Extremophiles, Volcanoes and You

Folks have been suggesting that life on Earth started near volcanic vents for a long time now (and of course, some people don’t buy it). Whether or not life sprung forth near hydrothermal vents, undersea black smokers or from the head of Zeus, it doesn’t really change the fact that we find organisms living in these places today, expanding what we might consider “habitable” by leaps and bounds. Case and point, researchers from CU-Boulder have recently found a community of micro-organisms happily living near the summit of Volcán Socompa (above) in Chile in the hydrothermal vents. Now, having done field work in the high Andes of Chile (at Volcán Aucanquilcha – say that three times fast), I can attest to the fact that it is as close to working on Mars as you might be able to get on Earth – dry, desolution, mostly lifeless, extreme day/night temperature variations, thin air, the whole nine yards. So, to find these communities shows just how hardy life can be when presented with challenges.
One interesting question not brought up in the article is how quickly might these communities develop. Socompa was last known to have erupted in 5250 B.C. (most likely). This might limit the amount of time for these micro-organisms to take a foothold at the summit of the volcano to at most ~7,000 years. This seems like a pretty reasonable time for life to reemerge after an eruption – the question would be from where did it arrive in a place as desolate as the high Andes of Chile after the eruption. Of course, this also begs the question of whether life like this could exist of Mars, but that is question best left untouched by me. To me, this is just another example of how no matter how destruction we think volcanoes are, life just keeps on coming back for more.
{Hat tip to reader Thomas Donlon for pointing this out to me.}

Ongoing submarine volcanism in the Mariana Islands

For those of you interested in what happens in the realm of submarine volcanism, I can pass on some tidbits I’ve gotten about NW-Rota 1, a submarine volcano in the Mariana Islands (see bathymetry above). Dr. Ed Kohut (Petrogenex), a friend of mine from my days at Oregon State Univ., is currently on a JAMSTEC research cruise in the Mariana Islands, visiting the area about NW Rota-1. He reports:

“We just reached NW-Rota 1. It is still actively erupting. To put that in perspective, it has been observed erupting every time it has been visited since 2003. Today’s actvity is not as vigourous as in past visits, but there are billowing sulfur laden plumes and the summit has increased ~15 meters since the last ROV visit  (in ’06?).”

Seems that this seamount continues to chug away under ~500 meters of seawater. It is most famous for the 2004 eruption that coated an ROV that visited the volcano with ash and molten sulfur during an eruption (all under water). Below is a short video from a 2006 research cruise of the vigorous behavior at the vent called “Brimstone Pit”, which produced the 2004 eruption. You can clearly see the ash, rock and gases being ejected from the vent, all under half a kilometer of seawater!

Repairing after eruption: the Waimangu Valley and Mt. Tarawera

One of the more impressive areas I visited while in New Zealand was the Waimangu Valley near Mt. Tarawera (above). The valley itself was created by blast explosions (phreatic explosions) during the 1886 eruption of Mt. Tarawera. These eruptions cut right down the axis of the rhyolite domes (most of which erupted ~1305 A.D.) and extended off the volcanic edifice to form the valley to the west of the volcano. In the valley, no juvenile lava was erupted, instead explosions carved out large pits that formed the Waimangu Valley and today the valley is filled with lakes and thermal features (below).
The 1886 eruption at Tarawera was not large by any means, erupting only ~0.7 cubic kilometers of basalt (compare that with the 1305 Kaharoa Rhyolite from Tarawera that erupted 5 cubic kilometers). However, hundreds of Maori villagers died during the eruption and basaltic tephra can be found all over the area north of Tarawera into the Bay of Plenty. Yet, only about a century later, most of the destruction caused by the eruption has been erased by vegetation. Compare the photo of the valley just after the eruption (top) to the one I took in January of 2009 (bottom) to see how things have recovered.
Waimangu Valley, 1886
Waimangu Valley, 2009
Volcanoes are truly destructive, but still just a flash in the pan for most earth processes.

Yellowstone New Year’s Eve Update

Yellowstone looks to be keeping everyone on their toes as we ring in 2009. The earthquake swarm reported earlier this week is continuing, with multiple events between 2-3.5 on the Richter Scale. Again, the folks monitoring the caldera – this time the Univ. of Utah – play down these events as normal for any active caldera system … and they’re very likely right. However, the media love to bring up the “supervolcano” angle and we’re even getting expert opinion from (wait for it) Garrison Keillor!.  The earthquakes are just normal earthquakes so far – none of the dreaded/anticipated harmonic tremor that might indicate an eruption. This will likely mean that more gas and water monitoring will be occurring in the park in the coming weeks/months.

New posts soon!

Bumpass Hell
I’m a little behind on the news after spending the weekend field tripping at Lassen Peak. I’ll be catching up soon, but to tide you over, here is a picture I took of some bubbling mudpots/springs at Bumpass Hell near Lassen Peak. The dark areas are pyrite crystals floating on the stew!