Dr Rebecca Carey’s research into the dynamic processes of submarine volcanic eruptions has been recognised on the national stage at the Australian Academy of Science’s 2020 honorific awards.
Dr Carey was awarded the Dorothy Hill medal in recognition of her exceptional contributions to the worldwide earth sciences community. An example of this work is her study into an eruption that occurred in 2012 at the underwater volcano Havre Seamount, South-West Pacific Ocean.
About 70 per cent of Earth’s volcanic activity happens on the sea floor, out of sight of scientists. A passing airline passenger spotted the only visible clue: an enormous floating raft of pumice. Scientists needed to know more, so Dr Rebecca Carey led an expedition to the site.
“If that event of the same magnitude had happened on land, it would have produced a massive volcanic plume that reached heights of up to 30 kilometres,” Dr Carey said.
The team deployed two underwater vehicles. One was pre-programmed to follow a set route, measuring water chemistry while taking photos. The other, called “Jason” was controlled from the research ship and was used to collect samples from the seafloor.
Dr Carey’s research revealed that magma from the site didn’t erupt like it does in land-based volcanoes.
“Because of the confining pressure of the overlying water on that deep submarine volcano, it actually suppressed the eruption such that it produced lavas rather than a big, explosive event,” she said.
Much of the erupted material eventually floated to the surface and drifted away with ocean currents.
Dr Carey says her life as a volcanologist is one of constant learning.
“The discoveries that we’ve made have been quite important in the context of understanding fundamental processes about how the Earth works.”