“Sharkcano.” It’s not the title of some campy summer blockbuster, but rather a real-world phenomenon that went viral in 2015, when scientists on a National Geographic expedition found sharks living inside one of the most active underwater volcanoes on Earth. Not surprisingly, the team was eager to go back and learn more, but how do you explore an environment that could easily kill you? You send in robots, of course.
“Our goal is to send instrumentation there to get meaningful data, but sometimes it’s really fun to just blow stuff up,” says National Geographic explorer and ocean engineer Brennan Phillips.
Brennan reunited with his 2015 expedition mates—Alistair Grinham of University of Queensland and Matthew Dunbabin of Queensland University of Technology and Director of GFB Robotics—to once again venture about 20 miles off the coast of the Solomon Islands to the Pacific Ocean’s violent Kavachi volcano.
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We talked to Brennan and Matthew about their return to “Sharkcano.”
Q: Why send robots into one of the most active submarine volcanoes on Earth?
Brenna Phillips: Cause it's cool. But also, as a scientist, it's about getting that last data point, right before the eruption—pH, carbon dioxide, temperature fluctuations, acidity.
Matthew Dunbabin: After looking at a friend’s amazing video of Kavachi’s past eruptions, hearing about the remoteness of the site, and how challenging the conditions are, we were determined to try to get there. This all addresses an interesting problem with monitoring in extreme environments, in that no matter how well-built your systems are or how much they cost, it is very unlikely they will survive an explosion. So, to start increasing our knowledge of these environments you have to develop low-cost monitoring tools that are capable of undertaking meaningful measurements but are not so costly you can’t afford to lose them.
Q: How did you design the robots?
MD: Kavachi is in a remote part of the Solomon Islands with very limited travel options. So you have to design robots that fit into carry-on luggage on a Twin Otter plane. Also, these robots are considered disposable. Therefore, we are making them as low cost as possible—hundreds of dollars.
BP: In this case we used some used PVC sewer pipe that was found in the village. You just put some electronics onto that and wham-o, you have an autonomous boat.
MD: I like to call it bush robotics.
Q: What did you learn from sending the robots into Kavachi?
MD: In the vicinity of the vent we found a huge drop in the surface pH levels, water temperatures ten degrees higher than normal, and we learned Kavachi is a strong greenhouse gas emitter.
Q: How did it feel to discover sharks inside a volcano?
BP: Well, to put my scientist hat on there are a number of reasons why there shouldn't be anything living in there except maybe bacteria. Number one it's very hot and acidic, and we measured that. Number two, it's very turbid, so the water is very cloudy. None of these things are good for fish. Whether they're good for sharks, that's up for debate. Yet we saw sharks that in between eruptions are darting in and out between the clouds of the plume. So that's a lingering question mark.
This interview has been edited for length and content.
Learn more at http://natgeo.org/grants and see more exciting moments of explorers in the field in our digital series, Expedition Raw.
PRODUCER / EDITOR : Nora Rappaport
SERIES PRODUCER: Chris Mattle
VIDEOGRAPHER: Alex DeCiccio
Robot vs. Volcano: “Sometimes It’s Just Fun to Blow Stuff Up” (Exclusive) | National Geographic