UH Moment

UH Moment: “Tamu Massif”

A University of Houston professor led a team of scientists to uncover the largest single volcano yet documented on Earth.


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Covering an area roughly equivalent to the British Isles or the state of New Mexico, this volcano, dubbed the Tamu Massif, is nearly as big as the giant volcanoes of Mars.

“There is the ‘gee whiz, look at that!’ kind of thing that gets the public’s attention, but it also makes scientists go ‘oh wait a minute,'” said  UH professor William Sager, a marine geophysicist who has given other scientists pause.  

Concerned with oceanic plateaus, Sager and his research team have discovered Tamu Massif in an underwater mountain range a thousand miles east of Japan.  

Volcano Research“How do you get this big, huge, massive volcano? it must be lots of volcanoes put together,” he said. “So the surprise was it’s not, it’s one big volcano.”

The largest active volcano on earth, Mauna Loa in Hawaii covers about 2,000 square miles.  Sager’s Tamu Massif, with its low, wide expanse, covers about 120,000 square miles.  

“What we’ve found were  these massive lava flows. The thickest was about 75 feet thick, so imagine a lava flow flowing across a surface 75 feet thick. There has to be a massive volume of lava coming out,” he said.    

Sager’s next steps will be to see if magnetic stripes emanating from the volcano will tell the story of how it evolved.  Tamu Massif will provide many teachable moments, and researchers from the space industry to the oil industry will be its students.  

“It’s like discovering a whale that’s 10 times bigger than any whale we’ve discovered before.  Suddenly you have to rethink what you knew about whales,” Sager said.

William Sager is part of what’s happening at the University of Houston.