Energy unleashed by submarine volcanoes could power a continent


Research News


Volcanic eruptions deep in our oceans are capable of extremely powerful releases of energy, at a rate high enough to power the whole of the United States, according to research published today.

Eruptions from deep-sea volcanoes were long-thought to be relatively uninteresting compared with those on land. While terrestrial volcanoes often produce spectacular eruptions, dispersing volcanic ash into the environment, it was thought that deep marine eruptions only produced slow moving lava flows.

But data gathered by remotely operated vehicles deep in the North East Pacific and analysed by scientists at the University of Leeds, has revealed a link between the way ash is dispersed during submarine eruptions and the creation of large and powerful columns of heated water rising from the ocean floor, known as megaplumes.

These megaplumes contain hot chemical-rich water and act in the same way as the atmospheric plumes seen from land-based volcanoes, spreading first upwards and then outwards, carrying volcanic ash with them. The size of megaplumes is immense, with the volumes of water equivalent to forty million Olympic-sized swimming pools. They have been detected above various submarine volcanoes but their origin has remained unknown. The results of this new research show that they form rapidly during the eruption of lava.

The research was carried out by Sam Pegler, from the School of Mathematics and David Ferguson, from the School of Earth and Environment and is being published today in the journal Nature Communications.

Together they developed a mathematical model which shows how ash from these submarine eruptions spreads several kilometres from the volcano. They used the ash pattern deposited by a historic submarine eruption to reconstruct its dynamics. This showed that 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.

David Ferguson said: “The majority of Earth’s volcanic activity occurs underwater, mostly at depths of several kilometres in the deep ocean but, in contrast to terrestrial volcanoes, even detecting that an eruption has occurred on the seafloor is extremely challenging. Consequently, there remains much for scientists to learn about submarine volcanism and its effects on the marine environment.”

The research shows that submarine eruptions cause megaplumes to form but the release of energy is so rapid that it cannot be supplied from the erupted molten lava alone. Instead, the research concludes 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.

Sam Pegler added: “Our work provides evidence that megaplumes are directly linked to the eruption of lava and are responsible for transporting volcanic ash in the deep ocean. It also shows that plumes must have formed in a matter of hours, creating an immense rate of energy release.

David Ferguson adds: “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.

Efforts like these, in concert with continued mapping and sampling of the ocean floor means the volcanic character of our oceans is slowly being revealed.”


Further information:

“Rapid heat discharge during deep-sea eruptions generates megaplumes and disperses tephra” is published in Nature Communications 21 April 10:00


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April 26, 2021 6:09 pm

Did they forget about the under water discharge of hydrogen, sulphur, silicon, methane, and CO2? Seems like it is important enough to mention it when in the atmosphere. All that energy should end up as heat. How much does it contribute to the heat of the ocean?
Too bad that models aren’t the same as actually measuring something.

Last edited 1 year ago by dk_
Reply to  dk_
April 26, 2021 9:45 pm

IanPlimmer always suggested that underwater volcanoes were a significant source of atmospheric and oceanic CO2 – and was widely ridiculed but an estimated 100,000 km of oceanic ridge spreading at 4 cm. per year has the potential for a lot of volcanoes, and a lot of CO2
Iceland contains about 1000 km of ocean ridge and hosts x number of volcanoeswith y tonnes of CO2 per year. Therefore the global total must be about 100 times that
Some climate scientist should take time off from counting flAtulent unicorns to do thiscalculation properly

Reply to  Alastair gray
April 27, 2021 12:18 am

Yes, Alistair, I keep hearing that CO2 from volcanoes, including sub-surface volcanoes, are not a significant contributor to atm. CO2. I keep wondering how they know that? We don’t even have any idea as to how many volcanoes there are on the ocean floor!
Something is not adding up here.

Reply to  KcTaz
April 27, 2021 12:48 am
  • It is estimated that there are 500,000 detectable earthquakes in the world each year. 100,000 of those can be felt, and 100 of them cause damage.

Cool Earthquake Facts (

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  KcTaz
April 27, 2021 8:49 am

Those who discount the impact of under-water volcanoes “have it on the best authority!”

