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Tamu Massif, Earth’s Largest Volcano, Lurks Beneath Pacific Ocean

Tamu Massif, Earth’s Largest Volcano, Lurks Beneath Pacific Ocean

Posted: 09/06/2013 8:34 am EDT  |  Updated: 09/06/2013 10:28 am EDT

The world’s largest volcano lurks beneath the Pacific Ocean, researchers announced today (Sept. 5) in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Called the Tamu Massif, the enormous mound dwarfs the previous record holder, Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, and is only 25 percent smaller than Olympus Mons on Mars, the biggest volcano in Earth’s solar system, said William Sager, lead study author and a geologist at the University of Houston.

“We think this is a class of volcano that hasn’t been recognized before,” Sager said. “The slopes are very shallow. If you were standing on this thing, you would have a difficult time telling which way was downhill.”

Tamu is 400 miles (650 kilometers) wide but only about 2.5 miles (4 km) tall. It erupted for a few million years during the early Cretaceous period, about 144 million years ago, and has been extinct since then, the researchers report. [50 Amazing Volcano Facts]

A 3D map of Tamu Massif, the world’s biggest volcano. (Click image for larger version.)

Explaining ocean plateaus

Like other massive volcanoes, Tamu Massif seems to have a central cone that spewed lava down its broad, gentle slopes. The evidence comes from seismic surveys and lava samples painstakingly collected over several years of surveys by research ships. The seismic waves show lava flows dipping away from the summit of the volcano. There appears to be a series of calderas at the summit, similar in shape to the elongated and merged craters atop Mauna Loa, Sager said.

Until now, geologists thought Tamu Massif was simply part of an oceanic plateau called Shatsky Rise in the northwest Pacific Ocean. Oceanic plateaus are massive piles of lava whose origins are still a matter of active scientific debate. Some researchers think plumes of magma from deep in the mantle punch through the crust, flooding the surface with lava. Others suggest pre-existing weaknesses in the crust, such as tectonic-plate boundaries, provide passageways for magma from the mantle, the layer beneath the crust. Shatsky Rise formed atop a triple junction, where three plates pulled apart.

william sager
Tamu Massif on Shatsky Rise in the northwest Pacific Ocean, compared in size to Olympus Mons on Mars. (Click image for larger version.)

Tamu Massif’s new status as a single volcano could help constrain models of how oceanic plateaus form, Sager said. “For anyone who wants to explain oceanic plateaus, we have new constraints,” he told LiveScience. “They have to be able to explain this volcano forming in one spot and deliver this kind of magma supply in a short time.”

Geochemist David Peate of the University of Iowa, who was not involved in the study, said he looks forward to new models explaining the pulses of magma that built Shatsky Rise. Tamu Massif is the biggest and oldest volcano, and the cones grow smaller and younger to the northeast of Tamu. Sager and his colleagues suggest that pulses of magma created the volcanic trail.

“It seems that in many oceanic plateaus the melting is continuous, but here you have a big shield volcano,” Peate told LiveScience. “Understanding the source of the volume of that magma, the rate of production of the magma and the time interval between those pulses will help give better constraints to feed into those models,” he said.

Sager said other, bigger volcanoes could be awaiting discovery at other oceanic plateaus, such as Ontong Java Plateau, located north of the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean. “Structures that are under the ocean are really hard to study,” he said.

Floating volcano

Oceanic plateaus are the biggest piles of lava on Earth. The outpourings have been linked to mass extinctions and climate change. The volume of Tamu Massif alone is about 600,000 cubic miles (2.5 million cubic km). The entire volcano is bigger than the British Isles or New Mexico.

Despite Tamu’s huge size, the ship surveys showed little evidence the volcano’s top ever poked above the sea. The world’s biggest volcano has been hidden because it sits on thin oceanic crust (or lithosphere), which can’t support its weight. Its top is about 6,500 feet (1,980 meters) below the ocean surface today.

“In the case of Shatsky Rise, it formed on virtually zero thickness lithosphere, so it’s in isostatic balance,” Sager said. “It’s basically floating all the time, so the bulk of Tamu Massif is down in the mantle. The Hawaiian volcanoes erupted onto thick lithosphere, so it’s like they have a raft to hold on to. They get up on top and push it down. And with Olympus Mons, it’s like it formed on a two-by-four.”

Sager and his colleagues have studied Shatsky Rise for decades, seeking to solve the puzzle of oceanic plateaus. About 20 years ago, they named Tamu Massif after Texas A&M University, Sager’s former employer, he said.

