Ask an Explorer

Questions were sent to the science party during the Submarine Ring of Fire 2006 expedition. Selected questions and answers are offered below.

Questions from: Susan Starr's class, Umpqua Community College

Answers from:

Lori Savage, Educator at Sea

Jim Varnum and Phil Forte, Jason crew

Dave Butterfield, NOAA Vents Program, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory

Bill Chadwick, NOAA Vents Program, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory

Verena Tunnicliffe, Canada Research Chair in Deep Oceans

• Questions from Randy Miner:

When was the first time these underwater volcanoes were discovered?  

Japanese fishermen have known about these topographic highs since the early 1900s. They were first mapped in the 1980s, and the first time they were extensively investigated using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) was in 2004 on the Submarine Ring of Fire cruise.

Are there more of these submarine volcanoes in other parts of the world?

Yes, there are innumerable submarine volcanoes around the world. Dr. Dave Butterfield said that 70% of the volcanoes on the planet are underwater. The Ring of Fire has a large percentage of those; and then there are other locations, such as the hot spot that makes up the chain of Hawaiian Islands.

How much did the Jason II remotely operated vehicle cost?

Jason II itself cost around $3.5 million. However, it couldn't work without the winch, cable, storage units, and control room. The total for all of these components is between $4 million and $5 million.

How many people does it take to maneuver Jason?

One person, the pilot, maneuvers Jason on a dive. But he could not be successful if it weren't for the navigator and engineer. So three people control the Jason dives while in the control room. The navigator moves the actual ship to locations that the scientists want to study during a dive, and the engineer controls the winch which allows Jason to travel deeper, further, or shallower as necessary. The pilot is in charge of Jason's thrusters and manipulators (arms), for getting right in the right spot, and for getting the samples for the scientists.

When you take samples of shrimp and crab, do you put them in a pressurized container before you bring them up to the surface?

The depths that we have been dealing with here at the Mariana arc are not so deep that a specimen will be affected by pressure changes. Because shrimp and crab do not have any gas-filled organs, the change in pressure does not damage their tissues or bodies. Usually pressurized containers are used for specimens being brought up from deeper than a mile, and also those with air bladders, or gas-filled organs.

What is the deepest a diver can go in a pressurized suit?

This was a tough question. We didn't do any actual diving on this expedition, but Phil Forte, a Jason pilot, does dive and knew some information about the subject. Phil says that the pressurized suits, called Newt suits, look similar to an astronaut's suit, and they can be used to depths of 1,000 m. They are named after their designer/inventor Phil Newton. If you wanted to look up more information about them, use that name. Phil Forte added that divers using un-pressurized suits, but with a three-gas mix (trimix), have made it to 700 feet.

How many new species have been discovered on this expedition?

Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe, biologist, is pretty sure that we have found four new species on this trip: a type of crab, amphioxus, shrimp, and polychaete worm. There are also some that are questionable as to whether or not they have been previously recorded, so there may be more. The information will not be verified until conclusive identification, including DNA analysis, can be made back at the lab.

How are the accommodations on board the ship? Do you have good sleeping quarters and how is the food?  

Most of us sleep two to a room, with a shared bathroom. The "staterooms" are similar to a college dorm room, except that they are smaller, have bunkbeds, and all the furniture is steel and bolted to the walls and ceilings. The food, on the other hand, was a major surprise in a good way. We have two cooks. Chefs Bob and Dax spoil us regularly with food you would be pleased to eat at a four-star restaurant. We have had excellent seafood (some caught while on the ship), and a lot of ethnic foods. Some was so nice, it put cruise lines to shame. (Dax even put sugar ribbons on one of his layered cakes!)  

• Question from Jimmy Dodson:

I would like to know if there is a chance that the temperature of the underwater volcanoes could increase?  

Volcanoes go through eruptive cycles, which include periods of high activity, and periods of relative calm. During those cycles, the temperature will fluctuate greatly, with the highest temperatures attained during increased activity. Similarly, the hydrothermal vents have temperatures that cover a wide gradient depending on the activity level.

• Question from Tammy Crain:

Can you tell me the impact of and dangers caused by the gas and high temperatures near the volcanoes?  

The gas and high temperatures from the underwater volcanoes primarily affect their immediate surroundings. This is one of the reasons they are so fascinating to study. The ecosystem found near these vents and volcanoes has to be specially adapted to put up with toxic surroundings and fluctuating temperatures. The basis of these ecosystems are microbial organisms that use these noxious chemicals as a source of energy for the primary productivity in the food web. As we saw in Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe's Web log, some organisms found in the upper water column have been mortally affected by the toxicity of the plumes, but their deaths benefit the hydrothermal community

• Questions from Steve North:

What is the temperature of the water close to the volcano?

The surrounding water temperature (or ambient temperature) was measured at 12°C. The water directly over the erupting volcano was boiling at 240°C. That would be the highest possible water temperature at that depth because water cannot get hotter than boiling. The magma itself was not measured, but it is thought that its temperature would be much greater than the water.

What is the largest volcano under the sea that has been discovered?  

You stumped us with that one, Steve. We weren't quite sure if you meant height or breadth or amount of magma. Dr. Bill Chadwick says that the Hawaiian Islands are the largest volcanoes when evaluated from the sea floor, so we hypothesized that the undersea volcano of Loihi, which is part of the Hawaiian chain, is probably the largest submarine volcano. It rises from the sea floor at about 5,000 m depth and is 1 km shy of the surface; therefore, its height would be around 4,000 m.

How much weight can the arm on the ROV lift, and how wide will the jaw open?

The hand on the ROV manipulator arm can stretch to about 10 in and pick up objects up to 200 to 250 lbs. Jason's payload wouldn't usually accommodate that much weight if something were to be brought up, but the arm could place large objects on an "elevator" to be brought to the surface (as we did with the chimneys at our dive on Diamante).


Questions from: Teresa Atwill, Teacher

Answers from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant

In some of the video footage (like that from April 24) there appears to be lava in the act of erupting from Brimstone Pit.There also appear to be two laser beams in the image. Are those for measuring distance or temperature? What is their purpose?

The two laser beams that are visible in many of the videos on the Web are indeed used to measure distance. They are spaced 10 cm apart. Size can be deceptive under water and most objects appear larger than they really are. The lasers have been instrumental in determining the actual size of the features and creatures we observe on the sea floor. I'm glad you're watching the videos, as Bill Chadwick has been working very hard preparing them for the Web. Thanks for your question, Teresa.


Questions from: Kathleen Salinas's students, Rogue Community College

Answers from: Lori Savage, Educator at Sea

How far is the shrimp colony from the Brimstone Pit?

The shrimp colony that was closest to the Brimstone Pit at NW Rota-1 was less than 100 m away! Those animals have special adaptations that enable them to live that close to volcanic activity. Mobility, for one!

Are some critters being killed during this (Brimstone Pit) explosion?

Yes, we did encounter numbers of dead animals close to the volcano after some heavy eruption activity. Verena Tunnicliffe discusses this in her April 30 log. The dead organisms would add extra nutrients into the food chain of the vent community.

Can you see anything from the volcanoes while you are on the surface?

Great question! Here at the Mariana arc, we have seen no surface indications of volcanic activity. I have been told though, that there are other submarine volcanoes that spew so much sulfur, it has been found at the water's surface. (An example of this is the Kermadec arc, north of New Zealand.)


Questions from: Bob Collier

Answers from: Lori Savage and Bob Embley

Has the Submarine Ring of Fire 2006 expedition found that NW Rota-1 is still erupting as discovered in '04?

Our first two dives at NW Rota-1 seem to indicate that it is in fact still erupting. Our first dive was hampered by visibility issues, but the second one yesterday (April 23), clearly showed activity at the area known as Brimstone Pit. There was massive degassing going on, which was indicated by voluminous clouds of white and yellow, and hundreds of bubbles, specifically from this pit area. The eruption of lava was not indicated by seeing actual glowing floes of molten rock; however, near the end of our second dive, the extruding rock(rock sticking out of pit area) was being pushed up, with resulting sediment slide. We also saw some small rock particles billowing out with the "clouds" of gases. We high-tailed it out of there at that point. We hope to have more conclusive information about this area today after Dive 3.

Do scientists have any instruments in the water that can record these eruptions on the Mariana arc over long periods of time?

