Video Captures Underwater 'Brimstone and Fire' Through a robotic vehicle, a team of scientists are the first to witness up-close the eruption of an underwater volcano. The volcano is not too far from a gigantic undersea trench where one continent-sized piece of the Earth's crust is grinding underneath another.
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Video Captures Underwater 'Brimstone and Fire'

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Video Captures Underwater 'Brimstone and Fire'

Video Captures Underwater 'Brimstone and Fire'

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Imagine for a moment looking down into the pit of an erupting volcano, one that's blasting out boulders and clouds of super hot gas. A team of scientists has done just that. The volcano called Rta-1 is on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Scientists on a research ship lowered a robotic vehicle to within a few yards of the volcano and filmed it. As they watched they recorded this meticulous scientific analysis.

Unknown Man: Whoa! What! Oh, my gosh! It's exploding like an egg! Wow!

NORRIS: Well, the analysis got a bit more meticulous when things settled down. NPR's Christopher Joyce has this story on what the scientists saw.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: For two years now, Robert Embley and a team of scientists has been doing what no one else in the world has ever done. Watching an underwater volcano up close. It's in the northern Pacific near the Mariana Islands. It's not too far from a gigantic undersea trench where one continent size piece of the earth's crust is grinding underneath another piece.

ROBERT EMBLEY: Gases that are locked into that rock come out because it gets hot. They migrate back up through the earth and then that causes some re-melting of the rock above that. That's where you get these chains of volcanoes that sort of power all the trench.

JOYCE: Embley is a geologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He found the active volcano in 2004 by tracking a big yellowish plume in the water back to its source. The team then lowered a robotic vehicle with cameras. The water was as acid as lemon juice.

They found the volcano and a bubbling, smoking crater, which they called the Brimstone Pit. Their most recent trip was last month. When they sent their vehicle down this time the volcano had become very active.

WILLIAM CHADWICK: Whoa! Holy moly! That is unbelievable!

JOYCE: What geologist William Chadwick saw on the video screen on board the research ship was a full eruption. The scientists crowded around as Chadwick, from Oregon State University, described the scene unfolding below.

CHADWICK: The pit is kind of this rubble mound and the plume is coming out of the middle and there is gas coming out from the fringes. Oh wow! I can see rocks that are falling out of the eruption cloud. Look at that. So there is a lot more of this billowing white smoke coming out all of a sudden. It really changes moment to moment here.

JOYCE: The robotic vehicle got closer than anyone could get to a volcano on land. The seawater dampened the gas and rock explosions and the heat, although Embley says the robot did get splattered with molten sulfur, engulfed in floating ash and hit by rocks.

EMBLEY: I never thought we'd get that close to see something like this. Truthfully, we were awed. To actually go right up to the rim and put your water sampler right into it and sample the fluid coming out. That's what so amazing about it. We actually descended down into the pit without realizing what we were doing. We got down in below the rim of it. That was probably not a good thing to do.

JOYCE: Fish and crustaceans rained down onto the sea floor, killed by the sulfur and heat. But two species of shrimp thrived just a few hundred feet from the brimstone pit. One species seemed to be eating bacteria flowing out of cracks in the side of the volcano. The other species preyed on them. Embley says it was hard to tear his crew away from the video screen and the same goes for scientists around the world who've been watching that video. One who's has explored for submarine volcanoes himself is David Clay, with the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.

DAVID CLAY: I wish I'd been there. Probably every volcano specialist in the world wishes they'd been there.

JOYCE: Cleag says the discovery gives scientists an unprecedented look at the way gas and lava drive a violent eruption and how the rock breaks up in a way no one could do on land.

CLAY: When you contain the eruption a little bit with some water pressure it actually lets you study those processes without all the particles being blown to smithereens.

JOYCE: The expedition was organized by NOAA's ocean exploration office. Early findings are published tomorrow in the scientific journal Nature.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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