This blog provides commentary on interesting geological events occurring around the world in the context of my own work. This work is, broadly, geological fluid dynamics. The events that I highlight here are those that resonate with my professional life and ideas, and my goal is to interpret them in the context of ideas I've developed in my research. The blog does not represent any particular research agenda. It is written on a personal basis and does not seek to represent the University of Illinois, where I am a professor of geology and physics. Enjoy Geology in Motion! I would be glad to be alerted to geologic events of interest to post here! I hope that this blog can provide current event materials that will make geology come alive.

Banner image is by Ludie Cochrane..

Susan Kieffer can be contacted at s1kieffer at gmail.com

Friday, August 10, 2012

A raft of pumice in the Pacific

A part of the pumice raft
Photo from CNN.com
Driving to work this morning, I heard a headline on NPR about a floating raft of rocks out in the Pacific and, sure enough, Google worked and I found the pictures! On Thursday, pilots and sailors from the New Zealand navy discovered pumice, sometimes inches high and looking like floating ice, covering an area estimated to be more than 7,500 square miles. It appears to be an oblong area 250 x 30 nautical miles in dimension.  Volcanologists love to try to reconstruct the "equivalent magma volume" that it would take to produce this--was it a cubic mile? a fraction of a cubic mile? However, unless we know how much of the surface it covers (1%? 50%?), what it's average thickness is (a few inches?), and especially, what the density of individual pieces is, we can't make that calculation. We do know for sure that the density is less than 1 g/cm3 (the density of water), and some older studies of pumice from a Japanese caldera eruption showed that the density varied between 0.211 and 0.777, with an average of 0.51. My guess (with no measurements at all) is that the pumice in the above photo covers about 5% of the frame, and this is probably a photo selected because it has lots of pumice. Let's assume that it covers 1% of the 7500 square miles, to an average depth of 6". If I did my math right, this is a depth of 0.0001 mile, and so the volume of the pumice would be 7500*0.0001 = 0.75 cubic miles. If the average density of the pumice is about 0.5, then the erupted volume would have been a few tenths of a cubic mile.  A pretty healthy burp.

***Note added on August 11: Scientists initially (as of yesterday) thought that the eruption was from Monowai, a volcano that I posted about an eruption a year ago. However, as of today, they have determined that the raft was spotted first on July 19, whereas Monowai didn't erupt until August 3. They now believe that the eruption was from an unknown volcano about half way between New Zealand and Tonga. There were more than 157 earthquakes between magnitude 3 and 4.8 in this area between July 17 and 18. This information is from Stuff.co.nz. There is also a 36 second video from the air of the raft on this site. My guess from looking at the video is that my estimate above of an aerial coverage of 1% may be high by as much as an order of magnitude because the still photo in the upper left is definitely one of the highest density areas. So, perhaps a few hundreths of a cubic mile equivalent magma volume, with a few tenths as an upper bound.

Pumice rafts have been observed before. There has been speculation (sorry, I don't have a reference) that they could have been a platform on which life originated on earth--a platform on which a soup of organic chemicals from hydrothermal vents in the ocean could have accreted, been zapped by lightning to form the complex organic molecules leading to life. It has also been proposed that life could have migrated from island to island in the Pacific, or from continent to island, e.g., South America to the Galapagos, on such rafts.

More recently, Scot Bryan of Queensland University of Technology, has studied pumice rafts from the 2001 and 2006 eruptions in Tonga, and suggested that they could have been crucial in the formation, evolution, and future of the Great Barrier Reef off of northeast Australia. Bryan's studies showed that the initial 440 square kilometer floating mass of pumice broke into streaks on which "millions to billions" of marine organisms such as cyanobacteria, barnacles, molluscs, corals, anemones, and crabs, started hitchhiking. As the fragmented raft wandered more than 5000 kilometers over 8 months, 80 species of plants and animals journeyed along with it. When the corals, coralline algae, anemones, and other reef dwellers that were hitchhiking got the the Reef, they simply decided to call it home (well, a bit of an anthropomorphism!!).

Bryan views this as a positive thing because it may indicate that volcanic activity in the Pacific can replenish the Reef, which is stressed and dying in the warming waters around it.  On the downside, however, there are some marine pests such as sponges and mussels that journey along as well.

Bryan's research is featured in this Phys.org article from which I obtained this information, and in the technical article by Bryan et al., "Rapid, Long-Distance Dispersal by Pumice Rafting," in PLOS-ONE, a peer-reviewed, open access journal.

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