Submarine Volcanoes Group

David Clague, Principal Investigator (Senior Adjunct)

Narrow lava pillars support the thin roof of a drained lobate sheet flow near the fissure for a flow of the 2015 eruption at Axial Seamount.

Narrow lava pillars support the thin roof of a drained lobate sheet flow near the fissure for a flow of the 2015 eruption at Axial Seamount.

What processes form and modify volcanoes in the sea?

Volcanic eruptions and flank collapses are significant geologic hazards. While volcanic events and deposits in the ocean are largely concealed from view and more difficult to sample than volcanoes on land, submarine volcanoes are an integral part of the way the Earth works and may cause destructive tsunami.

The roles of mid-ocean ridges in plate tectonics and hydrothermal circulation are concepts that were only discovered in the last half century. We are now learning how often the ridges erupt, how big those eruptions are and how explosive they might be, and how much they contribute to global gas and mineral cycles. The Alarcon Rise and recent eruptions at Axial Seamount have been of particular focus.

The seamounts offshore of California, such as Davidson Seamount within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, were slowly built over abandoned mid-ocean spreading ridges. They now offer rocky habitat for dense populations of deep-sea corals and sponges, high above the muddy abyssal plain. Near-ridge seamounts are chains of seamounts that formed off-axis of spreading ridges. They are influenced by ridge processes but have large calderas so might be capable of especially violent behavior.

Hot spot mantle plumes have built many of the thousands of seamounts and islands in the ocean, which are important for species biodiversity, fisheries and other human uses. They can also produce destructive eruptions and landslides.

Why are we studying submarine volcanoes?

Our goal is to better understand volcanic processes in the deep sea environment and gain insight into potentially destructive eruptions on land or in shallow water. We are studying:

  • Styles of volcanic eruptions at varying depths and lava compositions
  • Frequency and volume of mid-ocean ridge eruptions
  • Explosive volcanism in the deep sea
  • Submarine landslides and the structure of the flanks of volcanoes
  • Evolution of hydrothermal systems
  • Plio-Pleistocene paleoclimatic history recorded in drowned coral reefs
  • Origin and evolution of oceanic volcanoes
  • Biogeography of ocean islands and submarine volcanoes

How do we study submarine volcanoes?

Most mid-ocean ridges and seamounts lie far below sunlit and SCUBA-accessible depths. At MBARI, our group uses remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) for sampling and video observations and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to map the seafloor at resolutions of 1 m or better.

Please note that our AUV mapping data is being archived in the public domain at the Marine Geoscience Data System (MGDS). Our rock samples are archived at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and at the Smithsonian’s American Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

Mid-ocean ridges

The great majority of the Earth's volcanism occurs at spreading centers, most of which are under the ocean, forming the mid-ocean ridge system where new ocean crust is being created.


The seamounts (submerged mountains) off California and some chains near mid-ocean spreading ridges are not of the usual hot spot or subduction arc origin. Near-ridge seamounts erupted near the axes of mid-ocean ridges onto recently formed oceanic crust. The seamounts off California erupted on top of abandoned ridges.

Margin processes

Our continental margin is being deformed by the generally strike-slip motion of the San Andreas fault, as the Pacific plate moves north-west relative to the North American plate, carrying the sliver of coastal California with it.

Hot spot research

The Hawaiian Islands and Emperor Seamount chain of volcanoes are the product of a mantle hot spot in the middle of the Pacific Plate.

Submarine volcanism cruises

Our research takes us to places such as Hawaii, the Gorda Ridge, the Alarcon Ridge in the Gulf of California, and the seamounts off California.

Volcanoes resources

Links to MBARI video and news stories related to our work and other on-line resources on plate tectonics, volcanoes, and earthquakes.




