Deciphering the history of plate tectonics in North Pacific

14.06.2016 08:11
Kategorie: News

Researchers embark on ten-week expedition

The land along the archipelago of the Aleutian Islands and the Kamchatka Peninsula is one of the most active portions of the Ring of Fire. Yet, much of the geological processes involved remain unknown.

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Under the leadership of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, researchers from Germany, Russia and the United States will embark on a ten-week expedition aboard the German research vessel SUN to explore some unexplored portions of the seabed to learn more about the geological processes that have take place.

With 29 active volcanoes and several eruptions every year, the Kamchatka Peninsula is one of the most volcanically active regions in the world. This is due to the process of plate tectonics, which comes into play as the Pacific plate moves underneath the North American plate. In fact, it was this process that led to the creation of the Aleutian Islands.

To this day, very little is known about the processes that take place beneath the surface. “In the mid-1960s, as the theory of plate tectonics was finally recognised, there was the Cold War. Until the 1990s, the waters between the US and the former USSR were virtually inaccessible to researchers,” said GEOMAR’s Professor Dr Kaj Hoernle in German as he explained the lack of scientific information in the region.

During the first portion of the expedition, headed by Professor Hoernle, the researchers will attempt to discover how plate tectonics developed in the North Pacific and the Bering Sea as a whole. When they have reached the south of the Aleutian Islands, they will sample the seabed in the US and international waters.

Then, after a stay in the port at Petropavlovsk-Kamtschatki, part of the crew will change before heading out to the Russian waters north of the Chukotka-Beringia-continental slope.
According to Dr Richard Werner from GEOMAR, who heads the second part of the expedition, they are interested in how the subduction zone of the North Pacific developed. This is because that there are many indications that the Pacific plate had been much farther north, on the Chukotka-Beringia continental slope.

"If this is the case, we want to know why this is so. That would tell us a lot about how the Earth works in general," said Professor Hoernle.

Besides this, the expedition also seeks to find out about more recent developments like the current submarine volcanic activity north of western Aleutians. According to Dr Werner, the team is interested to better understand the cycle of subduction - how the descent of the tectonic plate triggers melting processes in the mantle that subsequently lead to material returning to the surface via volcanic eruptions.

This new project represents the continuation of the previous German-Russian research collaborations in the region, which started in the mid-1990s; an example of this is the recent SUN 2009. Although the current political situation is tense, it is encouraging that the researchers can continue to work well with their counterparts in Russia, and that even a trilateral project with the US is possible, said Professor Hoernle.

Continuing, he said, "After all, we all live on this one planet. We need to understand it if we want to know how and where mineral resources can be found and how we can better protect ourselves against natural disasters".

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