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Delving into a submarine volcano

GNS Science has led research on an active submarine volcano northeast of White Island, which may help the world find more clean-tech minerals such as copper as we move towards a low-carbon society.

RV Joides Resolution at sunset. Photo: Martin Crundwell

Drilling into submarine volcanoes sheds light on how metals are transported to the sea floor. Photo: Martin Crundwell

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“Researchers from GNS Science were key in providing the scientific data and expertise on seafloor mineral deposits, necessary to provide a compelling case for securing a drilling expedition to the Brothers submarine volcano in the highly competitive International Ocean Discovery Program.”

Dr Susan Humphris, Senior Scientist, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts, USA

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In a technically challenging operation, scientists drilled into the submarine Brothers volcano to find out about its internal workings, particularly how metals are transported from its interior to the seafloor. 

For some decades, scientists have been unsure of the exact mechanism that results in metal-rich deposits forming on the seafloor at submarine volcanoes. The drilling and subsequent research, undertaken as part of our membership of the International Ocean Discovery Program with Australia, revealed a twostage process deep inside the volcano near its magma body.

From inside hydrothermally active submarine volcanoes, hot metal-rich brines at 320°C are formed from fluids derived from the magma and then find their way to the sea floor. There they mix with seawater at about 4°C, triggering the metals to precipitate out. They form the metal-rich black-smoker chimneys that are familiar at Brothers and other seafloor hydrothermal systems. Some of the chimneys at Brothers are 20 metres high and are rich in metals such as copper, zinc and gold. 

We believe the finding will have international significance as it could help identify new deposits of cleantech minerals on land. Many of these deposits originally formed on the seafloor, but have since been uplifted through tectonic processes. 

Various metals are considered crucial to help the transition to a low-carbon world. The push for more electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines will require enormous amounts of critical metals, including copper.