Gigantic Lava Dome Found At Site Of Ancient Japanese Supereruption

This part of Japan is home to several calderas and plenty of other types of volcanoes. Kikai, though, happens to be not on land, but submerged beneath the waves. JSC/NASA

Specks of earthy green, brown and white dot the sea just south of the mainland Japanese island of Kyushu, some of which have a rather recent volcanic history. Compared to the gigantic volcanic scar that they sit on the rim of, though, such tiny little territories vanish into insignificance.

The region is home to a submarine, cauldron-like edifice (caldera) named Kikai – and, according to a new paper in Scientific Reports spotted by The New York Times, it’s far from done and dusted.

This geological crucible has had a spectacularly violent past stretching back 140,000 years, and its paroxysm 7,300 years ago – the Akahoya eruption – unleashed more than 500 cubic kilometers (120 cubic miles) of material before leaving behind the 19-kilometer (12-mile) caldera we can see today.

There’s now an increasing amount of evidence suggesting that a lava dome exists within the caldera. This viscous mound, comprised of thick rhyolitic lava and taking up around 32 cubic kilometers (7.7 cubic miles) of space, was likely formed after the Akahoya eruption, but it’s far more than a silent remnant of a bygone era.

Judging by the fact that it’s associated with an active hydrothermal system, including high-temperature hot springs and fairly profuse gas bubbling, this lava dome is “still active”, according to the Kobe University-led team.

The researchers reached their conclusions after conducting three recent surveys of the caldera aboard the ship Fukae Maru. A suite of experiments were carried out using a variety of techniques, from underwater robots to artificial earthquakes to peek at Kikai's buried structure.

There’s a lot about the dome that remains enigmatic, and the timing and nature of its formation still require further investigation. In any case, the lava dome doesn’t mean that a supereruption is imminent; the two volcanic phenomena are rather different kettles of fish.

The bathymetry of Kikai, along with the locations and paths of surveys. Tatsumi et al./Scientific Reports

Previous work has suggested that there’s a roughly one-in-100 chance of such an event occurring in the next century or so anywhere along the Japanese archipelago. There’s actually no evidence to suggest that a supereruption is around the corner, at Kikai or anywhere else in the region. A lava dome is a curiosity, not a sign of impending doom.

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