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Myth Busting

Category: General Article

Back to Axial Seamount Eruption Response

Thursday August 20, 2015
Submitted by Rachel Teasdale

Summary: CTD casts continued overnight in the northern part of Axial’s caldera; AUV Sentry was launched and recovered today to test some operational systems and for preliminary work along the caldera wall. We completed another CTD cast in the International District hydrothermal field, and Jason was launched this afternoon for a 24-hour dive in the caldera.

Myth-busting:

When news of the April 2015 eruption became widely known, questions emerged regarding the possible relationship of the eruption to other geologic events. Here we address some of the questions we’ve been asked. Be sure to submit your questions to the blog using the Send Us Your Questions link. Read on to see some of the themes that have come up already:

1. Will the eruption of Axial Seamount have any effect on geologic activity on the west coast, for example does it make a large earthquake more likely?

The eastern boundary of the Juan de Fuca plate is subducting beneath the North American plate off the coast of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon and has the capacity to generate large earthquakes. Earthquakes occur as the rocks of the two plates get locked against each other, building stresses over hundreds of years that eventually get released during an earthquake. Axial Seamount is located on the western boundary of the Juan de Fuca plate (see map), approximately 250 miles (400 km) west of the subduction zone, which is so far away that any stresses imposed on the west side of the plate would not be transmitted to the east side. Thus, volcanic activity at Axial Seamount does not directly influence the earthquake hazard in the Cascadia subduction zone and does not make an earthquake there any more or less likely than before.

2. When Axial erupts, could it generate a tsunami?

Tsunamis result when a large vertical movement of the ocean floor displaces the water above it suddenly, usually associated with large subduction earthquakes. The resulting wave of seawater, the tsunami, can travel across the ocean rapidly and grow to such large sizes when they hit the shore that the waves are catastrophic, as was the case in Japan after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake in 2011. Earthquakes associated with the movement of magma below Axial Seamount are generally much smaller (usually only up to magnitude 4) than any that would generate a tsunami. The vertical movements associated with inflation and deflation at the volcano is too gradual to cause a sudden displacement of water required to generate a tsunami. The elevation change of the surface of Axial Seamount during eruptions is about 6 to 10 feet (2 to 3 m), which occurs over the course of a few days, so this is too slow a movement to generate tsunami waves.

3. Is there any connection between the eruption at Axial Seamount and the “Warm Blob” of water in the northeast Pacific?

The unusually warm sea surface temperatures that have characterized the northeast Pacific Ocean this year have been referred to as the “Warm Blob,” and it has disrupted the food chain off the west coast of North America since late 2013. This anomalously warm water extends from Mexico to Alaska. Since the “Warm Blog” pre-dates the eruption at Axial Seamount (which occurred in April 2015), the eruption is clearly not the cause. The sea surface temperature anomaly of 2-7 °F (1-4 °C) is also much greater than any change in water temperature that could be associated with the eruption. Heat escaping from the lava flows does heat the water near the seafloor, but it can only rise a few hundred meters above the bottom. The warm water venting from the new lava flows is buoyant and so will rise, but as it does it mixes with cold seawater and is diluted until it becomes neutrally buoyant and no longer rises. Thus, it is almost impossible for the heat from seafloor hot springs at Axial Seamount to make it to the ocean surface.

For more information on the northern Pacific Ocean “Blob” of warm sea surface temperature, see the NOAA Sea Surface Temperature maps and information by clicking here

4. Would someone on a boat above Axial Seamount know it was erupting?

A ship sailing over Axial Seamount during an eruption would not likely have any indication that anything was happening on the seafloor. The caldera is approximately 4800 feet (1500 m) below the surface and the 2015 lava flows were erupted at depths ranging from 4480-5440 ft (1400-1700 m). If the ship happened to have instruments that it could lower down to near the seafloor (like our CTD instrument package, or perhaps a hydrophone), that would be the only way to detect an eruption. Otherwise, the volcano is just too deep to detect the activity at the surface.

Related Information: USGS Hazards and Pacific Northwest Science Network | New Yorker Magazine: The Really Big One | Dealing with Emergencies: Earthquake and Tsunami | United States Geological Survey Tsunami Information | National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Tsunami information

Photos and video courtesy of the 2015 Axial Team.

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A Cooperative Program

The Axial Seamount Eruption Response is a program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation in cooperation with Oregon State University, Hatfield Marine Science Center, the Oceanscape Network and others.

Do You Have Questions?

During the duration of this expedition, the science team will answer your questions. Return to the main Axial Seamount Eruption Response page to find the online form for this activity.