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Bob Embley: Hydrothermal Research

What our program is allowing us to do is to look at areas we never could look at before, a frontier area. There are some areas of volcanoes that only recently been mapped and we’ve been finding many more active systems. By active we mean areas that could potentially erupt at any time and have very rigorous geothermal hydrothermal systems -the type of thing you would find at Yellowstone National Park. We need to know about systems like these for reasons such as a recent dive at a volcanic site and we saw very intense venting of carbon dioxide. At the depth we were at, there were literally droplets of liquid carbon dioxide floating up out of the seafloor. This has very interesting implications, as we don’t know how much carbon dioxide is coming out into the ocean from these volcanoes. This underscores that fact that we may be underscoring a source of carbon dioxide and how it is affecting the life forms around the ocean. These are the types of things we need to know and there are still many places like this and venting gases and other fluids with specialized life forms living around them that we know nothing about. Another example is a volcano where we found pools of hydrothermal mineral rich water with hundreds of thousands of flat fish and this was the first time we saw a fish associated with a hydrothermal system on the sea floor. There seemed to be some type of symbiosis associated with the other life forms depending on the chemicals. These are the types of things we need to know about. These types of volcanoes are very important because they do come up very shallow into the ocean. What we decided a few years ago was that a major exploration goal was to look at the submarine volcanoes along the Island Arc system of the western Pacific. These are volcanoes that grow behind the great subduction zone where the trenches are as water and gases come off the down going plate as it is heated up. The gases and water come out and remelt the rocks and then you get volcanoes ­ just like you have in the Cascades in Oregon and Washington. There are literally thousands of them that have never been looked before this kind of research. We know they are important because there are hydrothermal systems on them and that at any given time they may erupt. We often hear of sounds coming from these sites on hydrophones. They are potentially hazards ­ tsunami hazards if their explosions are large enough. We need to know more about these so our goal is to try and look at two of these larger Arcs. The Mariana Arc is in the farthest, western part of the United States, north of Guam. The other one is north of New Zealand, extending from New Zealand all the way up to another U.S. outpost called American Samoa. There are hundreds of volcanoes along these arcs. We’ve just brushed the surface on studying these. We looked at seven or eight of these volcanoes last year and every one of them was different and had a surprise for us. We saw many different life forms at these volcanoes. This year we are going to the arc north of New Zealand and expecting to find some things we don’t expect! That is the joy of it and ultimately we better understand what gases and chemicals are coming out of these and going into the ocean and in particularly going into the upper ocean and interacting where most of the life is. It is quite an exciting adventure but we have a long ways to go.

Related Links

Bob Embley Profile


Please note that all OceanAGE Career content was current at the time that interviews were recorded; however, profiles are not being updated to reflect subsequent career changes.