That is another great question! There are no long-term devices now in place to record that type of data. The closest are seismometers, which have recently been placed on the actual Mariana Islands. Those record movements in the Earth's crust, and may be able to detect some eruptions if they are concurrent with earthquakes, and sizeable enough. Besides that, the closest monitoring devices would be the hydrophones in the Pacific Basin, but we don't think that they could pick up information from this far away. Our expedition did place a temporary hydrophone (which records underwater sound waves) on the peak of NW Rota-1, for a day. The information from that is still being analyzed, but it does show a lot of activity. Be sure to look for more conclusive information on the Web page after we complete Dive 3.



Questions from: Susan Lewis's students, Columbia Gorge Community College

Answers from: Lori Savage, Educator at Sea

• Question from Jacob Whidden:

I was curious, what are the effects of particles coming out of the vent tubes on the local fishes?

Thanks for your question, Jacob! No doubt you have learned about the positive effects of chemicals being emitted from the vents. Some bacteria can live off of those chemicals and become the basis for a food chain that fishes eventually benefit from. (The chemicals are ingested by bacteria, then ingested by shrimps, crabs, snails or other intermediates, and then ingested by fish.) However, just yesterday we discovered some animals that had recently died: shrimp and a squid that had been asphyxiated (we think) by too many chemicals in the water due to recent voluminous volcanic activity. Though we suspect this is rare, we've only seen it at the very active NW Rota-1 submarine volcano and it could affect local fishes on a small scale.


• Question from Kevin:

What is the most interesting part of your job on the ship?

Hands down, the most interesting part of my job is working in the Jason II remotely operated vehicle (ROV) control room. It is pitch black in the room except for rows of monitors of all sizes around the room. Some have camera feeds from the ROV, some display other data like position, depth, temperature, altitude (above sea floor), etc . . .

There are seven people at a time on duty in the control room, and sometimes what we are seeing on the screens is so exciting, everyone is talking at once, and chills run up and down my arms (especially during some of those eruptions)! While in there, my job is to make sure that everything is getting recorded properly. Being in that room is like being in the NASA Space Shuttle control room. It's an adventure at every dive!


• Question from an unnamed 18-year old:

Is there the possibility that a volcano will erupt soon, and what are the effects on the ecosystem?

Graduate student Nick Deardorff helped me answer this question. Volcanic eruptions are, for the most part, unpredictable. Though scientists can use seismic information to tell when magma is flowing, that information can only help detect an eruption a short time away — hours or days. However, volcanoes are erupting regularly. For example, Kilauea on the island of Hawaii often erupts, and just today we discovered that undersea volcanoes may be erupting often. These smaller eruptions don't have extreme impact on the ecosystem, but larger eruptions such as Krakatoa, Mt. St. Helens, or Pinatubo can affect the global climate by emitting ash and chemicals into the stratosphere which can cause temperature changes globally. Thanks for your question.


• Question from Rob:

How long do you guys stay out on the ship?

Thanks for your question, Rob. This specific scientific expedition is one month long. We will have been on the ship 26 days when we reach Tokyo and disembark. Some research cruises are much shorter, and there are others that last for months.


• Question from Kathryn Riter:

Have you ever discovered a new type of animal?

Kathryn, I haven't discovered any new types of animals, but a biologist on board the ship, Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe, has discovered over 60 new species. The reason there are so many new species on her list, she says, is because she has been studying vent species for 25 years, and got into it early on. Because vent biology is a fairly new field of study, there are many things that have never been described before. Verena says that the way to know if a species is newly discovered is to know what already has been described. This entails reading reports and being involved with a network of other scientists who are studying similar areas. She has a network which spans many states and countries. She mentioned Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden, California and even Oregon; and there are many more researchers that she shares information with, depending on the organism of study. She says the most surprising discovery was a male and female pair of deep-sea leeches that were found on a drilling platform about 300 miles west of the Oregon coast. Before then, she didn't even know there was such a thing as a saltwater leech. (I had no idea!) Thank you Kathryn for your question, and thank you, Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe, for your answer.


• Question from Wendy Olivan:

What does it feel like to be on the trip, and what does the ocean have to do with math?

Thank you for asking, Wendy. I feel very fortunate to be on this trip. We have made some very exciting discoveries and it is thrilling being a part of it all. Many people have asked me if I have gotten sea sick, and I am glad to report that I haven't. The weather and sea conditions have been wonderful.

Now, what the ocean has to do with math is . . . that it covers approximately 70% of the world we live on, and it is a resource that we need to learn more about. Many of the earliest navigational tools were developed so that people could travel on the seas and get where they wanted to go. Those navigational tools are based in mathematics, and just about every other tool used on this vessel uses units, which means measurements, which implies mathematics is needed to read them.

Sharon Walker is a CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) specialist onboard the research vessel Melville, and she says that to her, and to most scientists, "Math is another language that is used as a tool to show relationships between sets of information." With measurements from the CTD casts, they calculate temperature, density and conductivity in an area, then apply that information (numbers) to formulas to figure out the salinity, which ultimately can tell when we are near a hydrothermal vent . Math makes things more understandable by showing patterns. If we want to understand the world around us, including the ocean, math will be the universal language used.


Questions from:  Linda Daugherty's students, Portland Community College

Answers from:  Lori Savage, Educator at Sea, and Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe, Canada Research Chair in Deep Oceans

What is the most dangerous thing you encounter on the ship?

The ship's decks are jam packed with equipment for data collecting, cranes, and storage containers. So by far, being out on deck is most dangerous. There are cables and winches in operation that a person could easily get caught in, and lose a finger or arm, or get pulled overboard, or get pinned and crushed between the hoisted object and other stationary objects. Experienced crew are good at pointing out hazards to help the less experienced sailors (like me) keep from getting injured. So undersea volcanoes are not the most dangerous things out here! Good question.

Why are there so many volcanoes in the Ring of Fire area? 

It all comes down to plate tectonics. The Pacific plate experiences sea-floor spreading at the mid-ocean ridges, and as it grows and moves, it interacts with continental plates at its borders. The edge of the Pacific plate makes up this "ring." In many of those convergences, be the Pacific plate is denser than the continental plates, and it is subducted (goes under) those plates. Where this occurs, crust from the Pacific plate will often melt and pressure will cause it to force its way up through the continental plate as molten rock. An example near you is the Cascade mountain range, of which Mt. Saint Helens is a part.

How are the volcanoes going to affect us?

This is a question that scientists have posed for hundreds of years. The answer is largely unknown, because volcanic behavior is not predictable. Right now, volcanoes may not directly affect an individual, unless that person lives near one. Ask the Italians of Pompeii how Mt. Vesuvius affected them, or the Filipinos close to Mt. Pinatubo. It boiled down to life and death. But their effects on the environment and thus the overall health of the planet is being widely studied: Do volcanoes have a great impact on global warming? What amount of particulates do they pump into the atmosphere? We know that volcanoes impact the environment a great deal when they are active. But there are many unanswered questions, which is why your question is so good.

Do you take the crabs and lobsters back to dissect them?

Drs. Tunnicliffe and Dower, biologists, will be taking many animal specimens back to their labs to dissect and study, including those you mentioned along with snails, shrimp, worms, and fish. Verena Tunnicliffe will be checking the contents of their stomachs, and she will also do chemical analysis of their tissues to find out the organism's place in the vent community. Are they growing and "gardening" bacteria symbiotically, are they secondary consumers, or do they feed on both the chemosynthetic and photosynthetic products?  These are just some of the questions that these samples will help to answer.

Can you eat these types of lobster and shrimp?

The type of environment that these specific animals live in is pretty toxic. There are many heavy metals and other chemicals in the water that get incorporated into the animals' tissues. For this reason, it would not be a good idea to eat these animals. Besides, they would probably taste awful!

Will the lobsters and shrimp be alive when you bring them on the ship?

Some of the animal species have been alive when we bring them up from the ocean depths. Most of them die in the transit, in the bioboxes on Jason (the remotely operated vehicle). There are some species, like the spiny snails, that seem to be able to live through anything though, and those are gently "put to sleep" with chemicals.

Does anything feed on the lobster and shrimp?

That is one of the questions that Dr. Tunnicliffe is also asking. We have observed one type of shrimp (predatory) eating another type (the grazer). Besides that, we can only hypothesize that passing predatory fish probably eat them once in a while, but that is not documented at this time.

Is the crab considered a fish?

Although there are some things in common between fish and crabs, like gills, there are more differences, so crabs are not considered fish. Crabs are invertebrates called "arthropods," because they have their skeletal structure on the outside of their bodies. Fishes are vertebrates called "chondricthyes," because they have bones inside of their body for support.


