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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Deep-Sea Volcano Helps Forecast Eruptions

Air Date: Week of

Mount St. Helens, four months after the 1980 eruption. (Photo: Harry Glicken, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Three Sisters and Mounts Hood, Rainier, St. Helens and Shasta are all active volcanoes that put many people in the Pacific Northwest at risk. But only one has erupted in our lifetimes. Jes Burns of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that a remote deep-sea volcano off the coast of the West Coast erupts far more often and is helping scientists understand when an eruption might occur closer to home.


CURWOOD: Half the people in the Pacific Northwest live within about 60 miles of an active volcano. Three Sisters, and Mounts, Hood, Rainier, St. Helens and Shasta are all considered high-risk. But so far only one has erupted in our lifetimes. Well, there’s a remote deep-sea volcano off our West coast that erupts far more often. And it could help us understand our volcanic risk closer to home. As part of the digital video series “All Science, No Fiction” from Oregon Public Broadcasting, reporter Jes Burns has the story.

BURNS: Two hundred fifty miles off the Oregon coast and the fog envelops the research ship “Thompson.”


KEVIS-STERLING: All right, so you guys ready to go?

BURNS: Akel Kevis-Stirling stands out on deck in his orange life vest and blue hardhat.

CREW MEMBER: Okay, we are ready to go.

KEVIS-STERLING: Alright, straps?


BURNS: The crew of the remotely operated vehicle called “Jason” jumps into action, removing the straps that secure the cube-shaped submarine to the deck. 

KEVIS-STERLING: Ok, here we go. “Jason” coming up and over the side.  Take it away, Tito!


BURNS: The crane operator lifts the sub and swings it over the side into the water. 


BURNS: And “Jason” starts its mile-long descent to the Axial Seamount, a deep-sea volcano that’s erupted 3 times in the past 25 years. Bill Chadwick, the Oregon State University volcanologist who’s lead scientist on this cruise, says the scientific instruments on the sub will help reveal the inner workings of the Axial Seamount. 

CHADWICK: As magma rises up underneath and accumulates under the surface, the whole volcano inflates like a balloon.

BURNS: The dome of Axial will rise 8-10 feet as it builds towards eruption. 

CHADWICK: That’s a lot of motion.

BURNS: It’s movement that the instruments can detect. And by collecting data year after year, they can track changes in the volcano as it inflates with magma to a literal breaking point.

CHADWICK: By seeing that pattern a few times, now we can try to anticipate when the next eruption is going to be.

BURNS: Volcanologists are often able to forecast eruptions a few days in advance, but predicting volcanic eruptions on a longer timescale is much more difficult. This is what Chadwick is trying to do at Axial Seamount - and he’s had some success. By tracking the inflation cycle of the volcano, Chadwick and his team were able to forecast the 2015 eruption about seven months in advance. Haley Cabaniss is a geologist at Eastern Kentucky University.

CABANISS: This volcano, when it erupts, it doesn't pose any great risk for people. But what we can learn from this system, and hopefully apply to volcanoes on land that do have the potential to cause lots of harm and to kill people, is really valuable.

BURNS: With so many people living near active volcanoes, any additional tools we have to better predict volcanic activity could help save lives. 

[transition to shudder of “Jason”]

BURNS: The crew controls “Jason” from a command center on deck. Inside, it’s dark and serene, with screens on one wall showing the obsidian-encrusted lava flows the sub passes on the ocean floor – and the occasional spider crab or rat-tail fish.

BEESON: Every now and then you see something on the screen that makes you go, wow.

BURNS: Oregon State geologist Jeff Beeson directs Jason’s pilot to a small round concrete platform on the seafloor.

BEESON: The benchmark is the target.

BURNS: The pilot uses Jason’s titanium arm to slowly place the instrument, but he’s a little off.

BEESON: Ooh, you’re close to the edge.

BURNS: A quick readjustment later…

BEESON: Much better.

BURNS: The information the carefully-placed instrument collects will provide more clues for Bill Chadwick and his team. At the Axial Seamount, they have a natural laboratory, perfect for practicing forecasting.   

CHADWICK: At a real dangerous volcano, you don't want to be issuing any predictions that you're not sure are going to be true, because people might have to evacuate. You know there could be economic costs or freaking people out.

BURNS: Given what they know about the current temperament of Axial, the time window for an eruption is still several years away - maybe.

CHADWICK: You know, here there's just a bunch of tube worms and octopuses is on the seafloor. They don't care. Or they don't know about it.

BURNS: Yet with each passing trip to the Pacific Northwest’s most active volcano, they get closer than they’ve ever been before to understanding what makes Axial and other volcanoes tick.  

CURWOOD: Jes Burns’ story comes to us courtesy of Oregon Public Broadcasting. OPB’s “All Science, No Fiction.” is available now on YouTube. You can go to loe.org for links to the series.



Oregon Public Broadcasting | “Deep-Sea Volcano Off the Oregon Coast Helps Scientists Forecast Eruptions”

Watch this video on YouTube, courtesy of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s series “All Science. No Fiction.”


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