Research

First-of-its-kind Model Successfully Forecasted Recent
Underwater Volcanic Eruptions

UNCW and Oregon State Professors Calculated Current Axial Seamount Eruption
in September 2014

In September 2014, Scott Nooner, assistant professor at UNCW, and Bill Chadwick, adjunct professor at Oregon State University, forecasted underwater volcano Axial Seamount would erupt in 2015. Located about 300 miles off the coast of Oregon and Washington, it now appears to be doing just that.

Since last Friday, the region has experienced thousands of tiny earthquakes - a sign that magma is moving toward the surface - and the seafloor dropped by nearly eight feet, also a sign of magma being withdrawn from a reservoir beneath the summit. Instrumentation recording the activity is part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). William Wilcock of the University of Washington first observed the earthquakes.

Funded by the NSF and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Nooner and Chadwick's research showed how the volcano inflates and deflates like a balloon in a repeatable pattern as it responds to magma being fed into the seamount.

"We have now observed two complete eruption cycles at Axial Seamount and have learned a lot about how magma moves around beneath it. We've learned that the supply rate of magma has a big influence on the time between eruptions," Nooner said. "When the magma supply rate was lower, it took 13 years between eruptions. But now when the rate is high, it took only four years. Similar behavior has been observed over much shorter time periods at Kilauea volcano in Hawaii and Krafla volcano in Iceland. Although we are just beginning to understand the magma plumbing system at Axial, we hope that eventually what we are learning here will one day be applicable at other volcanoes."
Underwater equipment
Axial Seamount provides scientists with an ideal laboratory, not only because of its close proximity to the Northwest coast, but for its unique structure.

"It isn't clear yet whether the earthquakes and deflation at Axial are related to a full-blown eruption, or if it is only a large intrusion of magma that hasn't quite reached the surface," said Chadwick. "Because Axial is on very thin ocean crust, its 'plumbing system' is simpler than that of most volcanoes on land and it can give us insights into how volcano magma systems work - and how eruptions might be predicted."

Nooner and Chadwick say eruptions are not a threat to coastal residents. The earthquakes at Axial Seamount are small and the seafloor movements gradual and thus cannot cause a tsunami.

Axial Seamount last erupted in 2011. That event was loosely forecast by Chadwick and Nooner, who said in 2006 that the volcano would erupt before 2014. Since the 2011 eruption, additional research led to a refined forecast that the next eruption would be in 2015 based on the fact that the rate of inflation had increased by about 400 percent since the last eruption.

Nooner and Chadwick are scheduled to go back to Axial in August to gather more data, but it may be possible for other researchers to visit the seamount on an expedition as early as May. They hope to confirm the eruption and, if so, measure the volume of lava involved.

Along with data collected by Nooner and Chadwick, additional evidence that was key to the successful forecast came in the summer of 2014 via measurements taken by colleagues Dave Caress and Dave Clague of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Mark Zurberge and Glen Sasagawa of Scripps Oceanographic Institution. Those measurements showed the high rate of magma inflation measured by Nooner and Chadwick was continuing.

Photo Caption: One of three bottom-pressure/tilt instruments in the summit caldera at Axial Seamount that is connected to the OOI Cabled Array network. This instrument measured vertical movements of the seafloor during the recent volcanic eruption. Credit: National Science Foundation/Ocean Observatories Initiative, University of Washington, Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility.

Note to Editors: Photos of the 2011 research expedition are available at the links below (photo credits are available at the site):
- Axial Seamount hydrothermal vent from 2011: https://flic.kr/p/bV27bx
- New lava at the seamount in 2011: https://flic.kr/p/abeSKe
- Map of Axial: https://flic.kr/p/s6HvC6
- Image of Axial: https://flic.kr/p/skSSVw