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With the eruption of Mauna Loa, a rare glimpse of Earth


In 1963, a geophysicist named John Tuzo Wilson proposed that the islands, which are covered in layers of volcanic stone, sit above a magma plume, which forms when deep mantle rock bubbles up and accumulates beneath the crust. This “hot spot” continually pushes towards the surface, sometimes puncturing the tectonic plate, melting and deforming the surrounding rock as it goes. The plate moves over millions of years as the magma plume remains relatively still, creating new volcanoes atop the plate and leaving inactive volcanoes in their wake. The results are archipelagos like the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount Chain and parts of the Icelandic Shelf.

The hotspot theory gained broad consensus over the following decades. “No other theory is able to reconcile so many observations,” said Helge Gonnermann, a volcanologist at Rice University.

Some confirming sightings came relatively recently, in the 2000s, after scientists began placing seismometers, which measure Earth’s energy waves, on the ocean floor. John Orcutt, a geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, who helped lead this research, said seismometers had provided an X-ray of the magma plume rising beneath Hawaii. The instruments were able to accurately read the direction and speed of the magma flow; the results clearly pointed to the presence of a hot spot.

This hotspot probably fomented volcanic activity for tens of millions of years, although it only arrived at its present position beneath Mauna Loa about 600,000 years ago. And as long as it stays there, Dr. Orcutt said, it will reliably produce volcanic activity. “Few things on Earth are so predictable,” he added.

Closer to the surface, predicting when, where and how intense these eruptions will be becomes more difficult, despite the profusion of seismometers and satellite sensors. “The deeper you go, the more fluid the behavior becomes,” Dr. Orcutt said. “By the time you get that interface between rock and molten rock and the ocean, the magma tends to come out sporadically.”

nytimes Gt

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