Email Becky Oskin or follow her @beckyoskin. Follow us @OAPlanetFacebook &Google+. Original article on LiveScience’s OurAmazingPlanet.

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Word Trivia

Word Trivia

Fun Fridays – May 11, 2012

Word Trivia

“Stewardesses” and “reverberated” are the two longest (and commonly used) words (12 letters each) that can be typed with only the left hand.

“lollipop” is the longest word typed with your right hand.

The only 15 letter word that can be spelled without repeating a letter is uncopyrightable.

No word in the English language rhymes with month, orange, silver, or purple.

“Dreamt” is the only English word that ends in the letters “mt”.

The sentence: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” uses every letter of the alphabet.

The words ‘racecar,’ ‘kayak’ and ‘level’ are the same whether they are read left to right or right to left (palindromes).

There are only four words in the English language which end in “dous”: tremendous, horrendous, stupendous, and hazardous.

There are two words in the English language that have all five vowels in order: “abstemious” and “facetious.” (a e i o u)

Typewriter is the longest word that can be made using the letters only on one row of the keyboard.

A “jiffy” is an actual unit of time for 1/100th of a second.

The only city whose name can be spelled completely with vowels is Aiea, Hawaii.

[Editor’s Note:  I did in fact live in Aiea for many years during a six year stint in Hawaii on the island of Oahu.  My wife and I had a terrible time getting mail.  All of our friends and family could not believe we lived in a place with only four vowels and no consonents – A I E A.  Pronounced “EYE -A- Uh”  The most common misspelling was ALEA.  They just randomly put an L in for the Aiea.  Curious folks my wonder where Aiea is located.  It is between Honolulu and Pearl Ridge.  We lived in a ten story apartment complex across the street from Aiea Chop Suey and Speedy’s Supermarket.  Aloha Stadium (home to the Aloha Bowl, the Hula Bowl, and The Pro Bowl and to the University of Hawaii Rainbow Warrior all played there.  From our lanai (balcony) we would look out over all of Pearl Harbor.  The Arizona Memorial was right in front of us.]


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My 90 minute interview on Radio

Here is the link, feel free to make fun of my young person voice.


You don’t have to listen to all 90 minutes if you don’t like it, but it has a lot of background on me.

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The Mystique of Silence

When I was in the Air Force I was stationed at Hickam AFB in Hawaii for most of my career.  I was an Avionics Guidance Controls and Systems Specialist level 9.  That meant I worked on all the cool electronics on the aircraft.  I was trained on every aircraft in the Air Force inventory, one of three people at the time, so they put me in Hawaii because so many different planes go through there.  All of that is in my service record, and I freely tell it to people.  Occasionally, people want more.  Last week I had to tell a person that I couldn’t really say any more.  They continued to press, so I made it clear that I REALLY could not say anymore because what I did was top secret.  There were many missions and things I worked on that I swore upon pain of imprisonment never to talk about.  I imagine some 50 years from now they will be declassified, but for now that still holds.

Many military people face the same situation, but the funny thing for me was the reaction of the people who heard me.  When I was younger, people would smirk and laugh like I was trying to sound important.  Now, people conjure up that I was a spy or sniper or some such thing.  The reaction and the sudden mystique threw me for a loop.  I thought about it for a long time before I realized that when you are secretive or silent about anything, people fill in the void with really interesting theories.  The reality is I was a glorified aircraft mechanic, which is pretty much the same job as an auto mechanic but with a bigger vehicle.  You hook up diagnostic computers, you replace parts, you test drive stuff.  Mainly you get cut on jagged metal, get bruised and doing a boring job.  Sure, people’s lives depend on you, but its no different than the guy that replaces the brake pads on your car, and when did you think they were glamorous?

I did work in an area with red lines on the ground.  If you crossed the red lines without your top secret clearance badge, you would be shot.  No kidding.  By saying that, people again are probably thinking it was some glamorous place.  It was an old hangar that still had bullet marks from the Pearl Harbor attack, coated with paint some 50 years thick.  Yes, we did things I can never talk about, but they were not worthy of any “knowing” looks or smiles.

The reaction did teach me something about writing though.  Let the reader fill in the silent blanks.  They will fill them with more wonder than you can.  It’s one reason the movie is never as good as the book.  The movie is limited by budget, time, acting ability, and ultimately reflects someone else filling in the blanks.  They rarely fill them in the way the reader did when they imagined it.  So, I will revel in the respect I receive for my boring military service simply because I can’t talk about it.

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