Submarine volcanoes are underwater fissures in the earth's surface from which magma can erupt. They estimated to account for 75% of annual magma output. The vast majority are located near areas of tectonic plate movement, known as mid-ocean ridges. Although most are located in the depths of oceans, some also exist in shallow water, which can spew material into the air during an eruption. Hydrothermal vents, sites of abundant biological activity, are commonly found near submarine volcanoes.
The presence of water can greatly alter the characteristics of a volcanic eruption. For instance, the increased thermal conductivity of water causes magma to turn into glass much more quickly than in a terrestrial eruption. Additionally, the pressure underwater can reach over 250 times standard pressure. This greatly diminishes explosive boiling, the reaction between magma and seawater. This reduction of explosive capacity, along with the increased distance from hydrophones, makes deep-sea volcanoes difficult to detect.
The lava formed by submarine volcanoes is quite different from terrestrial lava. Upon contact with water, a solid crust forms around the lava. Advancing lava flows into this crust, forming what is known as pillow lava.
Scientists still have much to learn about the location and activity of underwater volcanoes. The Kolumbo underwater volcano in the Aegean Sea was discovered in 1650 when it burst from the sea and erupted, killing 70 people on the nearby island of Santorini. More recently, NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration has funded missions to explore submarine volcanoes. Most notably, these have been the Ring of Fire missions to the Mariana Arc in the Pacific Ocean. Using Remote Operated Vehicles, scientists studied underwater eruptions, ponds of molten sulfur, black smoker chimneys and even marine life adapted to this deep, hot environment.