Scientists have found that volcanoes deep in the ocean discharge so much energy potential when they erupt that they could theoretically power the whole of the United States. Scientists at the University of Leeds in the UK have gathered data via remotely operated vehicles from deep-sea volcanic activity in the Northeast Pacific. They found that ocean volcanoes were as intriguing to study as volcanoes on land, although the observer doesn’t get as spectacular views from ocean-erupting volcanoes as from those on land.
The University of Leeds scientists suggest in their research, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, that submarine volcanoes create the so-called hydrothermal megaplumes when they erupt. The researchers estimate that extremely high rates of energy are being discharged during those eruptions.
“The rate of energy released and required to carry ash to the observed distances is extremely high – equivalent to the power used by the whole of the USA,” the University of Leeds said about the research carried out by Dr Sam Pegler, from the School of Mathematics, and Dr David Ferguson, from the School of Earth and Environment.
The rapid release of immense energy from submarine eruptions means that submarine volcanic eruptions lead to the rapid emptying of reservoirs of hot fluids within the earth’s crust. As the magma forces its way upwards towards the seafloor, it drives this hot fluid with it, the scientists say.
“Our results demonstrate that intervals of rapid hydrothermal discharge are likely commonplace during deep-ocean volcanism,” the researchers said in their paper.
“Observing a submarine eruption in person remains extremely difficult but the development of instruments based on the seafloor means data can be streamed live as the activity occurs,” Dr. Ferguson said in a statement.
Although scientists have now begun to understand how ocean volcanoes work, the harnessing of the immense energy could be impossible.
Geothermal energy on land is one thing, but capturing the huge energy deep in the Pacific Ocean could be a whole different story.
Major oil corporations have moved to invest in geothermal energy on land. One of the latest was an announcement from U.S. supermajor Chevron last month that it invested in a private investment company focused on the development and operation of low-temperature geothermal and heat power assets in the United States and internationally.
The U.S. Department of Energy says that ‘Geothermal is America’s untapped energy giant,’ highlighting in its analysis that this kind of “always-on” flexible renewable energy resource could grow 26-fold to generate 8.5 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050.
Geothermal resources in the U.S. are enormous, but geothermal energy accounted for just 0.4 percent of total utility-scale electricity generation in the United States in 2020, according to EIA data. Globally, America leads in geothermal electricity generation, but on a U.S. scale, geothermal is a negligible part of total electricity generation.
However, geothermal energy generation near volcanic activity is riskier to operate, as a recent incident showed.
In Hawaii, the lava flows from the Kilauea volcano led to the shutdown of the Puna Geothermal Venture power plant in 2018, which voluntarily ceased operations ahead of the approaching lava flow. The 38-megawatt (MW) facility is the only geothermal plant on the island, and it produced about 29 percent of the island’s electricity generation in 2017, as per EIA data.
In 2018 during the Kilauea volcano eruption, production wells at a geothermal plant were plugged to prevent the release of toxic gases.
The power plant returned online in November 2020, sending electricity to the Hawaii Island grid two and a half years after the eruption of the Kilauea volcano put it out of operation.
Geothermal power development near active volcanoes on land is not without risks. In the ocean, the energy from submarine volcanoes could be enormous, but it will likely never be tapped. Still, understanding deep ocean volcano activity could give scientists more insight into how the earth works and how it affects marine life.