Researchers in Plymouth will look for evidence of mass wasting that could potentially trigger tsunamis in the south Atlantic
Scientists from the University of Plymouth are using data gathered by the Royal Navy to assess the threat of potentially devastating tsunamis caused by underwater volcanoes on the fringe of Antarctica.
On a recent expedition to the region, the Plymouth-based icebreaker HMS Protector used state-of-the-art sensors to scan a series of peaks in the South Sandwich Islands, one of the most remote British territories on the planet.
Dr Jenny Gales, Lecturer in Hydrography and Ocean Exploration, and colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey are now analysing the resulting images.
Specifically, they will be assessing the stability of a chain of active volcanoes rising hundreds of metres above the seabed off Zavodovski Island.
A major underwater eruption could trigger a landslide and, in turn, a tsunami, with potentially devastating consequences. 
By analysing the volcanoes’ flanks, they will look for evidence of mass wasting – huge volumes of shifting sediment that could potentially trigger tsunamis and impact land and people across the southern hemisphere.
Dr Gales, who commissioned and is leading the analysis but has been involved in a number of international research expeditions to the Antarctic, said:
“We need to understand the origin and wider significance of mass wasting in the South Sandwich Islands. This is important because mass wasting events on volcanic islands represent some of the largest sediment flux events on Earth. The levels of past activity in this particular region show they are a significant geohazard, with the potential to trigger tsunamis.”
Dr Jenny Gales on a research expedition in the Antarctic
Dr Jenny Gales
The volcanic chain, known as the Protector Seamounts, was last surveyed by the British Antarctic Survey – with whom HMS Protector regularly works.
Lieutenant Commander James Winsor, HMS Protector’s senior survey officer, said he was impressed by the detailed new scans of the seamounts which the ship’s sonars and software produced. He added:
“The undersea peaks of these volcanoes rise up from depths of 2,000 metres to 90 metres in waters scarcely charted to modern standards." 
Beyond helping the BAS team, the data gathered by HMS Protector will also allow seafaring charts to be updated to the latest standards.
The survey mission found a caldera (a volcano with collapsed walls following a major eruption) and one summit coming within 90 metres (295ft) of the surface – still well below the keel of any surface ship, but well within the operating depth of submarines.

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