Think Out Loud

Volcano off Oregon Coast may provide clues to predict eruptions

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
July 12, 2022 4:20 p.m. Updated: July 12, 2022 9:36 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, July 12

Jason, the name of the machine, smoothly pulls the spider crab from his hiding place on top of the seismometer.

Jason, the name of the machine, smoothly pulls the spider crab from his hiding place on top of the seismometer.

ROV Jason, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


A research vessel packed with teams of scientists recently returned from a two-week journey to study an active volcano off the Oregon Coast. The volcano, called Axial Seamount, lies more than a mile beneath the surface of the ocean, about 250 miles west of Cannon Beach. Among other things, the scientists were trying to learn how to predict when volcanoes might erupt. OPB science reporter Jes Burns was also aboard the research vessel, and tells us about the journey and the science that happened onboard.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller:  A research vessel packed with dozens of scientists recently returned from a two week journey off the Oregon coast. Their main focus was an underwater volcano called the Axial Seamount. It lies more than a mile beneath the surface, about 250 miles west of Cannon Beach. OPB Science reporter Jes Burns was on board the ship for the duration of the voyage and she joins us now to talk about what she saw.  So your ship and the scientists on it, you were heading out to look at something called the Axial Seamount. What is that?

Jes Burns:  So the Axial Seamount? So a seamount is the name for an underwater volcano basically. And the volcano is located on a spreading center in the ocean. So this is all plate tectonics, right? You have these big land masses on the ground that are slowly moving and some fold under each other. And that’s the Cascadia fault which is right off the Oregon coast, which we always know. If you go a little further west out into the ocean, you get to the Juan de Fuca fault which is the spreading center. So that’s where new seafloor is being made basically, the same seafloor that will be tucked under Cascadia in a couple million years, you know just tomorrow. (laughs)

But this is an area where there’s a lot of tectonic activity, the magma’s coming to the surface and the Axial Seamount is on this line. And if you go to Google maps and you search Axial Seamount, and do the terrain function, you’ll see some really cool imagery. You’ll see exactly what I’m talking about with these plates. And there’s a hot spot underneath there too, which just is another source of lava. And so basically this is a super active volcano that’s right off the Oregon coast. It’s the most active volcano in the pacific northwest that no one’s ever heard of. That’s how I like to think about it.

Miller:  In January an eruption in the South Pacific near Tonga led to a huge explosion, tsunami warnings thousands of miles away and perhaps some alarm among people who live on coast or near coasts. Could the actual seamount do something similar?

Burns:  It cannot. It’s a different kind of volcano. There’s an Oregon State [University] geologist who was out on the ship with us. His name is Jeff Beeson. He explains this:

Dr. Jeffrey Beeson:  Axial doesn’t have that flashy - gonna erupt and cause a tsunami. It’s not happening. Axial is not going to erupt and have a lava flow that goes into someone’s backyard. But the stuff we learned from Axial will tell us how potentially a lava flow will work somewhere else. Having this natural lab on the seafloor that’s not far away from home gives us the ability to test things, test ideas about how volcanoes erupt, why and when they do.

Burns:  So you know this volcano, when it erupts, erupts more like the Hawaiian volcanoes do the shield volcanoes. And so there’ll be like a fissure and then it’ll just kind of start oozing lava. And so there’s all these spots, there’s all these lava flows. And while we were out there we had a Remotely Operated Vehicle called Jason. It was like a submersible vehicle that would ride along the ocean floor about a mile below the ship and it would send back these images. And as you’re going along, you see these lava flows everywhere and the scientists are so into what’s happening, they can look at where we are on the map. They’re so knowledgeable about it. They can look at where we are on the map and they can just be like, ‘oh yeah, that lava flows from 2011. Oh, this one’s from 2015′.

