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Planet's largest volcano found hiding in the Pacific Ocean

| Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, 8:33 p.m.
William Sager, University of Houston
A 3D plot of the topography of Tamu Massif, the largest volcano found on Earth to date.

The largest single volcano found on Earth was quietly hiding in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, about a thousand miles east of Japan, having been extinct for millions of years. But scientists have discovered the dome-shaped behemoth, which has a footprint the size of New Mexico and even rivals the biggest one in the solar system, Olympus Mons on Mars.

It's “a gee-whiz moment, where we say, ‘There are volcanoes here as big as any we've seen elsewhere in the solar system,' so it's sort of like discovering a new whale or something like that,” said William Sager, a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Houston and lead author of a study published online Thursday in Nature Geoscience.

The discovery topples the previous world record-holder for largest volcano — Mauna Loa, one of the five that form the Big Island of Hawaii.

“Olympus Mons is the 800-pound gorilla of the solar system,” said Sager. “We didn't know these massive volcanoes were here on Earth.”

The team named it Tamu Massif — TAMU for Texas A&M University.

Tamu Massif formed layer by layer as fast-moving lava flowed from a central area at the peak and ran down its flank, cooling in place. The volcano is completely submerged, and Sager doesn't believe that its peak ever rose above sea level over its 145-million-year lifetime.

There is no danger of an eruption. “That's probably a good thing, since we've been able to correlate mass extinction with some of these beasts,” said Clive R. Neal, a volcanologist at the University of Notre Dame.

Neal, who was not involved in the study, said the discovery of such an oversize volcano on Earth is groundbreaking for volcanology.

“This finding is paving the way to really rewriting some of the textbooks,” he said. “The term ‘supervolcano' might be a reality.”

Although Tamu Massif has a gigantic footprint, it is relatively short compared to Olympus Mons. The newly discovered volcano rises only a few miles above the sea floor, while the gargantuan Martian mountain rises 16 miles at its peak.

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