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Robotic Vehicle Recovers Instruments and Data Locked in a Lava Flow

May 1, 2007

A lot of ocean science equipment goes into the water and never comes back. Some of it was intended to stay; other times, the sea claims it by force. Recently researchers used the WHOI-operated underwater vehicle Jason to take back some instruments—and hopefully some scientific secrets—that had been claimed by a seafloor volcanic eruption. In April 2007, scientists and technicians on the research vessel Atlantis returned to a patch of seafloor on the East Pacific Rise with Jason to find and rescue a trio of ocean-bottom seismometers (OBSs). The earthquake-monitoring instruments had been glued to the ocean bottom (1.6 miles/2,500 meters deep) by erupting lava that had flowed and hardened around them. Scientists were particularly interested in getting the OBSs back because they may have recorded the moments when the undersea volcano erupted, a phenomenon that has rarely been observed in progress. Marine geologists have been debating whether this particular eruption happened all at once or over several months. The 1,200-pound, robotically armed Jason successfully plucked two of the OBSs and their data out of the hardened rock (click here for video), so now the researchers may have a chance to settle the argument.

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