Texas Aggies like to think their school is among the world’s biggest movers and shakers, and now science has confirmed it. An oceanographer has uncovered the world’s largest volcano in the Pacific Ocean – about the size of New Mexico – and has named it for Texas A&M University.
William Sager, who spent 29 years working at Texas A&M in the College of Geosciences and was holder of the Jane and R. Ken Williams '45 Chair in Ocean Drilling Science, Technology and Education, first began studying the volcano about 20 years ago. He named it Tamu Massif – Tamu for the abbreviation of Texas A&M University, while massif is the French word for “massive” and a scientific term for a large mountain mass.
It is believed to be the largest single volcano ever discovered on Earth and may rival some of the giants found on Mars. Sager, who recently joined the faculty of the University of Houston, and team members from Oregon State, Yale, the University of Hawaii and the United Kingdom, have published their findings in the current issue of Nature Geoscience.
The project was funded by the National Science Foundation, both through direct grants and through its Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) that is headquartered at Texas A&M.
Sager and the team examined a large underwater area in the northwest Pacific known as the Shatsky Rise, located about 1,000 miles east of Japan. Sager had found that the plateau contained three enormous mounds.
“We got tired of referring to them as the one on the left, the one on the right and the big one,” Sager recalls. He dubbed the largest one Tamu after Texas A&M, and hence the school is now in the volcano business.
“We knew it was big, but we had no idea it was one large volcano,” he adds.
“Our final calculations have determined it is about 120,000 square miles in area, or about the size of the state of New Mexico, making it by far the largest ever discovered on Earth. It rivals in size some of the largest volcanoes in the solar system, such as Olympus Mons on Mars.”
Olympus Mons, the largest volcano on Mars, is so big that it can be seen with many common backyard telescopes.
The largest active volcano on Earth is Mauna Loa in Hawaii, which has erupted off and on for the past 700,000 years. But it is about 2,000 square miles in size, a tiny fraction of Tamu Massif.
Tamu Massif is believed to be about 145 million years old, and it became inactive within a few million years after it was formed, Sager says.
Its top lies about 6,500 feet below the ocean surface, while much of its base is believed to be in waters that are almost four miles deep.
“What is unusual about the volcano is its slope – it’s not high, but very wide, so the flank slopes are very gradual,” Sager explains. “In fact, if you were standing on its flank, you would have trouble telling which way is downhill. We know that it is a single immense volcano constructed from massive lava flows that emanated from the center of the volcano to form a broad, shield-like shape.
“Its shape is different from any other sub-marine volcano found on Earth, and it’s very possible it can give us some clues about how massive volcanoes can form. An immense amount of magma came from the center, and this magma had to have come from the Earth’s mantle. So this is important information for geologists trying to understand how the Earth’s interior works.”
Tamu Massif follows a long line of locations named after Texas A&M or people associated with it. These include many topographic features in the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic seaboard, including Antoine Bank, named for Texas A&M researcher John Antoine; Geyer Mound and Geyer Bank, named for Texas A&M researcher Richard Geyer; McGrail Bank, named after Texas A&M oceanographer David McGrail; Tamu Basin, Tamu Bank and Tamu Dome, all named for the school; Bryant Canyon, named after oceanographer William Bryant; Rudder Basin and Reveille Basin, named for former president James Earl Rudder and the school’s collie mascot; Gyre Basin, named for a former Texas A&M research ship; and Applebaum Bank, named for Texas A&M researcher Bruce Applebaum.