Underwater Volcanoes Could Generate Enough Power for the Whole U.S., Study Finds

Filed under "nature is metal...and efficient."

Underwater volcanoes could generate enough power for the entire United States, but the explosions aren't consistent enough, or easy enough to track, to make actually doing so possible.

This news comes by way of a recent study published by Nature Communications centered around a team of scientists who hypothesized the magnitude of volcanic explosions happening underwater, as reported by Syfy. Scientists, civilizations, and just about anyone who's ever seen a volcanic eruption happen on land know how powerful this natural phenomenon is.
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Scientists have long pondered, however, the actual power of volcanoes erupting underwater. These volcanoes explode much in the same way that volcanoes above sea do, shooting ash high into the sky, err, ocean, but unlike those on land, underwater volcanoes also create superheated water cyclones called megaplumes.

The amount of power generated by these underwater eruptions is a lot – that much is known by scientists, but how to harness said power has remained a mystery. That's because despite how much scientists know about these eruptions, they still happen far too infrequently and randomly to gather enough information to know definitively.

Two of the scientists behind the Nature Communications study, Samuel Pegler and David Ferguson of the University of Leeds, used "direct observations and mathematical computations to navigate around the fact that there's such an absence of data."
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The duo studied the Northeast Pacific's Northern Escanaba's lava flow from 2009 to understand how an underwater volcano like the NESCA works. The NESCA volcano vent "heats up seawater into violent torrents that can whisk volcanic rock particles called 'tephra' up to three miles away from the eruption site," according to Syfy. Pegler and Ferguson used this data to create a simulation to estimate the magnitude of this underwater volcano.

Based on this simulation, the two learned that an underwater volcanic eruption has a high enough magnitude of power to power the U.S.

"Our results constrain the rate of energy release (or power) and show that during the eruption, the power output is sufficient to run the U.S. for that period of time, probably on the order of hours/days (however long it lasts — we don't know precisely)," Ferguson told Vice when asked about the study.
He also told the publication that "there is effectively zero chance of capturing the energy for all sorts of reasons," including the fact that nobody knows when or where these underwater eruptions will take place, not to mention actually gaining access to the volcano's eruption. Ferguson says the point of this simulation and their findings is to "illustrate how powerful/energetic these things are."

Beyond the sheer power of these underwater volcanoes, the duo also used their study to learn more about how "deep sea hydrothermal systems" might be candidates for the origin of life on Earth, Ferguson said. He said "extremophile" deep ocean life is sustained by the energy and chemicals supplied by magmatic and volcanic activity associated with underwater volcanoes.

"The most likely mechanism that these thermophilic (heat-loving) microbes are dispersed to other sites is in megaplumes," Ferguson said. "Our results suggest that this process is likely to be mediated by volcanic activity. There is also the interesting conjecture that many biologists consider deep sea hydrothermal systems as good candidates for the origin of life on Earth."
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Not only are underwater volcanoes powerful enough to power the entire U.S., but they might also be the original site for the beginning of life on Earth.

For more about volcanoes, check out this story about a planet discovered by scientists that's basically Darth Vader's lava homeworld, Mustafar, and then read IGN's list of the greatest movie volcanoes. Check out this story about the discovery of water on the surface of the Moon after that and then ponder if the Moon is hiding some underwater volcanoes — "underwater moon volcanoes" has a nice ring to it, after all.

Image Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Wesley LeBlanc is a freelance news writer, guide maker, and science guru for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @LeBlancWes.