Bob Hoye(@subtle2)
Reply to  Alastair gray
April 27, 2021 6:58 am

Yes–Atmospheric CO2 originally came from “hot rocks”.
Still comes from hot rocks.
And in dissolving into the oceans is deposited as “cold rocks”.
Corals etc.
The line I have used is:
“CO2 Rocks!”

Nicholas McGinley
Reply to  Alastair gray
April 27, 2021 2:14 pm

1000 kilometers?
In tiny Iceland?
Iceland is smaller than Kentucky.
About 40% as large as Colorado.
I seriously doubt it has 1000 km, or 1%, of the entire global ridge system.
Looking at a Globe, it appears it would take 100 Icelands to span the Atlantic from north to south.

Separately, the vast majority of the ridge system is quiescent at any given time.
The part that crosses Iceland is a grassy park-like area along most of it’s length, for example.
Only about 250 hydrothermal vents have been discovered, each consisting of an area perhaps a few hundred meters in extent.
Some of them that have been found were revisited years later and found to be inactive and the life forms that were there, were gone.

As for calculating CO2 from volcanoes…even the estimates from well known and actively explored volcanoes in inhabited areas are very suspect. Recent studies have shown that where volcanoes exist, CO2 is venting from the entire ground surface even decades and centuries after the last eruption. No one has any way to measure something like this.
The amount of CO2 from volcanoes that has been published is surely very much smaller than the actual number, and any calculation of the actual number would only be a WAG.
But when was the last time anyone involved in such research simply said that people have no means to measure it directly, and that no one actually knows?
None of them ever say anything remotely like that.

Nicholas McGinley
Reply to  Nicholas McGinley
April 27, 2021 2:24 pm

“…it appears it would take 100 Icelands to span the Atlantic…”
This is an exaggeration, for sure, but I have a large globe in front of me, and Iceland is surprisingly tiny. On a globe the size of a beach ball, Iceland is about as big as my pinky finger nail.
Just sayin’.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nicholas McGinley
George Tetley
Reply to  dk_
April 27, 2021 12:49 am

Sailing from Auckland NZ to Norfolk Island the engine temp , increased and shut down. after checking it was found that the seawater temp. was 34c sailing on some miles looking back you could see a huge blister on the horizon. water dept around 2 miles temp. difference on the surface approx 10 km

April 26, 2021 6:20 pm

“could power a continent”
This is about as useless as claiming it is x H-bombs. In fact, powering a continent, or even the whole Earth, creates negligible heating compared with the GHE. It sounds like they are saying the power is less than a terawatt, which would be about 0.002 W/m2 over the Earth’s surface. GHE forcing is about 2 W/m2.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
April 26, 2021 6:42 pm

When you’re writing for the general public you have to put things in a frame of reference to which they can relate. So if you want to indicate a whole pile of energy, you could do worse than talking about enough energy to power a continent.

Rory Forbes
Reply to  Nick Stokes
April 26, 2021 8:25 pm

GHE forcing is about 2 W/m2

Or not …

Reply to  Nick Stokes
April 26, 2021 8:31 pm

GHE forcing is useless, tapping geothermal energy is doable.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
April 26, 2021 8:36 pm

A quick web search gives the heat flow from the core to outer space as around 44 trillion watts. The area of the Earth is around 510 trillion square meters. That gives a flux of around 0.1 watt per square meter.

As I point out elsewhere, and you point out here, it’s less than a rounding error in the Earth’s heat budget. On the other hand, the heat isn’t uniformly distributed and there are going to be strong local effects that change ocean currents and thus affect the Earth’s climate in general.

Reply to  Nick Stokes
April 27, 2021 12:19 am

No, that´s the heat transfer between two points at different depth in the crust(0.002W/m^2). The surface emits ~385W/m^2 which is all transferred upwards. That´s a lot more.

When you heat a solid like the surface to a steady state with somewhat uniform temperature, you´ll see that heat transfer between two points inside the solid is small. But the transfer from the solid to the surroundings will be much larger. Geothermal heat flow to the atmosphere is not 0.002W/m^2, it´s on average ~385W/m^2. Geothermal heat transfer between two points WITHIN the top layer of the crust is 0.002W/m^2.

