Scientists Capture Rare Glimpse of Erupting Australian Volcano

February 5, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Mawson Peak, Heard Island. Volcano
Photo credit: NASA Johnson/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

It is a location where researchers haven’t set foot in almost 30 years.

This is what I call lucky!  Scientists have witnessed an eruption of the Big Ben volcano, located on the remote Australian territory of Heard Island in the subAntarctic — a place where researchers haven’t set foot in almost 30 years.

Big Ben has erupted at least three other times since 2000, however catching the volcano in action is highly unlikely given its remote location on Heard Island.  The island can be found 4,099 kilometers (2,547 miles) southwest of Perth in Western Australia — it is one of the most remote places on Earth.

Not only did the scientists aboard Australia’s CSIRO research vessel, Investigator, see Big Ben erupt, they also observed volcanic activity at the neighboring McDonald Islands volcano — Australia’s only other active volcano.

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“Seeing vapour emanating from both of Australia's active volcanoes and witnessing an eruption at Mawson Peak have been an amazing coda to this week's submarine research,” said the voyage's chief scientist, Mike Coffin of the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies in a press release.  “We have 10 excited geoscientists aboard Investigator, and our enthusiasm has spread to our 50 shipmates.”

Big Ben’s summit, Mawson Peak, is roughly 2,745 meters (9,000 feet) tall, however it is often very hard to see because the area is well known for unpleasant weather.  Even in the video, which is posted below, you can see inclement weather approaching.

“I'm doing my PhD on Heard Island volcanism, and to see lava emanating from Mawson Peak and flowing down the flank of Big Ben over a glacier has been incredible,” said Jodi Fox, a student researcher at the University of Tasmania.  “Given persistent cloud cover and generally foul weather, I didn't think we'd even see Mawson Peak on this voyage.”

The purpose of Investigator’s voyage to the Kerguelen Plateau is to image the seafloor and water column in the area to look for underwater plumes, which represent hydrothermal systems associated with active underwater volcanoes.  Although they are just half-way through their 58-day trip, the team has identified over 50 plumes.

However, despite finding all of these plumes, clearly the eruption of Big Ben will be the highlight of the trip.

"Seeing land after being at sea for a couple of weeks is exciting, but to see dynamic Earth processes such as volcanoes erupting is an added bonus," said Coffin in the YouTube video.


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