optic cable. Scientists were able to forecast the eruption due to consistent monitoring at Axial Seamount for almost two decades.

“This work represents a first step for understanding the behavior of the magmatic system underlying the volcano,” Nooner added. “I hope to see this work continue to provide insights into the volcanic system at Axial and eventually around the world. We hope to eventually use what we learn at Axial Seamount to better understand the behavior of other volcanoes all over the globe. I am currently studying volcanos and faulting in eastern Africa, and I’m hoping to start working in the volcanic Aleutian Islands.”

Axial Seamount, the most active submarine volcano in the northeast Pacific Ocean, has erupted at least three times, in 1998, 2011 and most recently in 2015. The U.S. Navy and NOAA’s PMEL have a long history of observing the underwater volcano. NOAA/PMEL established the NeMO seafloor observatory at Axial seamount in 1996, and collaborators at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute joined the research effort in 2006.

-Venita Jenkins