Johnny Cuyana(@cuyana2000)
Reply to  Nick Stokes
April 27, 2021 4:41 am

Energy unleashed by our SUN could power an ENTIRE WORLD

Reply to  Johnny Cuyana
April 27, 2021 3:09 pm

Seems like it has for about 4 billion years now.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Nick Stokes
April 27, 2021 9:14 am

Had you taken the trouble to read the actual article ( ), you would have seen that the authors estimated ~1-2 TW per event under the oceans. Inasmuch as the article was about submarine heat, your estimate should probably be doubled, and then divided by 0.7, giving about 0.006 W/m^2 average per submarine volcanic event.

I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that this explains the heating of Earth. Rather, it is a source of heat that was previously ignored because it wasn’t known. So, yes, it is smaller than the total estimated GHE forcing. What it does do is provide insight on what might be heating the oceans, particularly the deep, upwelling waters that are thought to be impinging on West Antarctic glaciers.

Reply to  Clyde Spencer
April 29, 2021 5:03 am

Clyde, you are misinterpreting the numbers in the Nature article. A single mega plume does produce ~1-2 TW, but only for a brief period of time. To reasonably compare it to GHG forcing, one has to look at the total energy of the eruption (10^16 to 10^17 J, per the paper), and put it in the form of eruptions per time.

This says that a single eruption per year would be equivalent to 0.0000006 to 0.000006 W/m^2 .

Don Perry
April 26, 2021 6:26 pm

I thought the science was settled; that we knew the sources of carbon dioxide and that any increase is caused by man. Seems to me that if the number of undersea eruptions are unknown, then the amount of CO2 from those sources is also unknown, let alone the amount of heat being added to the oceans. I’m not an earth scientist, but it always seemed to me that the heat of El Nino must be coming from the “Ring of Fire” in the area of Indonesia. Yeah, I’m really sure the “science is settled”.

Reply to  Don Perry
April 26, 2021 6:59 pm

And don’t forget about the 91 (or more) volcanoes under west Antarctica’s ice.

Reply to  John Shewchuk
April 27, 2021 12:26 am

Also, Greenland.

P Wave Tomography Beneath Greenland and Surrounding Regions: 2. Lower Mantle

30 October 2020

Plain Language Summary
Greenland and its surrounding regions have many clues for understanding global‐scale tectonics of the Earth. Seismic tomography is a well‐established method for obtaining 3‐D images of the underground structure by inverting a large number of seismic wave arrival times. We obtain detailed tomographic images of the whole mantle beneath Greenland and adjacent regions using the latest dataset. Our high‐resolution results show that the so‐called Iceland plume could be composed of two plumes. One is located directly beneath Iceland but rising from ~1,500 km depth, which we call the Iceland plume. The other is rising from the core‐mantle boundary beneath central Greenland, which we call the Greenland plume. The Greenland plume has the main conduit and two branches in the lower mantle, and the main conduit rises to the mantle transition zone beneath eastern Greenland. Although the Iceland plume itself is a powerful plume, it may also have three joints with other plumes: the main conduit and a branch of the Greenland plume, and a plume beneath Western Europe, resulting in many active volcanoes in Iceland. The main conduit of the Greenland plume may also supply magmas to the Jan Mayen hotspot and a geothermal area in western Svalbard.

And this.
Multiple NASA Studies Confirm Bedrock Heat Flow Behind Melting Polar Ice, Not Global Warming

Reply to  Don Perry
April 26, 2021 7:00 pm

El Nino / La Nina are all about upwelling or lack thereof. So, even if these megaplumes don’t contribute a lot thermal energy to the ocean, I wonder if they have a measurable effect on the circulation and upwelling and therefore the climate.

The megaplumes could have a counterintuitive effect. One assumes they would involve water heated by a volcano. I wonder if it’s possible that the net water they bring to the surface is actually colder.

El Nino brings cold, nutrient rich, deep water to the surface. It sounds reasonable that megaplumes would also bring nutrient rich water to the surface. I wonder what effect that has on local fish ecologies.

Reply to  commieBob
April 27, 2021 12:28 am

Also, currents.

Many times, number of factors affect delicate balance of atmospheric ocean interaction. One previously unknown, recently discovered is appearance of the North Icelandic Jet (NIJ) deep cold current. More details here:

Jim Ross
Reply to  commieBob
April 27, 2021 9:44 am

Bob, I think that must be a typo in your last paragraph. It’s La Niña which brings the cold nutrient-rich deep waters to the surface (upwelling), as I understand it. El Niño tends to ‘shut off’ the upwelling.
If you have not seen them, Philip Mulholland has provided some interesting links further down the thread.

