Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Submarine Volcanism
Back arc spreading ridges

Active eruption in the Lau Basin

Behind the trench and volcanic arc of a subduction zone, the lithosphere may stretch and extend and volcanic spreading centers may develop. Such a back arc setting is found in the Lau Basin, behind the Tonga Trench in the South Pacific. West Mata is one of two volcanoes in the Lau Basin that were explored and sampled with the ROV Jason2 and mapped with the MBARI Mapping AUV in May 2009. It lies to the NE of the zone of back arc spreading, between it and the well-established volcanic arc, and may be where a new volcanic arc is beginning to form. Active eruptions were occurring near the summit of the volcano. Lavas with the unusual, ultramafic chemistry of boninite were collected. Explosive bursts were observed close up, which was rather exciting, and the formation of vesicular lava fragments and of pillow lavas cascading from the vent were also recorded with the ROV.

Axial Volcano
An active eruption at West Mata Volcano was observed, sampled, and mapped in 2009.
Journal cover © Nature 2011

Our research at back arc spreading ridges

Mapping an active volcano

WEST MATA - High-resolution (1.5 m) mapping from the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) D. Allan B. of West Mata Volcano in the northern Lau Basin is used to identify the processes that construct and modify the volcano. The surface consists largely of volcaniclastic debris that forms smooth slopes to the NW and SE, with smaller lava flows forming gently sloping plateaus concentrated along the ENE and WSW rift zones, and more elongate flows radiating from the summit. Two active volcanic vents, Prometheus and Hades, are located ∼50 and ∼150 m WSW of the 1159 m summit, respectively, and are slightly NW of the ridgeline so the most abundant clastic deposits are emplaced on the NW flank. This eruptive activity and the location of vents appears to have been persistent for more than a decade, based on comparison of ship-based bathymetric surveys in 1996 and 2008–2010, which show positive depth changes up to 96 m on the summit and north flank of the volcano. The widespread distribution of clastic deposits downslope from the rift zones, as well as from the current vents, suggests that pyroclastic activity occurs at least as deep as 2200 m. The similar morphology of additional nearby volcanoes suggests that they too have abundant pyroclastic deposits.

Reference: Clague, D. A., J. B. Paduan, D. W. Caress, H. Thomas, W. W. Chadwick, Jr., and S. G. Merle (2011), Volcanic morphology of West Mata Volcano, NE Lau Basin, based on high-resolution bathymetry and depth changes, Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 12, QOAF03, doi:10.1029/2011GC003791. [Article]

Active eruption of boninite

WEST MATA - Subduction of oceanic crust and the formation of volcanic arcs above the subduction zone are important components in Earth's geological and geochemical cycles. Subduction consumes and recycles material from the oceanic plates, releasing fluids and gases that enhance magmatic activity, feed hydrothermal systems, generate ore deposits and nurture chemosynthetic biological communities. Among the first lavas to erupt at the surface from a nascent subduction zone are a type classified as boninites. These lavas contain information about the early stages of subduction, yet because most subduction systems on Earth are old and well-established, boninite lavas have previously only been observed in the ancient geological record. Here we observe and sample an active boninite eruption occurring at 1,200m depth at the West Mata submarine volcano in the northeast Lau Basin, southwest Pacific Ocean. We find that large volumes of H2O, CO2 and sulphur are emitted, which we suggest are derived from the subducting slab. These volatiles drive explosive eruptions that fragment rocks and generate abundant incandescent magma-skinned bubbles and pillow lavas. The eruption has been ongoing for at least 2.5 years and we conclude that this boninite eruption is a multi-year, low-mass-transfer-rate eruption. Thus the Lau Basin may provide an important site for the long-term study of submarine volcanic eruptions related to the early stages of subduction.

Reference: Resing, J.A., K.H. Rubin, R.W. Embley, J.E. Lupton, E.T. Baker, R.P. Dziak, T. Baumberger, M.D. Lilley, J.A. Huber, T.M. Shank, D.A. Butterfield, D.A. Clague, N.S. Keller, S.G. Merle, N.J. Buck, P.J. Michael, A. Soule, D.W. Caress, S.L. Walker, R. Davis, J.P. Cowen, A.-L. Reysenbach, H. Thomas (2011) Active submarine eruption of boninite in the northeastern Lau Basin. Nature Geoscience 4:799-806. doi:10.1038/NGEO1275.

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Last updated: Jun. 18, 2014