by Lance Tominaga
Installed in 1997, HUGO
(Hawaii's Undersea Geo-Observatory) is an un-manned
observatory positioned on Lo'ihi's summit. Scientists
go down to Lo'ihi via Pisces V (pictured above)
which accomodates three passengers. Thanks to HUGO
for the use of the photographs included in this
As sci-fi fanatics geared up for the May release of
The Phantom Menace, the next installment of George Lucas's
Star Wars series, another blockbuster sequel rose quietly
in waters off the Big Island.
While Jedi-geeks and Ewok-aholics had to wait 16 years
for Menace, however, Hawai'i residents had to wait a
little longer for Lo'ihi-perhaps, say, a thousand lifetimes!
Yes, a long, long time from now, in a place not too
far away, Lo'ihi will break the ocean's surface and
become the next Hawaiian island. Located 20 miles off
the southeast coast of the Big Island, Lo'ihi (meaning
"long, tall") is Hawai'i's youngest volcano,
rising three miles from the ocean floor to approximately
3,000 feet below the ocean's surface. "Lo'ihi is
certainly going to be the next Hawaiian island if it
keeps growing, although we have no guarantee it will
keep growing," says Fred Duennebier, University
of Hawai'i-Manoa geology professor, and a leading scientist
in Lo'ihi research. "If it does, it should break
the surface in about 100,000 years. And then if it keeps
growing after that, it will probably join the Big Island
in another 50,000-100,000 years."
The monk fish, just one
of the many bizare creatures evolving at Lo'ihi.
In other words, don't draw up any real estate plans
for Lo'ihi just yet. Still, Lo'ihi has come a long way
in a short time. It was only in 1955 that the seamount
was discovered by noted geologist K.O. Emery. And it
was only in the early 1980's that it was officially
recognized as an active undersea volcano, rising from
the same "hot spot" that birthed each of the
Since then, Lo'ihi has made just enough noise to keep
researchers guessing what will happen next. In the summer
of 1996, for example, more than 4,000 earthquakes were
recorded at the seamount, the most ever detected from
any Hawaiian volcano. As a result, Lo'ihi had undergone
a startling transformation: what had been known as "Pele's
Vents"-a section where heated water bubbled up
from Lo'ihi's summit-had crumbled, replaced by a gigantic
crater (1,000 feet deep) now dubbed "Pele's Pit."
Although it will be centuries before Lo'ihi will literally
see the light of day, the ongoing study of this "baby
volcano" is already paying dividends. "Lo'ihi
is a fascinating place," marvels Duennebier. "It's
one of the few places in the world where a 'hot spot'
is generating an underwater volcano that we can actually
go and visit.
"Almost all of the other underwater volcanoes
are along places where the crust of the earth is splitting
apart-we call them 'spreading centers.' Lo'ihi, instead,
is a 'hot spot' volcano, located where there's a lot
of heat underneath the earth's crust. Occasionally,
the heat breaks through, forming a volcano."
Through Lo'ihi, scientists learn what Kilauea volcano
was like as an infant (some UH scientists have dubbed
Lo'ihi a "miniature Kilauea"). In terms of
specific discoveries, Duennebier offers a practical
example: "One type of life form that we've found
at Lo'ihi is a bacteria that exists in very high temperatures.
This material is generating proteins and chemicals that
are active and work very well at these temperatures.
In fact, they work so well that they may be able to
be used to make organic reactions that will enable people
to make chemicals much faster than they can do now.
While this isn't my field, I know there's a lot of work
going on in this particular matter."
Then there is the question of whether Lo'ihi poses
a threat to the Big Island and the rest of the island
chain. "It's conceivable that Lo'ihi could have
a large undersea landslide and cause a tsunami,"
says Bob Jordan, shore station manager based at Whittington
Beach at Honu'apo, for the Hawai'i Undersea Geo Observatory
(HUGO). "So we're trying to understand how the
volcano is built, and what the chances are of it possibly
having a large piece let go."
Duennebier doesn't foresee any danger. "It is
a very steep volcano, and as it piles more and more
lava on the top, it does get more unstable," he
says. "And occasionally you will get these landslides.
But the question is whether the landslide is really
large enough to move enough water to cause a tsunami.
That would really be the only danger, and my personal
opinion is that Lo'ihi probably is not [a threat]."
Among the intriguing mysteries of Lo'ihi are the various
life forms that thrive there. "Most of it is bacterial,"
says Duennebier. "We see layers of bacteria all
over the place, forming a kind of orange-colored matter
around a large part of the volcano. We're beginning
to discover that most of the bacteria isn't living in
the water or at the bottom; it's living below the bottom.
And when Lo'ihi erupts, it literally blasts this material
out of the vents. It's pretty spectacular stuff."
Duennebier adds that a lot of shrimp thrive at Lo'ihi,
and "another thing we've seen that was really exciting;
was a type of octopus, about four to six feet in diameter,
that instead of suckers, had four-inch-long spikes.
We have a beautiful video of that at the Waikiki Aquarium
on O'ahu. When we saw it, it put on a very pretty display
Jordan describes another unusual sea creature, an off-white-colored
angler, that exists at Lo'ihi: "One of the pictures
usually show when I speak at schools is of this fish
with four legs! It's really neat because you can see
'elbows,' and the fins can curl like 'fingers.' This
fish sits on these four legs and actually holds onto
the rocks. It has huge lips, big eyes, and looks like
the face of some kind of animal."
Installed in October 1997, HUGO is an unmanned observatory
positioned on Lo'ihi's summit. It helps scientists monitor
activity on the volcano by collecting data from experiments
connected to a junction box, which is roughly half the
size of a car. With HUGO, scientists are able to monitor
earthquakes, eruptions, and other activities. "What
will really make HUGO work well is when other people-from
college and high school students, to scientists from
around the world-begin to place their own experiments
in there," says Duennebier. "It will be a
very easy thing to do. All you'll have to do is go down
and plug it in."
Duennebier and his fellow researchers "go down"
to Lo'ihi via Pisces V, a yellow mini-submarine that
is just large enough to accommodate three passengers.
Says Duennebier, who has visited Lo'ihi six times, "It
is cold down there! You're in this sphere that's a little
over six feet in diameter, and when you get down there
the water temperature is about two or three degrees
Centigrade. Not only that, but remember as you close
the hatch you're in this very warm tropical air, and
so when you descend down to the cold, it begins to get
very wet; all the moisture in the air condenses like
dew, and it almost seems like it's raining inside. So
it can get pretty uncomfortable."
These deep-sea expeditions can be dangerous. Duennebier
recalls one hair-raising account: "Once, we went
down expecting to see the bottom about 300 feet below
us, so we turned on our bottom-searching sonar. Everything
was cluttered! We couldn't see a thing, and we didn't
understand why. Then our pilot looked out the window
and saw this vertical cliff going by us! He immediately
slammed on the brakes. What had happened was we actually
came down inside a crater that hadn't been previously
mapped!" He laughs. "So that was pretty exciting!"
The research efforts would not be possible without
the financial support of the National Science Foundation
and from the private sectors. AT&T, for example,
donated 30 miles of fiber optic cable (valued at $600,000)
connecting HUGO and the Big Island. The cable allowed
researchers to collect data from the approximately 90
separate experiments conducted through HUGO.
A Lo'ihi octopus, four
to six feet in diameter and bearing four inch spikes.
Duennebier and Jordan both express hope that research
on Lo'ihi will continue. Currently, however, all experiments
are on hold because of a leak in the cable. "There's
one single electrical wire that goes out to the volcano,"
says Jordan. "Somewhere, there's a small hole in
the cable so the electrical conductor touches the ocean
before it reaches the volcano. Every time we try to
turn on the circuit breakers, they just blow out."
The glass fibers, Jordan points out, are still intact.
"We know this because we did a test. We plugged
in a battery [into the junction box], and our experiments
powered up for about eight-and-a-half hours until the
While futurists look toward the fateful day Lo'ihi
finally joins its sister islands above the ocean's surface,
this tem pestuous young volcano is still helping us
learn about our past. Says Duennebier, "We have
a lot to learn!"
Indeed. Why is Lo'ihi home to life forms different
from what scientists see at a typical ridge crust? How
did these sea creatures get there in the first place?
Is it possible to accurately predict when the seamount
will break the ocean's surface? And, above all, what's
next for Lo'ihi?
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