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NZ scientists to lead submarine investigation in the Mediterranean - 26/10/2007

New Zealand and American scientists will join Italian colleagues next week for the first-ever systematic investigation of submarine hydrothermal activity in the Mediterranean Sea.

GNS geochemists

The five New Zealanders, all from GNS Science, have been invited to participate in the 12-day project on the strength of their track record in exploring submarine volcanoes and hydrothermal venting along the Kermadec Arc from surface ships and in submersibles.

Over the past nine years, together with their American colleagues, they have found up to 60 percent of the 90 submarine volcanoes between the Bay of Plenty and Tonga are hydrothermally active.

This means hot mineral-rich fluids are being expelled into the sea at about 55 of the volcanoes along the Kermadec Arc. In addition, metal-rich mineral deposits and unusual communities of marine life occur at many of these seafloor vents.

The focus in the Mediterranean is the Aeolian Arc, a horseshoe-shaped chain of about a dozen submarine volcanoes north of Sicily. The project will shed light on the area’s marine geology, which is not well understood.

The Italian government is funding the project and is providing Italy’s premier research ship, the RV Urania, for the 12-day expedition.

The aim is to identify submarine volcanic and hydrothermal vent targets for future biological, geophysical, and geological research.

The summits of the submarine volcanoes in the Aeolian Arc range in depth from 100m to 2000m. The researchers will operate in 12-hour shifts conducting a range of tests. This includes collecting water samples at each site and looking for black smoker plumes that emanate from the seafloor vents.

Mediterranean map

New Zealand project leader Cornel de Ronde, of GNS Science, said the Aeolian Arc might possess unique ecosystems that are peculiar to its setting, which is isolated from other deep-ocean hydrothermal sites.

“Before scientists can study seafloor ecosystems, we need to first identify and then characterise the active hydrothermal sites,” Dr de Ronde said.

“Experience gained in this project will be valuable to for future exploration of similar volcanoes and their hydrothermal systems in New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

“It will also enable us to develop new collaborations with European scientists and strengthen New Zealand’s position as a world leader in this type of research.”

The area has a rich volcanic history and is known as the cradle of volcanology. The cluster of volcanoes located around the Tyrrhenian Sea – Vesuvius, Etna and Stromboli – have been producing spectacular and destructive eruptions for thousands of years.

Mt Etna in Sicily, the largest and most active volcano in Europe, is presently erupting. Stromboli is one of the most active volcanoes on Earth and has been in nearly continuous eruption for about 2000 years. It was known by ancient seafarers as the ‘torch of the Mediterranean’.

More information about Mediterranean volcanoes:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stromboli
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Etna