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Rediscovering Ross Island: The 2012 Expedition to Understand the Geologic Origin of Ross Island, Antarctica

Written by Kenneth W W Sims. In 1841 James Clark Ross and crew in two tiny ships “Erebus” and “Terror” discovered Ross Island. They named the highest peaks after their ships and quickly recognized their volcanic origin. Erebus was in a state of vigorous eruptions at the time. Later in the early 1900’s British explorers...

Written by Kenneth W W Sims.

In 1841 James Clark Ross and crew in two tiny ships “Erebus” and “Terror” discovered Ross Island. They named the highest peaks after their ships and quickly recognized their volcanic origin. Erebus was in a state of vigorous eruptions at the time. Later in the early 1900’s British explorers explored parts of the island and found it was completely volcanic and composed of solidified lavas and associated deposits from explosive eruptions.

Ross Island is now home to the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station, Antarctica’s largest research base. Erebus volcano is the world’s southernmost active volcano and is the 18th largest in the world based on volume. It is both awe-inspiring and threatening to the inhabitants of McMurdo Station (1000 people in the summer and ~180 in the winter) as its summit (12,448 ft elevation/volume 2170 km3) and persistent gas plume dominates their northern skyline (Plate 1).

Although there have now been over 40 years of scientific expeditions to study Erebus volcano, geologic studies of Ross Island’s other volcanic centers ­­– Mt. Terror (3262 m, 1700 km3), Mt. Bird (1800 m, 470 km3) and Hut Point Peninsula (100 km3) ­– are remarkably sparse and outdated. As a consequence, our knowledge of the geological origin of the Ross Island volcanoes is incomplete.

Plate 2: Schematic of plume model for volcanism at Ross Island. The insert shows the radial symmetry of vents at 120 degrees angles surrounding Erebus volcano on Ross Island and also for the older (>5 Ma) Discovery volcanic center, which is south of Ross Island in southern McMurdo Sound.

Using funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), we are conducting a field and laboratory based study to examine the hypothesis that volcanism on Ross Island is the surface expression of a deep mantle upwelling in the form of a mantle plume or hot-spot (Plate 2).  This aspect of our research is timely in that recent “geophysical observations” indicate that the mantle beneath Ross Island is hotter than its surroundings.

Our study will also provide a critical contextual perspective for the well-studied and iconic Erebus volcano. While Erebus is the only currently active volcano on Ross Island, understanding past volcanism on Ross Island’s other volcanoes (Mt. Terror, Mt. Bird and Hut Point Peninsula) is essential to predicting future volcanic activity, both at Erebus volcano and elsewhere on Ross Island. The key to predicting a volcano’s future is understanding its past.

Plate 3: Satellite image of Ross Island showing radial symmetry of Mounts Bird and Terror and Hut Point Peninsula around the dominant and larger Erebus volcano. The sites we propose to sample and visit are indicated. This image shows the extensive area of exposed rocks on the east flank of Mount Terror, most of which has never been sampled or examined. We expect the oldest samples for Mounts Terror and Bird to be exposed in marine cut cliffs around the north coast in Lewis Bay. Sampling of these sites will require fieldwork early in the field season at a time when there is still sea ice available for helicopter landings. Image from Google Earth.

During the field portion of the study (Oct 22-Nov 28, 2012), our team will be collecting about 60 samples from the summits and flanks of Mt. Terror, Mt. Bird and Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island. This effort will involve using helicopters and snowmobiles to circumnavigate Ross Island to collect lava samples from the sea cliffs along the ice edge, as well as using helicopters to go to the summits of Mt. Terror and Mt. Bird to collect samples from exposed lava flows and vents (see Plate 3).  We will also be camping for several days on the flanks of Mt. Erebus on “Fang Ridge” to collect samples from its ancient eruptions and also on the coastline at Cape Bird penguin rookery.

For the laboratory based portion of the study we will be measuring the geochemical properties of the lava samples back in the US at our state-of-the-art laboratories at the University of Wyoming, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, University of Oregon, Arizona State University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. These new data combined with our previous research on the Erebus volcano, will provide essential information on the nature of the mantle source beneath Ross Island and the causes of its volcanism, both past and present.



Ken Sims is an associate professor at the University of Wyoming, the PI on the NSF grant funding this research. This will be Ken’s 10th season in Antarctica (eight as a mountain guide and two as a PI on scientific grants).

Philip Kyle is a professor at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, co-PI on the NSF grant. This will be Phil’s fortieth season! in Antarctica.

Paul Wallace is a professor at the University of Oregon, collaborating scientist. This is Paul’s first season in Antarctica.

Glenn Gaetani is an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, collaborating scientist. This is Glenn’s first season in Antarctica.

Erin Phillips Writer is a PhD student working with Ken Sims at the University of Wyoming. This is Erin’s first season in Antarctica.

Dan Rasmussen is an MSc student working with Phil Kyle at NMT. He was an undergraduate student at the University of Oregon where he did a senior thesis with Paul Wallace as his adviser. This is Dan’s first season in Antarctica.



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Meet the Author

Kenneth W W Sims
A Professor at the University of Wyoming and a former tenured Research Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Dr. Kenneth W.W. Sims uses isotopic and chemical tracers to study geologic processes in the earth and other planetary bodies. Ken has over fifty peer-reviewed scientific publications focusing on the study of mantle melting, oceanic and continental crustal genesis, volcanology, hydrology, planetary core-formation, climate change and oceanography. Dr. Sims earned his BA in Geology from Colorado College, his MSc from the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico; and his PhD in Geochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. Ken’s field experience ranges from ocean floor geology, using submersibles and remote sensing techniques to geological studies of active volcanoes at high altitudes in technical terrain. Academic awards include: the Estwing Outstanding Senior Award at Colorado College, an Outstanding Student Instructor Award from the UC, Berkeley, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Postdoctoral Scholar Fellowship, three Mellon Awards for innovative exploratory research and the Kincaid School 2012 Papadopoulos Fellowship. In addition to his academic career, Ken is an avid climber and has been an alpine guide for over three decades with extensive experience in technical, high altitude and cold weather mountaineering in Antarctica, the Alaska Range, and the Andes of Peru. These technical climbing skills have enabled him to collect young lavas and gather volcanic gas data inside active, remote volcanoes across the globe, including Erebus Volcano in Antarctica; Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua; and Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo Volcanoes in DR Congo. Using isotopic and geochemical data measured in these hard-to-get-samples Professor Sims’ ultimate goal is to better understand the genesis and evolution of Earth’s volcanoes, with an eye toward predicting future eruptions. Sims’ research and scientific expeditions have been featured in National Geographic Magazine; Oceanus; Popular Mechanics; New Scientist; several children’s books and magazines; NHK Japanese Public Television (Miracle Continent Antarctica- Mt Erebus), National Geographic Television (Man versus Volcano); and, the Discovery Channel (Against the Elements). Professor Sims is a featured scientist on National Geographic Explorer Site For Professor Sims’ complete Curriculum Vitae, Publication List and Mountaineering Resume see