Class of 2018: Doctoral student looks back at career-changing research trip to underwater volcano
December 11, 2018
There is one “wow” moment in Kannikha Kolandaivelu’s two months aboard the JOIDES Resolution research vessel this past summer that stands out from all others.
The ship was above a portion of the underwater Brothers Volcano and drilling a small hole into the formation in order to collect rock samples for study. The drill pipe’s temperature kept rising.
“We could see the temperature measurement going higher and higher and the engineers and the downhole team were getting nervous, and we were thinking we’re going to crack the drill pipe,” said Kolandaivelu, a 2018 Ph.D. graduate in the Department of Geosciences, part of the College of Science, who defended her dissertation in November. “I was a bit nervous, but it was a cool, wow moment.”
Kolandaivelu was aboard the JOIDES Resolution above the Brothers Volcano from May 5 to July 5, roughly 250 miles northeast of Auckland, New Zealand.
Her trip was part of the International Ocean Discovery Program’s (IODP) Expedition 376. The group’s mission on this voyage: Drill into the submerged active volcano, part of the massive Kermadec Arc of volcanoes in the Pacific Ocean, to study the formation’s hydrothermal systems that host a wide variety of high-temperature ecosystems, resulting in the creation of a wild assortment of minerals, including gold, silver, and copper.
The expedition was the first time that scientific drilling has been attempted in a submarine arc volcano, Kolandaivelu said.
“The whole cruise was a technological success despite the challenges of drilling into an active volcano,” she said. “It was a thrilling and nail-biting expedition where we encountered very high temperatures and very high acidic conditions, and where we pushed our instruments to their limits and melted some of the drill pipes.”
Kolandaivelu said extracting and studying the mineral rich deposits at the volcano can help scientists understand how equivalent deposits are formed on land. “When seawater gets heated in these settings, the presence of high-volatile contents coupled with the shallow depths of the volcano help in easy transport of high metal and mineral-rich hot seawater, or hot fluids, to the seafloor.”
The Brothers Volcano is about 8 miles long and 5 miles wide. It has more hydrothermal activity than any other volcano in the Kermadec Arc, Kolandaivelu said. Hydrothermal vents, or hot springs, on the volcano’s caldera wall and dome have formed a large field of "black smoker" chimneys up to 26 feet high, and plumes of hot water from the vents can rise more than 2,400 feet to the ocean above, she added.
The science team drilled into the volcano in five different locations.
There is a biological component of the research, too. The area is rich with unique microbial environments. “Drilling deep into the oceanic crust at the volcano can lead us closer to answering key questions asked by many scientists, present and past: The origin of life.”
Kolandaivelu was one of 32 scientists onboard the vessel, with researchers coming from all points of the globe. Kolandaivelu is a native of India, but represented Virginia Tech and the United States on board the ship.
“The science party worked all around the clock for the entire two months of the expedition with no breaks whatsoever. I worked on the midnight to noon shift every day,” she said. “Every single day we had to face a new challenge, new exciting discovery and new ways to improve our experiments and new ways of thinking about the science we were out there to do.”
Kolandaivelu said breaks and relaxation consisted mostly of finding a quiet spot on the ship to watch the sunrise or read a book, when it was not too chilly outside. (New Zealand’s winter coincides with summer in the North America.)
Kolandaivelu has focused her master’s and doctoral work on hydrothermal systems under oceans and seas, in particular, the Panama Basin, working with Robert Lowell, a research professor in geosciences. She earned her master’s in geosciences at Virginia Tech in 2015.
During her studies, she became involved with various IODP workshops, which piqued her interest in sailing aboard the JOIDES Resolution. It was her first time aboard a ship. Almost all of her previous work had her in labs, on land. The expedition, in short, has reset her career as a scientist.
“I had been in my comfort zone and I wanted to get outside of my box and see what I could explore,” Kolandaivelu added. “The two-month research experience aboard the ship definitely accelerated my growth curve as a scientist and as a team worker. It is a different point of view and different kind of work dynamic when it comes to merging your work with 30 or so scientists when all of you are working on this single project.”
For post-doctoral research work, Kannikha wants to explore more underwater volcanoes in various parts of the world and find answers on how much heat is being put into the ocean by hydrothermal systems.