How Not to Find a Volcano
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

How Not to Find a Volcano

During the late 1980s a rare underwater volcano in the South Pacific erupted only 130 feet beneath the Melville, a San Diego—based research ship. Erupting from the MacDonald Seamount, located 650 miles southeast of Tahiti, the volcano sent gas—infused rocks clattering and clanging against the steel hull of the Melville. The eruption transformed the blue—green water into a churning, boiling, dark brown muck and enveloped the vessel in a swirling tumult of murky water, gas bubbles, and hot volcanic rocks. The boat rocked and rang with "horrendous clangs and clamors" but suffered minimal damage. The chief scientist radioed back to his home base, "Large gas and steam bubbles burst at the surface with chocolate—colored water and, best of all, steaming lava balls too hot to hold in bare hands."

The eruption coincided with the scientists' arrival to study volcanic activity in the general area. They saw the event as an extraordinary bit of luck—being at the right place at the right time. One team member related, "I think it's fair to say that nobody has ever seen anything like this before."

The man was evidently unaware of a similar event that had occurred years earlier. The eruption under the Melville was not particularly destructive; the scientists were lucky. In 1952 a marine volcano erupted violently about 25 miles south of Tokyo. Huge fountains of steam, water, incandescent gas, and ash shot high above the surface of the sea. As soon as the eruption appeared to have run its course, teams of scientists in several ships set out to study it. When the ships arrived at the eruption site, they spread out trying to locate it. One of the ships discovered its precise position because suddenly, without fanfare, the volcano erupted very violently directly underneath it. The personnel on the other ships watched in stunned horror as the ship, sailing peacefully over a calm bit of water, was abruptly blown to pieces by the undersea eruption. The ship was completely destroyed, along with everyone aboard.