Mission Accomplished

by Erik Olsen  |  March 26, 2018

The Brothers volcano expedition has hoisted Jason out of the water and is bound for Auckland. As we did, a sense of relief settled in among both the science and the Jason teams.

We achieved a remarkable amount of science over the last week, enough to make up for several setbacks that threatened many of the goals of the expedition. “The expedition was fraught, but highly productive, when we finally got the vehicle in the water,” said Cornel de Ronde, co-Principal Investigator of the Brothers volcano expedition. “In reality, we achieved the minimum of what we set out to achieve, but that’s good.”

Bad weather hindered our efforts to launch Jason until March 22, but after we got the ROV in the water, we had two very productive, successful dives and were able to collect new samples from the volcano, conduct dozens of heat flow probe measurements, and explore areas that had not previously been thoroughly investigated.

“I would have liked to spend more time around the bottom of the cone, exploring. But considering the weather, considering the various equipment malfunctions, I think we were lucky to achieve what we achieved. Any more lost days, we would have compromised the whole expedition, but we didn’t,” said de Ronde.

One of the biggest setbacks was the loss of the elevator, a device the team uses to transport equipment to and from the seafloor. The mishap occurred on the evening of March 17, and cast a pall over the entire ship. The elevator was loaded with two water samplers and nine of the valuable thermal blankets that had been collecting data on heat flowing through the seafloor of the volcano. The data was of immense value—it was to be used to inform the upcoming core drilling expedition set for May.

However, over the last four days, the team conducted 31 new deep-flow heat probes of the volcano, targeting most of the spots where the blankets had been placed.

“We were really able to pull it out there for the last dive and we got good data, so I am very happy about that,” said Maurice Tivey, a lead  investigator on the expedition. “Losing the nine thermal blankets constrained us, but we were much more successful with the heat flow probe than we thought we’d be.”

The team also collected water samples, vent fluids, and around 50 pieces of the hydrothermal materials, many of which are teeming with microbial life. On board, 20-30 discrete microbial samples were scraped from the rock and already many of them have had their DNA extracted for future study.

“The number of samples was adequate,” said Anna-Louise Reysenbach, Chief Scientist on board. “In my work, the more the better, so that you can see really see the similarities and differences between the various sites on the volcano. And, I’d say we just got there.”

The next step is to have the sampled DNA sequenced, and the expectation is that they will yield a bounty of valuable information.

“This is one of the first studies that has ever been done on a deep-sea volcano where people are looking at the microbiology so clearly it’s going to provide some really cool new species, new branches of life,” said Dr. Reysenbach.

While there were no major breakthroughs or discoveries, the mission was judged a success by everyone involved and enthusiasm now rides high going into the drilling operations in May.

“It’s confirmed to me that this is a great site to come and drill,” said de Ronde. “We knew metal-rich fluids are moving through the crust, but we saw things that confirmed we will be drilling in the right places.”