Everyone has seen pictures of volcanoes erupting on land, but David Clague is one of the only people to ever see a volcano erupt underneath the ocean! David is an underwater geologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute who specializes in submarine volcanoes.
Can you tell us about your favorite research experience?
I was on a cruise this past May to the Lau Basin where we witnessed an undersea eruption. I have spent much of my career trying to decipher how undersea eruptions vary and differ from those on land, so to actually witness one eruption at 1200 m depth was a dream come true. It was particularly gratifying because much of what we observed was almost exactly the type of activity I had inferred occurred at depth from the fragments of lava I have been studying for the last ten years.
Where did you go on your recent trip, and what were your main research goals?
We went to the Juan de Fuca Ridge off of Oregon and Washington. This is a mid-ocean ridge system where new ocean crust is formed. I study submarine volcanoes, mainly using robotic vehicles that let us see and collect samples much like manned submersibles.
The primary goal of the cruise was to study the history of a summit caldera (a giant bowl-shaped crater) on Axial Volcano, a large volcano that sits astride the Juan de Fuca Ridge. There are many things we do not know about submarine volcanoes such as how often they erupt, how they erupt, or how often their summit collapses to form a caldera, or for that matter, why they erupt. I work mainly on volcanoes that are generally viewed as being non-explosive (like Kilauea on Hawaii), but are they always non-explosive, or just most of the time? Are there other things that can happen that might pose a risk, like forming a caldera, or having the flank of the volcano slide away as a landslide.
How is this research helpful?
Our work focuses on gaining an understanding of submarine volcanic processes. Such submarine activity constitutes a largely unknown human risk because we understand so little about the hazards involved in such eruptions.
Your work takes you to numerous hydrothermal vents, which are underwater geysers, similar to Old Faithful on land. What research have you recently done involving these hydrothermal vents?
My work takes me to numerous hydrothermal vent systems. The hot water emitted at such vents is heated by magma that is stored in the crust, and so is an important part of the heat budget of the volcanoes on the sea floor and cools and modifies the magma before it erupts.
Biologically they are also very interesting systems because the bacteria at the base of the food chain rely on chemicals in the water rather than photosynthesis. Even though I’m not a biologist we see a lot of animals that live on or near the bottom of the ocean. Some of the very large deep-sea corals that live atop seamounts are some of my favorites. They are like the sequoias of the deep, living for many hundreds of years!
Hydrothermal vents can also be called “Black Smokers” because they often spew out very dark, mineral-rich water from inside the earth’s crust. How do you feel about the potential mining of these hydrothermal vents? What are some of the pros and cons?
This is a tricky question. If the question is about mining active hydrothermal areas, then the biological communities are more important. If it is about mining the metal sulfide deposits that were produced by such hydrothermal activity but are now dead and lack biologic communities, then it might be less destructive to important ecosystems than mining on land.
The environmental impacts are poorly understood at present, unless the mining takes place at active chimney fields with known vent communities, in which case, the impact will be to destroy the local community. We do not really know how common such communities are, so the impact could be huge or it could be less severe. Mining should be limited to sulfide fields that are no longer active and therefore no longer support vent ecosystems. As with mining on land this is not a black and white issue, so the trick will be to balance the impacts at sea with those we know occur on land.
As a scientist, why is it important to use creativity and your imagination?
Science requires lots of creativity and more than a little imagination as most problems are highly complex and solutions, or even basic understanding arises from people who see the world a bit differently than most people. Many of the frontiers are at the cusps between disciplines where information from several fields are needed to understand the problems. Without understanding, viable solutions are simply a matter of luck. We can and should do better than random luck. Of course, knowing what the problem is and knowing what the solution is does not necessarily mean that society will be willing to do the hard things that need to be done. Global warming due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide from human endeavors is a case in point.
What advice would you give to a budding scientist?
Most scientists have an innate desire to understand the way things work-we are still asking the question "why?". Don't lose that curiosity and learn enough of the basics of all sciences that you can work across disciplines. That is where the interesting problems usually lurk. I think more scientists also need to be willing to enter the political arena, which is where solutions to scientific problems get enacted.
David Clague is currently studying submarine volcanism everywhere from the California Coast all the way to Hawaiian Islands! In 1970 he received his B.A. in Geology from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and later received his Ph.D. in Earth Science from the University of California at San Diego. Since then his research has included various geologic mapping and sampling experience in places as far as Australia and Russia! He also monitored eruptions of both the Mauna Loa and the Kilauea Volcanoes. He has worked as an assistant professor of geology at Middlebury College in Vermont, as well as an NRC post-doctoral appointee for the U.S. Geological Survey. From 1991 to 1996 he worked as the Scientist-in-Charge at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Currently David is a Senior Scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. David has also received many honors for his work as a scientist and has published various scientific articles on his discoveries!