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Dispatches : Exploration

Expedition Watch: Exploring Undersea Volcanoes

Fiery_blast_hires (1)West Mata eruption. Photo: NSF/NOAA

In 2009, scientists on a cruise in the Western Pacific sent a remotely operated vehicle 4,000 feet below the ocean surface and discovered a two-mile high volcano called West Mata erupting 2,200-degree Fahrenheit lava in bursts scattered over the area of a football field. It “looked like the 4th of July, underwater,” said Dr. Robert Embley of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab.

Now, scientists want to share that phenomenon live. NOAA is leading a cruise to survey a wider swath of the region known as the Northeast Lau Basin to try to find additional volcanic activity and varied signs of life. They will do all this using the Quest 4000, a remotely operated vehicle that can dive 12,000 feet below the surface and map geology, sample chemicals, and collect biological specimens. All of those things are great for gathering data, but for pure entertainment value, what really matters is the video camera that will livestream the action. The Northeast Lau Basin is one of the most volcanically active places on the planet. It is the rare undersea location where ocean plates both separate and come together, a phenomenon that offers a smorgasboard of steaming, spouting, and erupting spots.

Subduction zone at the Northeast Lau Basin. Photo: GNS Science

The ocean floor is made up of giant slabs of rock called tectonic plates. The plates have beginnings and ends. The beginnings are long-lined volcanic regions called mid-ocean ridges where the earth's crust thins and lava rises up through an opening. As more lava comes up, it pushes out to either side of the ridge, spreads, and hardens. The plates of rock move out from these mid-ocean ridges until they meet another plate. The ends usually occur at volcanic regions called subduction zones, where one plate moves beneath another plate on its way into the earth's mantle. (The ends may also occur at faults, areas where the plates move past each other side by side.)

Primarily, volcanic activity at the Northeast Lau Basin results from a subduction zone. The west-moving Pacific Plate moves under the Indo-Australian Plate. The friction from the rock going down into the mantle creates heat. Some of the rock melts into magma that rises up into pools. When the pools get large and hot enough, they rise up through the earth's crust to form erupting volcanos. There are hundreds of such volcanos in the Lau Basin. For some reason, the Indo-Australian Plate also pulls apart west of the volcanoes, creating something called a backarc, a thin layer of crust where there is an increase in volcanic and hydrothermal activity. It is a lesser version of a mid-ocean ridge. Scientists know the thinning is caused from stresses between the two plates, but on this cruise they are working to understand more about why it is happening.

We've included a bit more on the expedition below so you read more about the science—and included links so you can watch live narrated videos of lava, ash, and gas hitting cold water.

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12 Ways to Channel Your Inner Citizen Scientist

GrizzlyprintsnowGrizzly print, and a notebook. Photo: Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

Rachel Carson earned a master's degree in zoology from John Hopkins University and spent most of her career working as a marine biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But after her fourth book, Silent Spring, garnered pesticide manufacturers some unwanted publicity, the pesticide industry attempted to discredit Carson by claiming she wasn’t a trained biologist, writes Paul Brooks in his biography Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work.

The irony here is that in Silent Spring, which turns 50 this month and is arguably responsible for starting the environmental movement, Carson championed the growing concerns of untrained biologists. She listened to backyard botanists who simply observed nature and were alarmed by the indiscriminant death that DDT appeared to be doling out to songbirds, bees and other non-target species around their homes. Armed with their anecdotes and her own rigorous scientific research, Carson raised many red flags and brought the word “ecology” into the general lexicon.

Today, these untrained biologists actually have a moniker: citizen scientists. They also have many more ways to contribute to our understanding of the health of our environment.

Citizen science demographics used to trend toward the close-to-retirement set who like to study water quality, or toward younger, tech-savvy male astronomers, says Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, a hub for citizen science information and opportunities. But citizen science is becoming increasingly accessible and interesting to the general, outdoor-recreating public, thanks both to the connections between citizen science and climate change research and to the power of smartphones. 

“Smartphones are increasingly equipped with sensors that makes it so easy to become involved in citizen science,” says Cavalier. “It removes the fear of giving bad data and it makes it harder to say participating isn’t convenient. People can’t really say ‘I don’t have the tools or knowledge I need.’ The barriers are falling.”

