SAN JUAN: Robert Ballard, who gained international recognition for finding the long-lost wreck of the Titanic, is currently at the helm of a mission investigating major faults and submarine volcanoes in the northern and eastern Caribbean.
The US$3 million mission, which began in Puerto Rico earlier this month and will conclude in Grenada in mid-November, is being funded through a partnership with several agencies and organizations, including the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Geographic and the University of Rhode Island.
Ballard and a 31-member team of scientists aboard the 211-foot exploration vessel Nautilus are using remotely operated vehicles to explore faults and underwater formations around Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dominica, Montserrat and Grenada.
The first part of the mission is focused on the north coast of Puerto Rico, where a magnitude 7.2 earthquake killed 116 people and unleashed a tsunami with 20-foot waves in October 1918.
The researchers will also use the remotely operated vehicles to dive the Mona Rift, which plunges to depths of 13,000 feet and analyze several faults, including the Septentrional, which lies along the border of the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates.
According to Dwight Coleman, oceanographer and leader of the expedition focusing on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the information collected will help seismologists understand what’s taking place along those faults and assist in managing future natural disasters.
The researchers will also study the seafloor of the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, which is one of several places where Atlantic waters circulate into the Caribbean, becoming warmer and saltier.
Nautilus will then sail to the U.S. Virgin Islands in an attempt to establish the origin of a magnitude 7.5 quake in 1867 that spawned tsunamis which struck St. Thomas and St. Croix.
The research vessel will return to Montserrat and Dominica, known for their history of volcanic eruptions, while the remotely operated vehicles will also probe hitherto unexplored submarine volcanoes and determine if they are active.
Plans are also in train to map Kick ’em Jenny just north of Grenada, considered the most active and dangerous submarine volcano in the Caribbean Sea.
Kick ’em Jenny, which hasn’t been explored in the past 10 years, was discovered in 1939 when several earthquakes were experienced and tsunamis affected Grenada and the Grenadines, reaching as far as Barbados. There have been at least 11 eruptions since that event.