Audio/Video, Hardware

ROV records volcano erupting on ocean floor

Molten lava spewing into the ocean from an underwater volcano has been recorded on video for the very first time. An ROV [Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle] named Jason was 1,220 meters [4,000 feet] below the ocean surface roughly 500 kilometers [310 miles] east of Fiji Islands. A high definition [HD] camera was used to capture still and video images.

Jason I was exploring West Mata Volcano. Picture Credit: WHOI
Jason I was exploring eruption of West Mata Volcano in South Pacific. Picture Credit: WHOI

Probe from Jason I captures data from an underwater volcano outlet. Picture Credit: WHOIA photo provided by WHOI [Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution] and the funding organization, the National Science Foundation, shows approximately six feet of an eruptive area approximately the length of a football field.

Scientists have been able to monitor and hear sea floor eruptions for more than a decade, but have been unable to get to the site in time to view the event before. The ROV helped scientists at WHOI obtain views just a few feet from the glowing hot lava explosion. The HD video which captured the images operates up to 7,000 meters under the surface, so don’t go looking for the system in a local store. This is a custom-built camera that can take anywhere from 30-60 still images per second [depending on the environmental lighting], as well as 30 frames per second video with its high definition sensor when equipped with a zoom lens. As you can see in the picture on the right, Jason I deployed a probe that collected invaluable information about this volcanic eruption, in an environment where no human could survive.

Jason I - ROVJason/Medea was designed and built by WHOI?s Deep Submergence Laboratory. The equipment is a two-body ROV system. A 6 mile [10-kilometer] fiber-optic tether delivers electrical power and commands from the ship through Medea and to Jason. Jason, in turn, sends back data and live video imagery. Medea acts as a shock absorber, to buffer Jason from the ship?s movements. She also provides lighting and an overview of the ROV while exploring the sea floor.

Similar to ROVs that are common in the oil and gas industries, Jason and Medea, named for the Greek mythology ocean adventurer and his snake-haired wife, was the first ROV system to be adopted and used extensively by ocean researchers.

Jason I, first launched in 1988, has sonar imagers, water samplers, the video and still cameras, and manipulator arms. He collects rock samples, sediment and marine life, and puts then in a basket or platform that floats samples to the surface. Controlled by pilots and scientists on board the research vessel, Thomas G. ThompsonJason usually stays down for almost 24 hours. His prototype, Jason Jr. gained fame investigating the sunken RMS Titanic.

The first expedition using Jason and HD video occurred in September 2007 when two remotely operated submersibles from WHOI plied the waters of the Endeavour Segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Pacific Ocean. On that trip, the scientists were studying how tectonic-plate interaction supports exotic and ancient microbial life forms deep within the sea floor.

Volcanoes, earthquakes, and the sea are sisters ? frequently working in tandum, often causing destruction. Strong underwater earthquakes start off silent ? until their tsunami waves swell and crash loudly onto shore. An earlier study by WHOI indicated that magma from ocean based volcanoes lubricate faults that cause earthquakes. This lubrication seems to reduce the friction between conflicting plates. The intent of WHOI?s research is to learn how to predict quakes and warn people of impending dangers.

Lava reaching open sea at Volcano Kilauea on Big Island. Picture credit: Darleen Hartley, BSN*The multiple frames per second from the camera Jason carries allow the scientists to analyze the process of the under sea eruption in great detail. Above ground volcanoes, however, are easier to study. Kilauea on Big Island is more easily observed by the US Geological Survey?s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Although her summit is 4091 feet [1247m] above sea level, she also has a relationship with the ocean.

Kilauea sends glowing lava flows across the island, down cliffs, and into the sea. The volcano is now on "Orange" or "watch" status, since it currently is erupting from two vents, and filling the air with dangerous sulfur dioxide fumes. You don?t need an submersible ROV to view this splendor of nature. You can hitch a boat ride, like this writer did during a visit to above mentioned Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, to view the lava, steam, and ocean turbulence
as Kilauea sends her fury into the sea.

Update #1, December 22, 2009 at 10:42AM GMT – We have uploaded videos of this majestic eruption to our YouTube Account. Copyright for the videos below belongs to WHOI. All rights reserved.