Whether it’s collecting marine debris or chasing butterflies or tracking grizzly bears, there’s something for budding citizen scientists of every stripe and appetite for adventure.

Grab your waterproof-breathable pocket protector and check out these citizen science resources:

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A Tsunami of Plastic

Tsunami_debrisTsunami debris. Photo: Stiv Wilson

By Stiv Wilson, 5 Gyres Institute

Out across a plastic stratified strand, two surfers, silhouetted in the failing light, are finishing a session. A year and half ago, this wasn’t a surf spot. A tsunami destroyed everything around here, shifting the coast enough to create virgin waves. Above the beach there is nothing but houseless foundations and the hum of heavy machinery trying to dig out. But the tsunami had another effect, too: the world finally woke up to the everyday pollution our oceans endure as the plastic zeitgeist of convenience we seemingly can’t avoid flows unchecked from every stream, river and sewer outfall in the world.

The mission of 5 Gyres Institute, the organization I helped kick start with co-founders Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, is to bring attention to the plight of plastic in our oceans by reinventing at-sea science research. By taking ordinary citizens, who have a vested interest in this issue, on our research excursions, we hope to inject more science into advocacy, dispel garbage patch myths and raise global awareness of the problem. By adding the cool factor of an epic and often brutal sailing adventure, we create fact-based communication tools for societal change, that traditional academia struggles to convey.

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The Top 10 Destinations for Enjoying Healthy Oceans

Sea_turtle_ellenboganSea turtle hatchling, Baguan Island, Philippines. Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

Examples of poor ocean health are too easy—unfortunately—to find in many parts of the world, especially along densely populated coastlines or in the midst of ocean gyres filled with plastic pollution. But what is the global state of ocean health? A group of marine scientists spent three years devising the Ocean Health Index, a new tool that provides some answers.

More than 60 scientists, researchers and organizations collaborated on the index, which was officially released on Wednesday. The index was designed to provide a framework and benchmark to measure the health of the oceans so that policy makers will have a point of reference to use in shaping future laws and regulations. Basically, it is intended to help us determine to what degree humans can continue to exploit the world’s oceans for food, products and tourism without diminishing their ability to sustain themselves. It sets the bar accordingly.

"A healthy ocean is not a pristine one," says Ben Halpern, the index’s lead author and a research scientist for the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). "A pristine ocean is not a practical goal. To strive for that is a futile effort and never achievable at global scale."

The index is based on 10 indicators, or "goals," such as tourism/recreation or biodiversity, that set various lenses through which to view ocean health. These 10 goals can be viewed at the global scale or per country, with 171 coastal countries included in the index. The United States rates horribly in the tourism/recreation goal, scoring just one out of 100. I asked Halpern what gives.

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Allie Bombach on Movers and Shakers

Allie Bombach on location. Photo: Miguel Tercero

What is it about movers and shakers? What makes them tick? Filmmaker Allie Bombach wants to know and is using her MoveShake film series to uncover some answers. The year-long project debuted in early June with the release of two films, one about Shannon Galpin, who founded Mountain2Mountain, which works to empower women and children in conflict zones, and one about Julio Solis, a sea turtle poacher-turned-savior in Baja, Mexico.

I spoke with Bombach about the film series and what we can expect to see in the upcoming installments.

What is MoveShake and why did you start the project?
Allie Bombach: MoveShake is a film series about environmental and social justice change-makers. It stemmed from wanting to know what it takes to be a mover and shaker. What is this personality that gets people to not just sign up with an organization, but to see something that has not yet been done and then decide to do it? We're not trying to convince the audience that they need to do the same, but I see these films as a great way to start an inward conversion. The point is to inspire.

Also, the films all focus on their subject's superpowers. Shannon Galpin is fearless and dedicated to what she is doing. That takes a certain kind of tenacity that not all of us have. For Julio, his ability to bring together his community is his superpower. So whether your superpower is accounting or you are able to make films, it's about searching yourself to see what you are good at.

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Apr 24, 2014

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