Reply to  Don Perry
April 26, 2021 8:36 pm

I was going to say ‘impossible’ but considering that the other end of the El Nino/El Nina cycle is next to Chile, the other end of the ring of fire… And like the other commentor mentioned, if the effect was concentrated at one point, and interfered with the thermocline….

Eric Worrall(@eworrall1)
April 26, 2021 6:49 pm

Gee, didn’t they slam Professor Ian Plimer, when he suggested vast numbers of undersea volcanoes have not been properly accounted for in the Earth’s climate energy budget?

Reply to  Eric Worrall
April 26, 2021 7:09 pm

Yep. Maybe the amount of energy contributed to the climate system by geothermal heat is a rounding error if you smear it out over the whole globe. On the other hand, if that energy is concentrated in one region, I think it is very likely to have an effect on ocean circulation and therefore the climate.

Rory Forbes
Reply to  commieBob
April 26, 2021 8:31 pm

Looking at the credibility ledger; on the one side we skeptics have geothermal heat plus all the other known and unknown variables to account for natural variation. The Warmunists have doctored data, CO2 and unproven conjecture. I know which I would choose.

Reply to  Rory Forbes
April 27, 2021 12:36 am

And, this.
How a Wayward Arctic Current Could Cool the Climate in Europe
December 11, 2017

J Mac
April 26, 2021 7:08 pm

The plot thickens……. a bit unsettling.

Reply to  J Mac
April 26, 2021 7:50 pm

Sounds like if you like sushi, you shouldn’t fish there.

April 26, 2021 8:09 pm

How do we capture this energy and use it to power a continent?

Alan Webb
Reply to  RoHa
April 26, 2021 8:17 pm

Solar panels floating upside down over a volcano.

Rory Forbes
Reply to  RoHa
April 26, 2021 8:33 pm

Ah … someone asks the right question. We don’t, is the answer.

Richard Page
Reply to  RoHa
April 27, 2021 2:11 pm

First predict where and when they will occur. Even that first step is beyond us at this time.

Joel O'Bryan(@joelobryan)
April 26, 2021 8:26 pm


Rud Istvan
April 26, 2021 8:37 pm

I have two logical problems with this familiar thesis about underwater volcano heat release, even tho is obviously true locally at ‘smokers’.

First, if globally true, would regionally change deep ocean temp. We have no evidence from ARGO that it does.
Second, would ‘locally’ change deep ocean thermal profiles. The opposite is true from the below ARGO data we have. Looks like deep thermohaline circulation is in fact just very deep and mostly just thermohaline.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Rud Istvan
April 27, 2021 9:25 am

Unlike Black Smokers, these megaplumes are periodic events along spreading centers and ‘hot spots’ such as the Hawaiian Islands. The local effects are transient, but are a cumulative oceanic source of heat such that the ocean waters are warmer than they might otherwise be without the megaplumes. Also, being periodic, they might provide an explanation for intra-annual variations in waxing and waning of pack ice and glacier extents.

April 26, 2021 9:29 pm

In climate circles the olympic sized swimming pool is so often used that it should be standardized. An Olympic pool is 50 m x 25 m x 2 m, and contains 2.5 million litres of water, or if you like 100 million measures of whisky. I therefore propose 2 units to climate scientists measuring Greenland icecaps and ocean waters .
The Spitz after Mark Spitz is the volume of a swimming pool
He Jack after Jack Daniels is the volume o a shot
There are
40 Jacks = 1 litre
1Spitz = 1 GigaJack
So this megaplume is 40 MegaSpitzes or 40 Tera Jacks

Trying to Play Nice
Reply to  Alastair gray
April 27, 2021 4:41 am

I was wondering if the olympic-sized pool includes the diving well or if it only includes the swimming lanes. That would make a significant difference in the amount of water we are talking about.

Richard Page
Reply to  Alastair gray
April 27, 2021 2:21 pm

Any chance of translating those volumes for those on this side of the pond – for example, I tend to think of huge volumes of whiskey in terms of ‘Campbelltown Loch’s’ of single malt Scotch. Ta.

