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Geology That's Alive

Volcanologist Richard Fiske loves fieldwork most of all--when he's on the job, the Earth moves

Richard Fiske is internationally known for his work with volcanoes; in certain circles in Japan he is a legend. For several years this Smithsonian geologist has been studying undersea explosive volcanoes with Japanese marine scientists. Japan is intensely concerned with the phenomenon, since it depends so much on the sea. There is also the possibility that an undersea volcano might erupt catastrophically, though that hasn't happened for thousands of years. To say the least, the tidal waves caused by such an eruption would be devastating for this island nation.

For much of this decade, Fiske has been at it, going down in a tiny Japanese submersible to explore recently active submarine craters. It's dark down there at 4,500 feet. The only lights are the sub's own beacons. The only sounds are the whirring of the video cameras and the rattle of things from the ocean floor being grabbed up by the sub's metal arm and dropped into a basket on its front.

"I've set two records," Fiske told me. "I was the tallest person ever to go into the submersible, and the oldest." He is 6 feet 1 and a bit, which is, of course, a lot more notable in Japan than here, and when he last went down, a year ago, he was 64, which is notable only when you understand that retirement at 60 is enforced in most Japanese universities. "I had to get in there like a wet noodle and scrunch up," Fiske remarked. "But I'd do it again in a minute."

All right, so why undersea volcanoes? There are plenty in the open air. "Japan is one of the best places to study explosive submarine volcanoes. For some time people didn't recognize that they even existed. We didn't know they were there unless they happened to erupt." For Fiske, and the Japanese, too, the most fascinating part is the fabulous deposits of metal-bearing minerals left by these eruptions. "We're talking about five or ten cubic miles of debris. I mean, these eruptions can be big."

Many ore deposits are formed from submarine volcanoes. The point is, on land vast amounts of valuable minerals are ejected by volcanic eruptions, only to be carried away by the wind. "But in an undersea eruption, these emanations hit cold seawater and are precipitated. They end up as mineral deposits on the ocean floor." And that also has the attention of the Japanese, although there are no immediate plans to mine the deposits.

"Volcanoes attract attention," Fiske says. "They show clearly that this earth of ours is alive, and not just sitting there like the everlasting hills. Volcanoes grow and do all kinds of interesting things." Interesting: that would be the word for Kilauea, the Hawaiian volcano that has been erupting continually since January 1983. Fiske spends a lot of time in Hawaii; he has been going there for 30 years. "We rappel deep into cracks looking for layers of ash between lava flows. They are an indicator of how Kilauea has been breaking apart over the last 1,000 years.

"As we speak, lava is pouring into the ocean, building new land. What I'm concentrating on is the fact that the volcano's magma is actually pushing its south flank into the sea."

The area being pushed aside at a rate of some 10 to 15 centimeters a year--geologically comparable to the speed of light--forms a gigantic rectangle, 50 miles across and three miles thick. "We're studying how the volcano is doing this and what the evidence is for its rates of motion in the past. The south flank of Kilauea, as it detaches, leaves cracks and faults, and we study these."

If this entire south side of the mountain ever slides off into the Pacific, "it would be truly apocalyptic. There might be tidal waves hundreds of feet high; every coastal community in Hawaii would be at risk."

Something like it has happened already: hundreds of thousands of years ago the eastern half of Oahu broke off and parts of it slid 200 miles across the ocean floor. It must have been a disaster of biblical proportions.

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