Hotspot dynamics in the Coral Sea

Connections between the Australian plate and deep Earth.
Voyage No

IN2019_V04

07 Aug, 2019

to

03 Sep, 2019

Cairns

to

Brisbane

Chief Scientist

A/Prof Joanne Whittaker

Institution

University of Tasmania

Voyage summary

Research voyage to the Coral Sea to investigate how deep mantle plumes ('hotspots') have influenced the evolution of the Australian plate.

In a small number of locations on the Earth, hot material rises from deep within the planet to create chains of volcanoes across the seafloor. Such undersea volcanic hotspots have been critical in the evolution of the Coral Sea region. However, we have only limited understanding of the timing, extent and history of the hotspots which have shaped the Australian plate.

This research will increase our understanding of the age and evolution of the seafloor in the Coral Sea, the extent of continental crust, and chains of seamounts that have formed. Researchers will also seek to better understanding Coral Sea biodiversity by studying the distribution of different habitats, especially deepwater habitats, and how these relate to seafloor structures.

The voyage also includes the following research and education projects:

  • Understanding the links between geomorphology and biodiversity in the Coral Sea (Dr Vanessa Lucieer, University of Tasmania): Study of the links between deep-water benthic habitats and geomorphic features on the seafloor.
  • Spatial and temporal variability in the distribution and abundance of seabirds (Dr Eric Woehler, BirdLife Australia): Study of the variability in the distribution and abundance of seabirds in the marine environment around Australia. 
  • Location of the wreck sites of the USS Lexington and USS Neosho (Dr Robin Beaman, James Cook University): Seafloor mapping (low resolution) of the likely locations of the USS Lexington and USS Neosho wreck sites.
  • Survey of Coral Sea invertebrate biodiversity (Jeremy Horowitz-Rob Beaman, James Cook University): Study of invertebrate species, primarily corals, collected during seafloor sampling program for main project.
  • CSIRO Educator on Board Program (Dr Ben Arthur, CSIRO): Professional development and outreach program for Australian STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) school teachers.

The science team on this voyage includes 35 participants from 10 institutions, including four Australian and two international universities (Edinburgh and Glasgow). There are 13 university students on the voyage, as well as two school teachers under the CSIRO Educator on Board Program.

Voyage blog:The (ocean) floor is lava: RV Investigator’s Coral Sea voyage

Much of the ocean floor and what goes on down there is pretty much a mystery. This is where RV Investigator's new research voyage to the Coral Sea could help unlock the secrets of the seafloor.
The side of a large white ship as it sails away from land.
RV Investigator heading out to the big blue.

Voyage outcomes

This voyage addresses high profile research questions for maintaining Australia’s world leading reputation in marine geoscience. Understanding the history of volcanism hidden in the seas around Australia will provide significant new knowledge to inform policies related to natural hazards, resources and habitats both within Australian waters and throughout the SW Pacific.The research aims to leverage significant investment by Australia in state-of-the-art computational resources, and will directly lead to benefits for Australia and our Pacific Island neighbours, an area of renewed foreign policy focus. These benefits include an understanding of the volcanogenic tsunami hazard in the region, informing Australian disaster management policy and practice; an assessment of marine mineral resources, potentially contributing to Australia’s economic growth.

Currently, only a small percentage of the seas around Australia are mapped to a modern standard. Swath mapping completed on this voyage will increase multibeam coverage of the seafloor, particularly focussing on seamounts, which are naturally important habitats for open-ocean ecosystems, and may help identify areas of important conservation value.

The survey data will greatly improve knowledge of the environmental assets in the Coral Sea Marine Park. There is a critical need to establish national marine baselines and monitoring, facilitate coordinated national studies of marine ecosystems and develop marine science research training.  The research also delivered further training and development of PhD, Masters and Honours students, to promote a diverse skill base critical to securing Australia’s future scientific capability, training the next-generation of marine scientists and educators and inspiring STEM activities in schools.