The amount of knowledge was incredible because it is so close, 250 miles.  It took us 24 hours to get there but considering the size of the Pacific and where a lot of volcanoes are, this one is really easy to get to. And because it is so active they’ve been able to monitor several different eruptions. And now they have a huge bank of knowledge about what this is with the idea that maybe we could, down the line, be able to predict when volcanoes are going to erupt based on patterns and measurements and knowledge gained from what’s out at Axial.

Miller:  Oh so that’s a key point that the hope is that if the more they learn about Axial, the more some of that knowledge could be transferred to other, either underwater volcanoes or volcanoes on land?

Burns:  Exactly, exactly. In some ways, even [with] the remoteness of Axial, it’s a lot easier to study than volcanoes on land because they’re able to put sensors anywhere. They can get a boat basically and drop down a sensor. On land it’s a little more challenging. That land is used for different things. People live there so you really don’t just have the access to do this. So you know the caldera of Axial is like 3km wide by about 8km deep. It looks like a giant maple bar donut. That’s the only thing I could ever see when I see it.

But they have sensors that are measuring the inflation of the seafloor just how much our magma bubble is inflating and pushing up the seafloor. So they have them all over the place. So they can, they have such fine measurements about what’s going on. And where they can’t put sensors, they’re sending other subs to do mapping to be able to tell, in broader areas, what is happening with this. And they’re also looking at things like earthquake activity because earthquake activity also is an indicator of when a volcano is going to go.


And so using these two measurements - the inflation of the seafloor, how much it’s rising and we’re talking a few centimeters a year. Over the course of a volcano in an eruption cycle, say 10 years, it may inflate up to, you know, 10 ft. So we’re getting some build up there that’s pretty noticeable. And using both of those, they’re trying to figure out these patterns to be able to apply to other volcanoes. And maybe, if we could say, ‘oh we believe this volcano is gonna erupt within a month or within a couple of weeks’, how valuable would that be, for people planning and getting out of the way, for safety, for just all of these things that need to happen in order to keep people safe when a volcano on land. We’re in the Pacific Northwest. We have volcanoes everywhere. And they’re active volcanoes. But what if we could know if and when Rainier was going to erupt? How huge would that be? And so this is the early stages of trying to figure out and answer those kinds of questions.

Miller:  There were something like 40 people on this research vessel including many scientists. Were they all working on the same project or were they divided up into smaller teams doing different things?

Burns:  There were a lot of different teams. There’s a lot of different science. They’re all trying to essentially get at the same question. But they’re coming at it in different directions. Some people are using seismometers, some people are using sonar mapping and things like that to figure out. Some people are using really fine instruments to do pressure tests at the same spot at the same time. Every two years they’re trying to get pressure tests out there that will give them this information. So they have the science teams that are there and then you also have the submarine teams. So we had the ROV Jason, the remotely operated vehicle that was the one that is tethered to the ship. It’s powered on its own and the ship just kind of keeps itself on top of it so this tether doesn’t stretch. But then there was also an AUV, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle called Century and it was yellow. It was literally a yellow submarine. And it was bubbly

Miller:  But no one lived inside it?

Burns:  No, no one lived inside it.  They would drop it over the side, it would sink to the bottom and had these little fins that shifted with propellers. It reminded me of a cartoon because it’s kind of this bubbly yellow shape. We had a bad weather day and a couple of the engineers knew that they couldn’t launch it. So they created this big octopus on the side of it out of electrical tape. It was beautiful. But it was like, you gotta think about this thing going in and we have some pictures on Twitter of this thing. So they have teams that do both of those and then they have the team that runs the ship, which is this huge 275 ft research special vessel out of the University of Washington that takes a full crew to operate. It was an amazing operation and quite frankly one of the loudest work environments I have ever been in in my life. It was so loud.

Miller:  You wrote about that on Twitter and that even though you were out in the middle of the open ocean, you couldn’t hear the ocean the entire time. So what were the different droning sounds that you were subjected to?

