JASON vs. the Volcano

Tito keeping JASON in position near the exploding plume of Brimstone Pit.

Tito Collasius
JASON Expedition Leader


Now, I have to start by saying I have seen some cool things on the bottom of the Ocean. Being a part of the Titanic discovery and finding 3rd century shipwrecks being a couple of the highlights, but now, here I am, sitting center stage in a mostly darkened room, surrounded my innumerable monitors and HDTVs providing the only glow. Sulfur rich smoke, bespeckled with falling ash billows on most of the monitors. The earth pulses, bubbles of CO2 flutter past one camera view, disappear, and float up toward the downlooking camera showing the ROV Jason perched next to a live volcano vent with a huge white plume.

A panorama-view of the front displays in the JASON control van. JASON itself was configured with over 6 cameras and additional cameras are mounted on its tether vehicle, Medea. Also visible in the van are the sonar displays, navigation information and equipment monitors. For each dive the JASON team has a pilot, navigator and engineer working together to bring the ROV safely to the seafloor.

A box reminiscent of a 1980's arcade game console sits on my lap. Anticipation hangs in the air, as scientists, who always fill the room, stare intently at video feeds coming 500 meters up from the ocean floor through a tether. They are all hoping for the vent to exhibit behavior like that of the St. Helen's disaster. I also watch with anticipation, only half cheering for cataclysm. My real concern is keeping the 6 million dollar vehicle that sits less than three meters from this geologic event. My eyes dart to all camera views showing information from dozens of sensors updating me on depth, heading, ambient temperature, amount of thruster force used to keep me on the seafloor.

The earth pulses, shaking the ground and the vehicle. Boulders walk further from the plume and closer to the vehicle’s basket. They are large enough that if they fall, they could lock the vehicle to the ocean floor. They are getting a little too close. Time to move. I pull back on the joysticks, one to fly up, the other to fly back. As I fly backward through the water the action increases. The whole vent cone and surrounding virgin earth starts pulsing faster. Smoke and bubbles blow harder. The ground where I had the vehicle sitting only a moment ago explodes. Boulders shake and fall away. The whole thing shears off. Wow. Careful what you wish for.

Time-lapse movie of the seafloor shaking and rocks being shoved away from the eruptive vent just before Jason moved out of the way (speeded up 4 times, no audio).

The same video clip as above at normal speed (with audio).
All video copyright by Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab WHOI