SUFB 061: World’s Largest Single Volcano Still Being Discovered

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The ocean is home to some pretty remarkable features. Productive habitats that exist in complete darkness, underwater lakes, and functioning ecosystems reliant on a single whale carcass are just some of the incredible underwater discoveries humans have made over the past few decades. Today we’re going to talk about another one of these recent marine discoveries, a structure called “Tamu Massif” that is the largest known single volcano on earth.

In 2013, a team of researchers led by University of Houston’s Dr. William Sager discovered this underwater behemoth 1,000 miles off the coast of Japan. Naming it after his previous employer (Tamu = Texas A&M University), Dr. Sager measured this volcano to be about the size of New Mexico. Since the discovery, his team has been collecting magnetic and bathymetric data from the volcano to get a better idea of its shape and formation. On November 9th, Sager’s squad completed a 36-day underwater mapping expedition and began analyzing the collected data.

While there are still many questions to be answered, the expedition has already resulted in some interesting conclusions about Tamu Massif. The physical structure of the volcano indicates that its construction occurred via two separate processes, the slow sleeping of lava that forms mid-ocean ridges and the rapid eruption of hot rock that most people associate with active volcanoes. While not very high, Tamu Massif is incredibly wide. In an interview with Scientific American, Dr. Sager claimed “if you were standing on this thing, you would have a difficult time telling which way was downhill.”

Discoveries like this are important to cover for a variety of reasons. First, people love any time scientists find something that is the largest anything. Second, by studying the events that led to Tamu Massif’s formation we can learn more about our earth’s own formation and gain insight into geological processes, both of which could potentially help us better combat climate change. However, most importantly these discoveries show us how little we know about our ocean. The fact that we can find something this large lurking under our oceans in the 21st century is a testament to what we still don’t know. As I’ve mentioned before, the funding climate for ocean exploration is not great. We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about our ocean, a system that makes up more than 70% of our planet’s surface. Stories of unemployed PhDs or corruption in peer-reviewed journals may not inspire the next generation to become scientists; stories of enormous underwater volcanoes and other ocean discoveries probably have a better shot.

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