May 20, 2004

SIUC scientists help discover undersea volcano

by Pete Rosenbery

Media Advisory

The National Science Foundation is providing a video feed today (May 20) that includes exclusive underwater footage of a newly discovered volcano taken by a bottom-scanning video camera; various shots of the Laurence M. Gould research vessel; McMurdo Station, Antarctica, the NSF's main Antarctic research center; and Mt. Erebus, a known active volcano on Ross Island, near McMurdo Station. The feed is available from 1:45 to 2 p.m. Eastern Time today at these coordinates:


  • AMC9
  • C-Band
  • Transponder 22
  • DL 4140.

The video feed also will be available on Friday, May 21, from 1 to 1:15 p.m. Eastern Time at these coordinates:


  • IA6 (formerly Telstar 6)
  • C-Band
  • Transponder 15
  • DL 4000

For technical information during the feeds, call 212/684-8910, extension 221.

View the footage at

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A Southern Illinois University Carbondale geology professor and graduate student are part of a scientific team that discovered an active and previously unknown volcano on the sea bottom off the Antarctic Peninsula.

Associate professor Scott E. Ishman and graduate student Phillip Szymcek (Sim-check) of Carbondale were among international scientists from six universities in the United States and Canada who verified the volcano's existence last month. The National Science Foundation, which is supporting the research effort, formally announced the discovery today (May 20).

"One thing I have learned from this is it's fun to go out with a plan but then to discover something that is entirely new and different from what you were expecting," said Ishman. "It is going to make a contribution somewhere in the geological sciences even though it's not what I study, or not what the people I am working with are studying.A discovery in "one of the last places on earth that really hasn't been explored" is an unintended bonus, and makes the find more exciting, said Ishman. The yet-unnamed volcano is in an area known as the Antarctic Sound, at the northern-most tip of Antarctica. The volcano stands 2,300 feet above the sea floor and extends to roughly 900 feet from the ocean surface.

"But it's still going to provide somebody else with an opportunity to really make probably a fairly significant contribution," said Ishman, who returned to Carbondale May 12.

The significance in finding the volcano is how young it appears to be, said Ishman. While there are historical accounts of volcanic eruptions on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, previous studies of volcanic rocks suggest the most recent activity on the peninsula's eastern side occurred several million years ago, said Ishman.

Added study will enable scientists to determine the source of the magma, and whether it comes from shallow or deep within the earth's mantle. That will help in determining that portion of Antarctica's evolution, said Ishman.

According to the National Science Foundation, the scientific evidence that was collected corroborates mariners' reports of discolored water in the area, which is consistent with an active volcano.

Scientists used a bottom-scanning video recorder, rock dredges and temperature surveys along the sides and crest of the submarine peak. The water temperatures showed slight warming,and there were fresh, basaltic rocks ­ typical of underwater volcanic activity, Ishman said.

The expedition team left April 16 from Punta Arenas, Chile, to study why a large portion of the Larsen Ice Shelf, known as the Larsen-A and -B, collapsed and broke up several years ago. The research is focusing on whether the collapse is unique, or cyclical over tens of thousands of years.

An ice shelf is a thick floating extension of a glacier. Rapidly collapsing ice shelves could trigger the collapse of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, resulting in rising sea levels that would inundate coastlines throughout the world, including the United States, said Ishman.

It is late fall in Antarctica, and ice and weather conditions prevented scientists from getting to the Larsen-B area to study the ice shelf. The decision was made to try and confirm suspicions of the volcano's existence initially raised from sonar maps of the sea floor during a January 2002 research effort, Ishman said.

Because of the bad weather, scientists stayed on the NSF's research vessel, the Laurence M. Gould. There were extended periods of time where temperatures were minus 21 and wind chills were 40 below zero, Ishman said. The Gould is not an icebreaker, but has a reinforced hull that cut through eight inches of ice. "We weren't sure what the capabilities were, but the captain was fantastic," Ishman said. "His goal was to make sure we succeeded."

This was Ishman's fifth trip to Antarctica, dating back to his days as a graduate student at The Ohio State University. He hopes to return to study the Larsen B ice shelf in February, and then another cruise in 2006 to wrap up the project.

In addition to SIUC, the research team included scientists from Hamilton College in New York State, Colgate University, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, Montclair State University in New Jersey and Queens University in Canada.

Antarctica "is one of the last places on earth that really hasn't been explored," Ishman said. There have been people who have explored different parts of the continent, but there are several areas that are virtually unknown, he said.

"That is part of the excitement of working in Antarctica. There aren't too many places that are like this any more," he said. "It's like going into space without having to take a rocket ship."

Ishman came to SIUC's College of Science in fall 1999 as an assistant professor after gaining considerable post-doctoral experience while working at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va. He received his master's and doctoral degrees from The Ohio State University. He became an associate professor in August.

Ishman's teaching interests and specialties are invertebrate paleontology, paleoecology, micropaleontology, oceanography and dinosaurs. He has been working on reconstructing past climates and environments in Antarctica for a number of years.

"Scott has made remarkable contributions to his science and to the department since he joined the faculty," said geology chair Steven P. Esling. "His research in Antarctica is particularly significant and recognized internationally."

Szymcek, the son of Thelma Herschbach of Carbondale and Victor Szymcek of Sedalia, Mo., earned his bachelor's degree in geology from SIUC in December. He is a 2000 graduate of Carbondale Community High School.

"I think (Antarctica) is one of the most interesting places to be doing research," he said. "It's one of the frontiers that still remains, short of space exploration. Antarctica is very exciting. I'm very adventurous. It was a perfect opportunity."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern@150, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

For more information about the discovery from the National Science Foundation, link to the agency's newsroom Web site: