Scientists who have been monitoring an active underwater volcano off the coast of Oregon made history in July when they discovered their earlier prediction of an eruption was right on the money.
The accurate forecasting of Axial Seamount's April 2011 eruption is the first of its kind -- never before has anyone accurately predicted an underwater eruption.
Despite their prediction, Bill Chadwick and his team did not immediately understand what they had come across, after a routine mission to uncover underwater monitoring instruments found the area around the volcano to be unrecognizable.
"At first we were really confused, and thought we were in the wrong place," Chadwick, a geologist with Oregon State University, told MSNBC. "Finally we figured out we were in the right place but the whole seafloor had changed, and that's why we couldn't recognize anything. All of a sudden it hit us that, wow, there had been an eruption. So it was very exciting."
The team made the discovery on July 28 and determined that the volcano erupted on April 6.
Chadwick and Scott Nooner of Columbia University have been monitoring Axial Seamount, a volcano 3,000 feet above the sea floor and 250 miles off the coast of Oregon, since it last erupted in 1998. They co-authored a study in 2006 predicting that it would erupt again before 2014.
"Forecasting the eruption of most land volcanoes is normally very difficult at best, and the behavior of most is complex and variable," Nooner, who is affiliated with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said in a statement released by Oregon State University. "We now have evidence, however, that Axial Seamount behaves in a more predictable way than many other volcanoes -- likely due to its robust magma supply coupled with its thin crust, and its location on a mid-ocean ridge spreading center.
"It is now the only volcano on the seafloor whose surface deformation has been continuously monitored throughout an entire eruption cycle," Nooner added.
The dramatic impact of the eruption on the seafloor can unearth marine activity that was previously unobservable.
"When eruptions like this occur, a huge amount of heat comes out of the seafloor, the chemistry of seafloor hot springs is changed, and pre-existing vent biological communities are destroyed and new ones form," Chadwick said. "Some species are only found right after eruptions, so it is a unique opportunity to study them."
The scientists will use the data they compiled to predict not just Axial Seamount's next eruption, but other volcanoes as well.
"The acid test in science -- whether or not you understand a process in nature -- is to try to predict what will happen based on your observations," Chadwick said. "We have done this, and it is extremely satisfying that we were successful. Now we can build on that knowledge and look to apply it to other undersea volcanoes -- and perhaps even volcanoes on land."