April 26, 2021 11:56 pm

And some people fret about plastic being dumped into the ocean

Moderately Cross of East Anglia
April 27, 2021 12:09 am

As we know the experimental attempt ( sorry enlightened Green renewable energy initiative to save the planet) by the Minoans to capture the heat from their local volcano went extremely well for them and their Near Eastern neighbours.

By the way, where is the Olympic size swimming pool of Jack Daniels?

Reply to  Moderately Cross of East Anglia
April 27, 2021 1:05 am

You’re too late .I drank it

Eric Vieira
April 27, 2021 12:58 am

It sounds just like the whole hype about “taming the energy from lightning”. Much too much energy comes out too fast to harness it. The problems encountered with Deepwater Horizon showed us also how difficult, unpredictable and expensive deep sea operations are. Another thing: it would be just another “unreliable” energy source since it’s not constantly producing power. There are already much too many “unreliables” around as it is.

Philip Mulholland
April 27, 2021 6:34 am

From Professor Wyss W.-S. Yim’s Research Gate project – role of modern volcanic eruptions in climate change including their role in triggering climatic disasters

Volcanoes and disastrous storms

Explanation for the northern Pacific Blob

Geothermal heat and climate variability

Climatic impacts of the SW Indian Ocean Blob

M Courtney
April 27, 2021 7:29 am

While terrestrial volcanoes often produce spectacular eruptions, dispersing volcanic ash into the environment, it was thought that deep marine eruptions only produced slow moving lava flows.

I’m curious as to why anyone ever thought that.
It’s not the case for the observable surface volcanoes so why did anyone think the unobserved wee different? Why would a liquid atmosphere be different from a gaseous atmosphere. It’s all the same until the moment the lava reaches the surface.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  M Courtney
April 27, 2021 9:33 am

Sailors have reported large patches of pumice floating on the surface in the South Pacific. That is evidence of a silicic, underwater, explosive eruption. However, such events don’t get investigated. So, we know little about their frequency of occurrence, duration, or extent. Most of the money that gets appropriated for research goes to support the current paradigm, rather than exploring new and novel phenomena associated with potential warming or diversion of ocean currents.

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  M Courtney
April 27, 2021 9:41 am

I just realized I didn’t answer your question. The behavior of a volcano is determined primarily by the chemical composition of its lava. The lavas in Hawaii and along the mid-Atlantic spreading ridge tend to be low-viscosity, low silica-content like basalt. On the other hand, aerial volcanoes, which tend to be along continental-plate margins, are high-viscosity, high silica content lavas such as andesite and rhyolite, and they tend to be explosive. There are variations on the theme, but this explanation should be good enough for government work.

Jim Ross
Reply to  M Courtney
April 27, 2021 9:52 am

To add to Clyde’s comments … I think one particular reason is the presence of pillow lavas.


Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Jim Ross
April 27, 2021 5:36 pm

Yes, and while pillow lavas are reasonably abundant on land (after being uplifted), I don’t think that the other kinds of lavas that carry unmistakable signs of being erupted under water are common where they can be observed. The assessment may not be correct, but it was based on the rarity of explosive volcanics that were clearly erupted under water.

Jim Whelan
April 27, 2021 9:58 am

“They developed a mathematical model which shows how ash from these submarine eruptions spreads”

and later:

“Sam Pegler added: ‘” “Our work provides evidence that megaplumes are … ‘ ”

Sorry, Sam! If you were a scientists you would know that the best a model can do is suggest behavior. A model is not “evidence” of anything!

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  Jim Whelan
April 27, 2021 5:38 pm

I would disagree. While it would take a hard sell to convince me that a model can actually prove something, I do feel that models can provide supporting evidence. However, they don’t provide the level of confidence of physical evidence.

April 27, 2021 1:51 pm

Sounds like something the human race should harness, like stopping the climate from changing! THAT is so successful we clearly can just tap into a volcano? Barrack Hussein Obama stopped the seas from rising and the temperatures from rising and the ice from melting, so, clearly, he can do this. What? You a bunch of bible clinging racists? How dare you say Barri can’t do it!

Does it really need a tag?

Clyde Spencer
Reply to  2hotel9
April 27, 2021 5:39 pm

Is Barry still working on parting the seas?

Reply to  Clyde Spencer
April 28, 2021 5:40 am

He has delegated that task to his co-President, Faux Joe Xiden.

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