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NSF in the News

May 1997


Hawaii is gaining real estate. An underwater volcano, named Loihi, is being pushed up, and now, about 100,000 years after it began rising, its crest is within half a mile of the surface.

This is the birth of an island. Robert Bodnar, a volcano expert at Virginia Tech, jokingly suggests that his students should buy the watery property. "Then wait," Bodnar told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "Sometime within the next 100,000 years, you may own a tropical resort island."

Geologists have come to understand the underwater birth of Hawaiian islands only in the last 10 years. The islands are formed as the Pacific Plate moves over a hot spot in Earth's mantle. As the plate glides across, the hot spot melts rocks, causes earthquakes, and pushes up volcanos, some of which become islands.

Researchers will be able to watch the growth of Hawaii's youngest island with an NSF-funded, underwater observatory called the Hawaii Undersea Geology Observatory, or HUGO. With data-collecting cables located right where the action is -- such as, earthquakes, lava flows and gas expulsions -- volcanologists expect to collect never-before-seen details of an island's ascent from the seafloor.


An international team of researchers recovered new evidence of a large Caribbean meteorite impact that occurred 65 million years ago. Many scientists believe this meteorite collision led to the extinction of dinosaurs and other species.

NSF Assistant Director for Geosciences Robert W. Corell praised the scientists from the drill ship, the JOIDES Resolution. The JOIDES scientists reported their findings last February after a one-month research expedition.

"This is the most significant discovery in geosciences in 20 years," says Corell. "Deep sea sediment cores collected during the expedition provide a remarkable record of the meteorite's impact and the resulting debris--which may have triggered a serious decline in the globe's temperature and created a kind of nuclear winter' that drove dinosaurs and other species to extinction."

But the team's work didn't stop there. The fact that the core sample shows what happened after the meteorite's impact is also significant, says Corell. "The team's deep sea sediment cores show the slow process of the earth's long rejuvenation and recovery from this catastrophe."

The ocean researchers reported their new evidence just as NBC-TV premiered its show Asteroid. The timing provided a good comparison between science and fiction, says Corell. "Here's a case where science shows how real life is more cataclysmic and amazing than television or Hollywood -- with all their special effects -- can depict. The impact of the asteroid featured in the NBC-TV show Asteroid is peanuts compared to the real thing faced by the world 65 million years ago."

Corell congratulated the leader of the expedition, Richard Norris of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Norris' colleagues. "Their work will assist us in better understanding the earth's past and in determining the ocean's role in global climate change in the future."

JOIDES Resolution is the world's largest scientific research vessel. It is operated by the Ocean Drilling Program, which is primarily funded by NSF and research agencies in 19 foreign countries.


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