Joint German-New Zealand expedition to probe mysteries of undersea volcanoes


A joint New Zealand-German marine scientific expedition costing over of $2.5 million will explore a series of undersea volcanoes including "Rumble III" 200 kilometres north of East Cape. It will also carry out geophysical surveying and seabed rock sampling along the South Pacific "Ring of Fire" in the latitudes of the southern Kermadec Islands.

The expedition will be conducted from the German research vessel Sonne, due to leave Fiji for the Kermadecs on 9 September.

Involved in the project are NIWA, the Institute for Geological and Nuclear Research (GNS), Auckland University, the Max Planck Institute, Seeweisen, and the Universities of Bremen, Kiel and Freiburg.

Joint Chief Scientists will be Dr Ian Wright, NIWA, and German scientist Professor Peter Stoffers.

The two-person research submersible, Jago, will be used in the research off the Bay of Plenty, and is only the second ever brought to New Zealand waters, after the 1986 voyages of the Jacques Costeau submersible operating from the vessel Calypso.

Dr Wright said today the project had taken 3 years of planning. The Sonne would operate for about 3 weeks in the South Pacific using specialised shipboard "grab" equipment to lift identified rock samples from the seabed.

Real time video 

Real time video camera equipment fitted into the centre of the hydraulic grab would enable expedition members to identify the samples they wanted brought up from the ocean floor.

"This is significantly more precise than the rock dredging methods we’ve had to use in previous expeditions," Dr Wright said. "We have a lot of existing photographs of the sea floor, but taking specific samples has been impossible until now."

"The Sonne is as well equipped as any marine research vessel available internationally and we are fortunate to have it for this project."

He said there were at least 12 undersea volcanoes that NIWA knew of between latitude 32 degrees South and New Zealand.

"At least five of these are comparable in relief, diameter, and type of volcano to Mt Ruapehu. We want to use the submersible to look at their geological structures and determine whether the submarine volcanic eruptions have been effusive (like lava flows) or explosive."

"In extreme cases explosive eruptions in sufficiently shallow waters have been known to explode into the air and on occasions create new islands. This research will help us to understand these processes along the undersea volcanoes between New Zealand and the Kermadec Islands."

"NIWA has been doing a lot of work on submarine volcanism. Sometimes associated with this volcanism is the process of hydrothermal venting, where hot metal rich fluid is discharged on to the ocean floor. The fluid coming out may be as hot as 300 degrees centigrade. We also want to find out if there is a relationship between sea floor volcanism and sea floor fault lines."

"There are a number of shallow hydrothermal vents between Bay of Plenty and White Island, and we should be able to obtain some extremely good geological samples using the Jago submersible."

"The process of ore mineralisation associated with these hydrothermal vents will also be investigated by the project team."

Dr Wright said the submersible had a maximum depth capability of 400 metres and a maximum dive time of 5 hours.

"Through direct observation, use of a manipulative grabbing arm, and continuously recording with a video camera we will be able to acquire samples and data we would only have dreamed about previously."

He said Rumble III had been chosen as one site for dives because it showed evidence of venting and was at sufficiently shallow depths to allow for comprehensive observations of the area.

"We want also to study biological forms on the volcanoes. We believe that there could be unique chemosynthetic (rather than photosynthetic) biological fauna associated with the vents.

Dr Wright said Professor Stoffers was world renowned as a researcher and "we are fortunate to have him".

"This is my tenth research visit to the area over the last 12 years and I’m sure the results will be amazing."

Dr Wright leaves New Zealand on 6 September to join the Sonne in Fiji. He will have six New Zealanders with him on the South Pacific voyage before the vessel berths at Auckland on 3 October and a change of scientific staff takes place for 11 days of research around Rumble III and White Island.



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Archived on 12 April 2019