CASPER, Wyo. — University of Wyoming Associate Professor of Geology and Geophysics Michael Cheadle served on an expedition to the Indian Ocean in which the research team discovered a volcano on the seafloor using a remotely operated submarine, UW said on Thursday, Oct. 1.
“We discovered a large volcano, which was 18 miles long and 1 mile high,” Cheadle said in UW’s announcement. “It was interesting because we could clearly see that it was a volcano that exploded, like those we see on the continents, such as Mount St. Helens, for example.”
“But this type of explosive eruption is quite rare at the bottom of the ocean. We named the volcano Mount Mahoney after a famous U.S. geologist who worked on undersea volcanoes.”
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Cheadle served as a geologist on the team which explored the Indian Ocean on a German research ship called the “R/V Sonne” in March. UW says the expedition mapped 6,000 miles of seafloor in addition to their discovery of the volcano.
“During the mapping — conducted at a resolution of 100 lateral feet — of some of the least explored seafloor on Earth, Cheadle and other researchers were able to view and study various faults, individual lava flows and volcanic eruption cones in great detail,” UW says. “The group also mapped a ‘push-up’ ridge in a transform fault, which is a fault where two tectonic plates slide past each other, much like the San Andreas Fault.”
Cheadle said that the research helps add to understanding of how the Earth’s crust pulls apart at midocean ridges.
“Here, the tectonic plates of the Earth pull apart at a very slow rate and, perhaps, give us an idea of what some of the topography of the Earth will look like when plate tectonics stop many millions of years in the future,” he said.
The push-up ridge the group discovered was named Nicolas Ridge, named after a French geologist.
“As a matter of scientific protocol, the first people to see some of these features allows them to name the undersea mountain or feature,” UW says Cheadle explained.
In addition to the geology features, the group encountered a number of aquatic species including:
- rat-tail fish
- sea cucumbers
- glass sponges
- sea spiders
- acorn worms
“There are only about 600 living species of crinoid, but the class was much more abundant and diverse in the past,” Cheadle told UW. “They really are living fossils, with the first fossil examples found in rocks from 480 million years ago. Contrast that with humans, who have only been around for about the last 6 million years.”
UW adds that glass sponges are species with skeletons composed of “tiny particles of silica.”
“Glass sponges live attached to hard surfaces and consume small bacteria and plankton that they filter from the sea water,” the release adds.
The research team found evidence of recent hydrothermal activity but did not locate any active hydrothermal vents, according to Cheadle.
“Buoyed by the positive clues, Cheadle says there is a plan to present a funding proposal to the German Science Foundation to go back and search for hydrothermal vents, which are fissures on the seafloor from which superheated water erupts,” UW said. “These vents often support exotic sea life, which may provide clues for the origin of life itself.”
The expedition also utilized a remotely operated submarine named “Marum-Quest” which took video of the seafloor and helped collect rock samples.
“As a geologist, Cheadle’s duties included carrying out the structural analysis of all samples collected on the cruise; overseeing sample recovery from the Marum-Quest; providing commentary on ROV dives, which were broadcast live worldwide; serving as a member of the senior planning team; and conducting several lectures during the short course the group provided to students during the voyage home,” UW says.
“Cheadle, who was funded by NSF, was invited to be part of the research voyage by Jüergen Koepke, a professor in the Institute of Mineralogy at Leibniz University-Hannover in Hannover, Germany. Koepke served as chief scientist during the expedition. Daniel Colwell, a UW master’s student from Nebo, N.C., majoring in geology, is working on the rocks Cheadle collected during the cruise as part of a project, titled ‘Understanding the End of Plate Tectonics on Earth-Like Planets.’ Colwell is currently funded by a Wyoming NASA Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) graduate research fellowship.”
UW says the expedition was Cheadle’s tenth research voyage and fifth to the Indian Ocean.
“The expedition, originally scheduled to run March 6-April 22, was halted March 21 due to COVID-19 developments around the world,” UW says. “While the ship was COVID-free, South Africa closed its ports. Trapped at sea with limited fuel, the research operation was halted, and the vessel sailed to Germany, a trip that took nearly a month, Cheadle says.”
The MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen provide video detailing the expedition on Youtube: