Bulletin of Volcanology

, 80:36 | Cite as

Extensive young silicic volcanism produces large deep submarine lava flows in the NE Lau Basin

  • Robert W. Embley
  • Kenneth H. Rubin
Research Article


New field observations reveal that extensive (up to ~ 402 km2) aphyric, glassy dacite lavas were erupted at multiple sites in the recent past in the NE Lau basin, located about 200 km southwest of Samoa. This discovery of volumetrically significant and widespread submarine dacite lava flows extends the domain for siliceous effusive volcanism into the deep seafloor. Although several lava flow fields were discovered on the flank of a large silicic seamount, Niuatahi, two of the largest lava fields and several smaller ones (“northern lava flow fields”) were found well north of the seamount. The most distal portion of the northernmost of these fields is 60 km north of the center of Niuatahi caldera. We estimate that lava flow lengths from probable eruptive vents to the distal ends of flows range from a few km to more than 10 km. Camera tows on the shallower, near-vent areas show complex lava morphology that includes anastomosing tube-like pillow flows and ropey surfaces, endogenous domes and/or ridges, some with “crease-like” extrusion ridges, and inflated lobes with extrusion structures. A 2 × 1.5 km, 30-m deep depression could be an eruption center for one of the lava flow fields. The Lau lava flow fields appear to have erupted at presumptive high effusion rates and possibly reduced viscosity induced by presumptive high magmatic water content and/or a high eruption temperature, consistent with both erupted composition (~ 66% SiO2) and glassy low crystallinity groundmass textures. The large areal extent (236 km2) and relatively small range of compositional variation (σ = 0.60 for wt% Si02%) within the northern lava flow fields imply the existence of large, eruptible batches of differentiated melt in the upper mantle or lower crust of the NE Lau basin. At this site, the volcanism could be controlled by deep crustal fractures caused by the long-term extension in this rear-arc region. Submarine dacite flows exhibiting similar morphology have been described in ancient sequences from the Archaean through the Miocene and in small batches on present-day seafloor spreading centers. This study shows that extensive siliceous lavas can erupt on the modern seafloor under the right conditions.


Lau Basin Dacite Lava flows Submarine 



We are indebted to S. Merle for her skillful processing and diligent management of our multibeam data sets and help with some of the figures. S. Glancy and E. Hellebrand are thanked for preparing the sources and collecting the glass electron microprobe data described here. The science party of expedition KM1024 worked incredibly hard for 6 days to obtain the dredge samples reported on here, to help with sample selection and description, as did the science party of KM1129a, which collected dredge samples from Niuatahi. We also thank the officers, crew and shipboard technical group on the R/V Kilo Moana for their dedicated, 24 h support during the dredging and camera operations. C. Russo is thanked for assisting Rubin on the transit leg from Samoa to Honolulu following KM1024 with processing, describing and subsampling dredged lavas. Dan Fornari provided outstanding support for the TowCam setup operations on KM1008; K. Feldman and S. Hanneman kept the system operating at a high performance level at sea. The NOAA Office of Marine and Aircraft Operations provided funding for KM1008 and for part of KM1024. The University of Hawaii provided part of the ship time that made KM1024 possible and all of the funds for KM1129a (in part using funds donated by Nautilus Minerals, Inc). The NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration, the NOAA Vents Program and the NOAA Earth-Ocean Introduction program provided funding for RWE. KHR was supported by NSF OCE 0929881 and 1538121. R. Cas, an anonymous reviewer and associate editors P.-S. Ross and A. J. Harris provided valuable comments that improved the final manuscript. PMEL contribution 4555 and SOEST contribution 10058.

Supplementary material

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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.NOAA/PMEL, now at CIMRSOregon State UniversityNewportUSA
  2. 2.Department of Geology and GeophysicsUniversity of HawaiiHonoluluUSA

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