Burns:  It was just a cacophony of white nose. So first off, the ocean is big, the swells are big and everything like that and you see them and you can almost imagine the sound. But if you think about it, you really can’t hear the sound because you are about 15 to 20 ft off on the lowest deck, off the ocean. And then the decks go up from there. And then you have the engine which is so loud and drones, you have HVac so they’re doing climate control in all of these indoor spaces and that is a constant drone, you have vents, ventilation and that sort of thing, Then there’re winches on deck. You have people welding and grinding stuff as part of just maintaining the ship. It was so loud. It was crazy.

There was one spot on the ship that was kind of blissfully quiet and that was right up the very front, the very bow of the boat. There was a bench and it was the place that people went when they needed a noise and people break. So you’d go out there and you could lay down on the bench if you want to and see the stars. One of the scientists was working the midnight - 4a.m. shift because the science went on 24 hours a day. And after she would get off her shift, she said she would go out there and she’d lay down on that bench and look up at the skies and just decompress out there alone because it was quiet,  blocked from the wind, away from the noise and it was kind of this beautiful spot to be.

Miller:  What was your daily life on this ship like surrounded by all these people who had these you know science or boat related jobs? You’re the journalist there, what were you doing?

Burns:  So the scientists, as I mentioned, were working 24 hour shifts or the science was going 24 hours. So they were four hours on and eight hours off, four hours on eight hours off. And that was how they structured their days. That’s not a great schedule for getting a lot of sleep or keeping your sanity. And it was kind of a good thing that it was only a two week cruise because people had some wack-a-doodle days, I think.  People got a little bit of cabin fever I would say occasionally. But I was on with Stephanie Gordon, a videographer at OPB. And what we had to do was look at the schedule of what was going to be happening. And if something big was happening we just needed to be up for it.

And so you know that occasionally meant being up at 3a.m. to see the sub be deployed into the water, or at dawn to see another instrument coming up, all these things. One night we knew we were going to go see some hydrothermal vents and we were like well we gotta be there for that because like that’s the life factory on the bottom so all kinds of cool biology down there. So that was supposed to be at a 2a.m. landing. But then things got delayed and thankfully it was at 4p.m. So that was lovely.

What was really surprising though I think is just how fatigued you get. You get really tired and naps were very much a normalized thing on board. People would just disappear and go nap and we would do the same thing. And then you know the other thing I got used to and Stephanie got used to is that one of us would be awake. One of us would be sleeping. The other one would run into our birth and be like, ‘Jes get up! This is happening, something’s happening! And so you’d just be asleep and then all of a sudden you’d be wide awake, jump out of bed, pull on whatever clothes are right there and run downstairs to the deck where whatever emergency or whatever cool thing was happening that we needed to be there to film. So when I got back, that first night I slept for 12 hours, I woke up for a couple of hours and then I went back to sleep for another two. It was a sneaky, exhausting time.

It was amazing because there was always something really interesting happening. You’re seeing parts of the seafloor that no one’s ever seen before. And sometimes they’re just feeding that into the galley where everyone’s eating. You look up and there’s a television and there’s the seafloor and they come across a dumbo octopus or they come across a really cool lava flow or they come across a fat head sculpin and everyone would just pause and a hush would fall over everything as they’re crossing it. They’d stop and you’re just like, ‘what are they doing’?  What are they seeing? And then you see what they’re seeing and everybody would just stare in all awe in this moment where everyone’s just transfixed on the amazingness of what is happening just 1500 meters below where you’re standing on this ship.

Miller:  I am longing for a world in which you could be in an airport and instead of having CNN on they would pipe in what was transfixing you all on that research vessel. It might be a slightly better world.

Burns:  It might be like that. It is slow television, you know the seven hour train trip broadcast out the window, A seven hour train trip. It’s the same thing. It was slow television on the monitors everywhere we went. And so every time you walk into a room there’d usually be a monitor and you’d look up and give a check, like ‘oh where’s Jason now? Oh look at that. You know and it was just, it was magical. It really was. It was just freaking magical.

Miller:  Well Jess,I look forward to seeing and reading more of your reporting coming out of this sleepless time.

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