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Home » Seafloor Earthquakes: Maya Tolstoy at TEDxCERN (Full Transcript)

Seafloor Earthquakes: Maya Tolstoy at TEDxCERN (Full Transcript)

Maya Tolstoy – TRANSCRIPT

My story is one of earthquakes on the deep seafloor, it’s also the story of the fundamental value of basic research; research into tiny earthquakes that’s helping us understand the forces producing the devastating larger earthquakes and tsunamis, forces that are constantly pushing and pulling on our little blue planet. The deep seafloor is a dark and mysterious place.

We know more about the surface of Mars than we know about our own planet because so much of it is shrouded in water. This is actually what the deep seafloor looks like because sunlight doesn’t reach it. In this environment, sound travels much more efficiently than light does as whales have learned when they fill the ocean with their songs. So we can learn a lot from just listening to the seafloor.

I’ve spent much of my career developing the instrumentation and utilizing it to do just that. We hear amazing things down there from the calls of the baleen whales to the creeks of icebergs in Antarctica, the sounds of which reach all the way up to the Equator, and then to the cracking of the seafloor as it deforms from tectonic and volcanic processes.

But one of the eeriest sounds that I’ve ever heard is that of the Great Sumatra – Andaman earthquake ripping the crust apart on December 26, 2004. This is the sound of it sped up ten times to be audible to the human ear. About a decade before this earthquake, as I was finishing my PhD, I became fascinated with the tiny earthquakes that are happening unseen on the deep seafloor. This is a map of the topography of the seafloor with the red showing areas at a shallower water and the blue showing the deeper water; but the areas I became fascinated with are yellow green areas that run down in the middle of the oceans. These are mid-ocean ridges, they’re chains of seafloor volcanoes where the plates are pulling apart and a new surface of our planet is constantly forming.

At these locations, fresh lava is regularly erupted onto the seafloor, and it’s quickly quenched by the overlying ocean to form these pillar-like formations. There’s occasional slow-moving life in what’s a low oxygen, very cold environment, but mostly, it’s a barren seascape. But then, as you get close to the mid-ocean ridge, somewhat paradoxically, earthquakes are actually helping life to thrive.

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