Diving Expedition to Panarea: Scientific Investigations at an Under-Water Volcano

Scientific diver at work
Coming from the most diverse fields of study and research, a team of 18 students and scientists from TU Bergakademie Freiberg joined together from the 1 to the 15 September for scientific diving around the Panarea underwater volcano (near the famous Stromboli Island) in the Mediterranean Sea.

A tiny island just off the northern coast of Sicily, Panarea (like Stromboli) is one of the Aeolian Islands. The volcanic origin of this archipelago is evidenced not only by the regular lava eruptions on Stromboli, but also by the underwater emission of gases and a sea floor that can reach up to 130 degrees Celsius. An interdisciplinary team of 18 researchers and students – all scientific divers from TU Bergakademie Freiberg’s Scientific Diving Center (SDC) – embarked on a fortnight-long expedition to Panarea on 1 September with the goal of exploring these volcanic activities under water.

Alongside the scientific research, this expedition served to train the students as they seek to become qualified scientific divers. Having already completed months of preparation and special training, their successful participation in this expedition is their final step in attaining their qualification.

The research focuses on emissions of mercury, which are released by the underwater volcano into the surrounding seawater and which can bioaccumulate in fish higher up the food chain. The scientific divers took samples from the hydrothermal fluids (mainly hot water) emitted on the sea floor, at depths of approx. 20 meters. These samples were then immediately analyzed on dry land to determine their mercury content in a field laboratory set up especially for this expedition. Further samples were also taken back to Freiberg for analysis. Similarly, samples of gas emissions were collected and analyzed, while fundamental parameters such as pH, conductivity and temperature were also measured. Further examinations will be carried out by the students in Freiberg within the framework of various future bachelor and master theses.

Along with examining the geochemical processes, the geologists, hydrogeologists, chemists and engineers also focused on the mineralogical composition and tectonic structure of the underwater rock formations and sediments.

In particular, the development of measuring devices posed significant challenges to the participating engineers. A device designed especially for underwater use was implemented to record the amount of gas emitted at a measurement point over a time period of several months. This is because researchers suspect that there is a direct relationship between volcanic activity and variations in the quantity of emissions. 

With the data they collected, the team of scientists from Freiberg can make an important contribution toward a better understanding of the local geological development and geochemical processes in this zone of volcanic activity. The quality of this body of knowledge is a decisive factor for the functionality of early warning systems designed to alert citizens and officials to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions before they occur.

Training in scientific diving will resume in Freiberg in October in the form of the “Aquatic Ecosystems” series of lectures and the swimming pool-based training program “Scientific Diving.”

There are only two training centers for scientific divers in Germany – at TU Bergakademie Freiberg and at the University of Stuttgart. In 2016, 36 students completed their training at TU Freiberg, three of whom have written their master's thesis here. A total of 29 student theses have been written at the SDC to date.

Interested students (all disciplines) can register directly with the Scientific Diving Center: http://tu-freiberg.de/sdc 

In our report from June 12, we reported on the field trip to Panarea: http://tu-freiberg.de/presse/wissenschaftler-der-tu-bergakademie-freiberg-zur-vorexkursion-in-panarea 

Contact person: 

Dr.-Ing. Thomas Grab, Tel. -3004

The participants in the boat
Divers preparing to board the boat
Airlift for removing sediments from geological formations
Geological formation
Divers during the ascent phase
Underwater temperature measurement
Transporting the volumetric flow rate meter
Volumetric flow rate meter at the measurement point
Participants in the 2017 Panarea excursion on land
Onshore measurement point
Messgerät misst heiße austretende Gase an Land
Group photo of the 2017 Panarea excursion participants