Scientists have discovered one of the world’s weirdest volcanoes on the seafloor near the tip of Baja, Mexico. The petite dome about 165 feet tall (50 meters) and 4,000 feet long by 1,640 feet wide (1,200 m by 500 m) lies along the Alarcón Rise, a seafloor-spreading center. Tectonic forces are tearing the Earth’s crust apart at the spreading center, creating a long rift where magma oozes toward the surface, cools and forms new ocean crust. Circling the planet like baseball seams, seafloor-spreading centers (also called mid-ocean ridges) produce copious amounts of basalt, a low-silica content lava rock that makes up the ocean crust. But samples from the newly discovered volcano are strangely rhyolite lava, and have the highest silica content (up to 77 percent) of any rocks collected from a mid-ocean ridge, said Brian Dreyer, a geochemist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The results were presented last week at the annu
al meeting of the American Geophysical Union
. Researchers with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
(MBARI) discovered the volcano this spring, during a three-month expedition to the Gulf of California
, the warm stretch of water that separates Baja from mainland Mexico. A remote-control vehicle explored the volcano, which is 7,800 feet (2,375 m) below the surface, and brought samples back to the ship. “When we picked up the rocks and got them back on the ship, we immediately noticed that they were very low density, and they were very light, glassy and gray. They were not the usual dark, black, shiny basalts,” Dreyer told OurAmazingPlanet. “So we immediately knew that something was unusual.” The volcano
is primarily rhyolite and a silicic lava called dacite, said MBARI geologist Jennifer Paduan
.“To find this along a mid-ocean ridge is a total surprise,” she told OurAmazingPlanet.
Boulders and blocks the size of cars and small houses littered the steep slopes of the dome, the robot’s video camera showed. Of more concern is the evidence for explosive volcanism, which is typical of rhyolite volcanoes, Paduan said. “It’s only 100 kilometers [60 miles] from land. When the sun is setting, you can see Cabo,” she said. Both the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico near Alarcón Rise have cities and luxury resorts. The Gulf of California is also home to endangered sea life. Rhyolite lava carries more gas and volatiles (things that are likely to cause explosions) than basalt, and when magma meets water, it vaporizes instantly, driving an even more explosive eruption. “There’s definitely explosive deposits there, and that is of extreme concern, given that the ridge is so close to land and the tsunami potential of a big explosion there,” Paduan said. “We don’t know how explosive, and that is something we are definitely trying to figure out.”