Questions from: Susan Cowles, Ocean Science and Math Collaborative Project

Answers from: Lori Savage, Educator at Sea

Our Ocean Science and Math Collaborative Project participants viewed the Ocean Explorer Submarine Ring of Fire 2006 Web site. We all enjoyed learning about the cruise so far. We had a question: Are all the islands inhabited? For example, is NW Rota-1 big enough to have a year-round population?  It looks so small in the visualization.

Thank you for the question, Susan. I had to do a little research to answer this. Thanks to the internet and the Lonely Planet guidebook to Micronesia, I was able to get an up-to-date answer.

Guam has a population of 163,500 at this time, and it is the most populous of the Micronesian Islands. Within the Marianas Islands we are traversing on the west side, only four are populated at this time: Saipan at 62,392, Tinian at 3,540, Rota with 3,283, and Alamagan with 6. Three islands — Agrihan, Paga, and Anatahan — were evacuated in 1990 due to volcanic activity. We can see Anatahan today (April 29) from the ship, and upon inspection with binoculars, we can see that it has volcanic smoke coming from its crater. It would be interesting to find out about the six people living on Alamagan and to visit the other uninhabited islands.


Questions from:  Linda Daugherty's students, Portland Community College

Answers from:  Lori Savage, Educator at Sea, and Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant

What kind of gas does Jason run off, and how long can it stay underwater?

Great question! Jason is connected to the ship by an electric cable that carries 3,000 volts of current. It does not run on gasoline. For that reason, theoretically Jason could stay down indefinitely. However, our dives are usually restricted by the overall plan, the amount of time allowed in one spot, and the number of samples. Once Jason gets all his boxes, baskets, and various other samplers full, we will bring him up. The dives have ranged from 12 to 28 hours so far.

What do people have to do to get on the expedition?

In this case, a group of principal investigators (research scientists) worked together to write a proposal to the NOAA Ocean Exploration Program, making a case for why their particular research is pertinent and should receive funding. This is a long, complicated process and research money is limited, so many projects go unfunded and never get off the ground (or "on a ship," in this case). The NOAA Vents Program did receive funding for this cruise and collaborates with researchers from universities and various other research institutions. Everyone here is involved in the studying some aspect of hydrothermal vent systems.

My spot (Lori Savage, Educator at Sea) on the cruise is allowed because the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NOAA feel it is important to promote science education in our schools and communities. I act as a link between the researchers and the public. I will bring what I have learned back to people like you who otherwise would have no idea this type of research is taking place . . . unless, of course, you are following the Web site.

What do you do on the ship in your free time?

Free time is a bit of a luxury at sea, as there is so much to accomplish in the limited time we have on board. But, when we have a break, the ship is equipped with many things that you can use to occupy your time. Most often, people who are not on watch will spend time exercising with workout equipment, bikes, elliptical exercisers, rowing machines, and even weights. There is also an extensive library on board with everything from technical manuals to romance novels to read. Watching movies is common, and many people do so on their own laptop computers. I  (Lori Savage) have wanted to try to fish with the chief engineer, but he thinks I will mess up his fishing rods, so I don’t push it. Some nights people play cards, and others pursue hobbies such as painting, yoga — you name it. Taking naps is always good too!

How were you chosen for this expedition? Is it your first trip?

Thank you for the good question. Yes, this is my first trip. I was fortunate enough to be part of the Oceans Science and Math Consortium for Adult Basic Educators of Oregon this year, and the organizers of that institute found out about the trip and encouraged all of us to apply. There was an application process similar to a job interview, and I was chosen to attend. It has proven to be a very exciting and rewarding trip.

When an eruption is going on below you, do you feel or see anything on the surface of the water?

That question took some thought! No, we could not tell from the sea surface that a submarine eruption was happening at NW Rota-1 volcano while we were there. We have heard that on other trips, a smell of sulfur could be detected above very active, somewhat shallow submarine volcanoes. Also, many navigational charts note "discolored" water, which can be a sign of an undersea eruption. But we have not experienced that on this expedition. On other cruises extremely shallow volcanoes have actually been witnessed shooting steam, pumice and ash out of the water above the surface of the ocean. That’s a little too close for comfort.



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