On Monday hundreds of people in Hawaii were taking shelter wherever they could as one of the world's most active volcanoes continued to erupt.
At the same time but thousands of kilometres away, a team of 30 international scientists, including University of Wollongong geologist Dr Dominique Tanner, set sail on an expedition to drill into an active underwater volcano.
The Brothers volcano lies about 400km north-east of Auckland and is the most active volcano in the 1250km-long chain of seafloor volcanoes known as the Kermadec-Tonga Arc, which stretches from New Zealand to Tonga.
The scientists on board research ship JOIDES Resolution include Dr Tanner, who will be studying how volcanic magmas and fluids concentrate precious metals such as gold and copper.
“In some ways we know the surface of Mars better than we know what’s under our oceans,” Dr Tanner said.
“This is a rare opportunity to drill into an active volcano. It's not often that we core into an undersea volcano because logistically it's quite difficult, as you can imagine.”
This is a rare opportunity to drill into an active volcano.- University of Wollongong geologist Dr Dominique Tanner
At the Kermadec-Tonga Arc, the Pacific plate subducts beneath the Australian plate, which causes magma to rise towards the surface and erupt resulting in volcanism along the boundary between the two plates.
“What we're interested in is trying to understand, in this subduction setting, is how magmatic processes affect the contents of precious metals like copper and gold,” Dr Tanner said.
“Most of the copper resources on Earth are associated with ancient volcanoes, for example the Cadia mine near Parkes in NSW is part of an ancient volcanic chain – about 450 million years old – that we are currently mining.”
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She said the Brothers volcano, which lies about 1300 metres below the ocean surface and is about 13km long and 8km wide, was the earliest form of arc volcanism that researchers could look at.
The researchers will core down and collect rock from beneath the subsurface of the volcano at a number of sites.
It’s unlikely that we’re going to drill into magma, but we don’t know what we’re going to find.- University of Wollongong geologist Dr Dominique Tanner
“It’s unlikely that we’re going to drill into magma, but we don’t know what we’re going to find,” Dr Tanner said.
“I’ll be working with other igneous petrologists, there will be three of us on board, and it will be our job to figure out exactly what’s beneath the subsurface.”
The lecturer at UOW’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, will also present a lecture, via video conference, to her first-year Planet Earth class, during the two-month voyage.
The scientists will provide regular expedition progress on the expedition webpage.
The expedition is part of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), funded by an international research collaboration of 23 countries to study Earth’s history and dynamics recorded in sediments and rocks beneath the seafloor.