Upper-ocean systems
Acoustical ocean ecology
Acoustic instruments
Acoustic fingerprinting
Acoustic community ecology
Acoustics in the news
Biological oceanography
Global modes of sea surface temperature
Krill hotspots in the California Current
Nitrate supply estimates in upwelling systems
Chemical sensors
Chemical data
Land/Ocean Biogeochemical Observatory in Elkhorn Slough
Listing of floats
SOCCOM float visualization
Periodic table of elements in the ocean
Biogeochemical-Argo Report
Profiling float
Interdisciplinary field experiments
Ecogenomic Sensing
Genomic sensors
Field experiments
Harmful algal blooms (HABs)
Water quality
Environmental Sample Processor (ESP)
ESP Web Portal
In the news
Ocean observing system
Midwater research
Midwater ecology
Deep-sea squids and octopuses
Food web dynamics
Midwater time series
Respiration studies
Zooplankton biodiversity
Seafloor processes
Revealing the secrets of Sur Ridge
Exploring Sur Ridge’s coral gardens
Life at Sur Ridge
Mapping Sur Ridge
Biology and ecology
Effects of humans
Ocean acidification, warming, deoxygenation
Lost shipping container study
Effects of upwelling
Faunal patterns
Previous research
Technology development
High-CO2 / low-pH ocean
Benthic respirometer system
Climate change in extreme environments
Station M: A long-term observatory on the abyssal seafloor
Station M long-term time series
Monitoring instrumentation suite
Sargasso Sea research
Antarctic research
Geological changes
Arctic Shelf Edge
Continental Margins and Canyon Dynamics
Coordinated Canyon Experiment
CCE instruments
CCE repeat mapping data
Monterey Canyon: A Grand Canyon beneath the waves
Submarine volcanoes
Mid-ocean ridges
Magmatic processes
Volcanic processes
Explosive eruptions
Hydrothermal systems
Back arc spreading ridges
Near-ridge seamounts
Continental margin seamounts
Non-hot-spot linear chains
Eclectic seamounts topics
Margin processes
Hydrates and seeps
California borderland
Hot spot research
Hot-spot plumes
Magmatic processes
Volcanic processes
Explosive eruptions
Volcanic hazards
Hydrothermal systems
Flexural arch
Coral reefs
ReefGrow software
Eclectic topics
Submarine volcanism cruises
Volcanoes resources
Areas of study
Bioluminescence: Living light in the deep sea
Microscopic biology research
Open ocean biology research
Seafloor biology research
Automated chemical sensors
Methane in the seafloor
Volcanoes and seamounts
Hydrothermal vents
Methane in the seafloor
Submarine canyons
Earthquakes and landslides
Ocean acidification
Physical oceanography and climate change
Ocean circulation and algal blooms
Ocean cycles and climate change
Past research
Molecular ecology
Molecular systematics
SIMZ Project
Bone-eating worms
Gene flow and dispersal
Molecular-ecology expeditions
Ocean chemistry of greenhouse gases
Emerging science of a high CO2/low pH ocean
Submarine Volcanism Publications
Breusing, C., Johnson, S.B., Tunnicliffe, V., Clague, D.A., Vrijenhoek, R.C., Beinart, R.A., (2020). Both allopatric and ecological processes contribute to speciation in Alviniconcha hydrothermal vent snail. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 37: .
Clague, D.A., Martin, J.F., Paduan, J.B., Butterfield, D.A., Jamieson, J.W., Le Saout, M., Caress, D.W., Thomas, H., Holden, J.F., Kelley, D.S., (2020). Hydrothermal chimney distribution on the Endeavour Segment, Juan de Fuca Ridge. Geochemistry Geophysics Geosystems, 21: 1-12.
Clague, D.A., Paduan, J.B., Caress, D.W., McClain, J., Zierenberg, R.A., (2020). Lava flows erupted in 1996 on North Gorda Ridge Segment and the geology of the nearby Sea Cliff Hydrothermal Vent Field From 1-M resolution AUV mapping. Frontiers in Marine Science, 7: 1-25.
Full publications list