Science world erupts at volcano discovery
The single largest volcano on Earth was recently discovered by a UH professor and his team of scientists.
Working in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, professor William Sager started studying the volcano, now known as Tamu Massif, 20 years ago at Texas A&M’s College of Geosciences.
Almost as big as the British Isles or the state of New Mexico, Tamu Massif is among the largest in the solar system, Sager told National Geographic.
Clive R. Neal, a volcanologist at the University of Notre Dame, told the Washington Post that this discovery is groundbreaking for Earth volcanology.
“This finding is paving the way to really rewriting some of the textbooks,” he said. “The term ‘supervolcano’ might be a reality.”
In order to decipher whether Tamu Massif was one single volcano or a composite of eruption points, Sager said he and his team used evidence gained from core samples and data collected on board the JOIDES Resolution research ship and determined Tamu Massif did erupt from a single source near the center.
“The proof came when we collected seismic reflection data showing the interior structure,” Sager said. “These data show that lava flows dip outward from the center and there is only one source, so it is one big volcano.”
According to a UH press release, Tamu Massif, which is located about 1,000 miles east of Japan, is the largest feature of Shatsky Rise, an underwater mountain range formed 130 to 145 million years ago by the eruption of several underwater volcanoes. Tamu Massif covers an area of 120,000 square miles. By comparison, the largest active volcano on Earth — Hawaii’s Mauna Loa — is approximately 2,000 square miles, or about 2 percent the size of Tamu Massif.
Tamu Massif is the biggest single-shield volcano ever discovered on Earth, Sager said.
According to Sager, Tamu Massif is believed to have became inactive within a few million years after it was formed. Its top lies about 6,500 feet below the ocean surface, while much of its base is believed to be in waters that are almost four miles deep.
“Its shape is different from any other submarine volcano found on Earth, and it’s very possible it can give us some clues about how massive volcanoes can form,” Sager said. “An immense amount of magma came from the center, and this magma had to have come from the Earth’s mantle. So this is important information for geologists trying to understand how the Earth’s interior works.”
Sager said he shared his work on Tamu Massif with his students.
“My students are always involved in my research,” Sager said. “One graduate student was the second author on this paper.”
Sager said that his research has an effect on his class teaching as well.
“When I teach a specialized geology or geophysics course, my research experience is part of the knowledge base that I am sharing,” Sager said. “When I teach an undergrad course for non-majors, like oceanography, my experiences at sea and with oceanographic data give me perspectives (and stories) to share.”
Sager and his team’s findings appeared in the Sept. 8 issue of Nature Geoscience, a monthly multi-disciplinary journal reflecting disciplines within the geosciences.
“My job is to explore the oceans,” Sager said. “Most of the time, my discoveries are not of such great consequence and only other scientists know about them. It is nice to have the recognition, and I hope it makes the university that I worked for (Texas A&M) feel that it was worth having me around, and likewise, I hope my new university (UH) is happy about investing money to get me here.”