All Aboard: Geologists Study Underwater Volcanoes

By Nadia M. Whitehead

UTEP News Service

A small group of adventurous geology students spent 35 days at sea this summer onboard the Roger Revelle, a 3,000-ton research vessel.

Led by Jasper Konter, Ph.D., associate professor of geological sciences, the team set sail hoping to answer questions about a string of underwater volcanoes in the Pacific Ocean.Led by Jasper Konter, Ph.D., associate professor of geological sciences, a team of students sailed the Pacific Ocean this summer to study underwater volcanoes. Photo courtesy of Jasper KonterLed by Jasper Konter, Ph.D., associate professor of geological sciences, a team of students sailed the Pacific Ocean this summer to study underwater volcanoes. Photo courtesy of Jasper Konter

“We’re looking at the Rurutu hotspot in the Pacific and trying to see if it continues along a very long chain of volcanoes nearby that should get progressively older and older,” said Konter, who received almost $250,000 from the National Science Foundation to fund the $700,000 expedition. “This could help tell us how the Earth’s [tectonic] plates were moving millions of years ago.”

Hotspots are regions thought to receive a continuous flow of heat and magma from the Earth’s mantle. As a tectonic plate gradually moves over a hotspot, a series of volcanoes will pop up. Geologists can decipher the direction a plate was moving in the past by dating and following the trail of volcanoes from youngest to oldest. 

In this case, the team followed a series of volcanoes located between Guam and Fiji, while students helped dredge, a process used in underwater excavations to gather rocks by dragging a metal net on the ocean floor.

Students who went on the research cruise were required to help dredge, a process used in underwater excavations to gather rocks by dragging a metal net on the ocean floor. Photo courtesy of Jasper KonterStudents who went on the research cruise were required to help dredge, a process used in underwater excavations to gather rocks by dragging a metal net on the ocean floor. Photo courtesy of Jasper Konter“We had the students split up into shifts working 24/7 to get as many samples of rocks as possible. We were particularly looking for volcanic rock,” said Konter, who took nine geological sciences students on the research expedition. “When the cruise ended we had completed 44 dredges – picking up about 10,000 pounds of rocks off the sea floor.”

Students then sorted, identified and took photos of representative rocks – not all of them, of course. Many were packed up directly. They also helped create maps of the sea floor to identify where the next best place to dredge would be.

“This was a really great opportunity for us all,” said Stephanie Ray, a senior geological sciences student who earned course credit from the trip. “It wasn’t the typical geology we’re exposed to.”

Ray and the rest of the team returned to the United States at the end of August, and now plan to complete age dating and compositional analysis on some of the volcanic rocks, as well as interpretation of the mapping data they gathered.

They expect to complete the research and know how old each of the underwater volcanoes are in about a year.

“This trip has convinced me to turn my entire career around,” said Victor Garcia, a senior geological sciences major. “I now want to go straight into volcanology and seafloor research after I attain my bachelor’s.”

In addition to supporting the UTEP team, the NSF grant funded several students and co-principal investigators from Oregon State University and The University of California, Santa Barbara, who will partake in the analyses back on shore.

To learn more about the trip, visit the Rurutu Hotspot Expedition website, which includes a blog and photo gallery.