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Geology of young submarine volcanoes west of Easter Island, Southeast Pacific

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Figure 1

Easter Island (27°05'S, 109°20'W) lies at the western end of a long chain of seamounts,
islands and shallow structures (the Easter Seamount Chain, ESC, Hagen et al., 1990) that runs E-
W between the Nazca Ridge at 80°W and the East Pacific Rise. The ESC is probably of volcanic
origin (Bonatti et al., 1977). Between 80°W and 100°W the seamount chain follows the Easter
Fracture Zone which appears to terminate at about 100°W (Mammerickx et al., 1975; Pilger and
Handschuhmacher, 1981). West of 100°W this fracture zone can be identified only through
magnetic data (Naar and Hey, 1991), although it reappears south of Easter Island at about
27°30'S (Liu et al., 1993). Several models for the origin of the ESC have been proposed. The
relatively shallow bathymetry and the geochemically-anomalous MORB found on the adjacent
spreading axis (East Rift) of the Easter Microplate led Schilling et al. (1985) to suggest a plume
origin for the ESC. Naar and Hey (1989) also supported the plume model but noted a misfit in
the reconstruction for the plate tectonic motion vectors between the ESC and the Galapagos and
Juan Fernandez chains. Other models are based on the scarce age data from the ESC which
suggest contemporaneous volcanism along the chain (Bonatti et al., 1977; Clark and Dymond,
1977) and make plate tectonic reconstructions difficult (Pilger and Handschumacher, 1981).
Bonatti et al. (1977) suggested a hotline origin for the volcanism, with upwelling limbs of
convection cells underneath the ESC. Clark and Dymond (1977) put forward a leaky
fracturezone model, later modified by Pilger and Handschumacher (1981) to include a
propagating ridge within the fracture. Mammerickx (1981) andMammerickx and Sandwell
(1986) suggested the ESC to be an incipient spreading centre in the early stage of rifting.
Satellite altimetry data show a broad anomalous band of high geoid amplitudes along the ESC
suggesting thermal rejuvenation of the plate in this region (Maia and Diament, 1991). A previous
study of the Easter Island hotspot region (Hagen et al., 1990) has produced a bathymetric map
from the compilation of Seabeam, conventional 3.5 KHz profiling and Sea Marc II side-scan
sonar data. The area covered extended from the East Pacific Rise (EPR) near 22cS, 112°35'W to
27°S, 109°W east of Easter Island. The main result was the discovery of recent submarine
volcanism to the north and about 100 km west of Easter Island. This apparently recently active
area was named the Ahu Volcanic Field (Hagen et al., 1990). Hagen et al. (1990) suggested that
the Ahu Volcanic Field represents the present location of the Easter hotspot but no direct
seafloor observations were reported by them and no samples were recovered. In 1992 the F.S.
Sonne (cruise SO 80) investigated the ESC and the area located between Easter Island and the
Easter Microplate (Figs. 1 and 2). Volcanic activity on Easter Island lasted from about 2.5 Ma to
0.05 Ma (Clark and Dymond, 1977; Kaneoka and Katsui, 1985) while the surveyed and sampled
volcanic area has an estimated age of less than 0.4 Ma (Hagen et al., 1990). Multibeam
(Hydrosweep) bathymetric surveys, bottom photography and sampling were carried out in this
region in order to verify the extent of volcanic activity west of Easter Island. The Ahu Volcanic
Field and a newly-discovered field of fresh lava flows which we have named the Umu Volcanic
Field (Umu = "earth oven" in Rapa Nui) were mapped and sampled (Fig. 2). Compositional
variations of the recent samples from Ahu Volcanic Field are compared with other Microplate
and EPR samples in order better to constrain the magmatic history of the Easter Island hotspot.

2. Geological setting

Figure 2

A detailed bathymetric survey was made west of Easter Island near 27°S, ll0°W in a 100
x 50 km 2 box (Fig. 3). The mean depth of the seafloor is about 2900 m, the deepest area reaches
3000-3200 m. Shallow volcanic cones and ridges are scattered throughout the surveyed area.
Two distinct constructional ridges with shallow summits (1500 m) are identified at 26°35'S, l
ll°W and 27°S, lll°W, and one circular volcano (Pukao, Hagen et al., 1990) at 26°55'S, l10°15'W
(Fig. 3). These are relatively recent constructional features built on more ancient oceanic crust.
The fabric of the ancient oceanic crust is exposed in small inliers and west of l ll°18'W. This
older crustal fabric shows a roughly N-S orientation, parallel to the EPR and propagating ridges
of the Easter Microplate. The East Rift of the Microplate is located about 140 km to the west of
the recent topography highs surveyed for this study (Fig. 2). It is believed that the western limit
of this recent Easter hotspot activity is located along a N-S line at l 11 °18'W, where the average
ocean floor deepens to more than 2800 m (Fig. 3) and is characterized by a N-S orientation of the
main crustal fabric and the presence of normal faults also having a northerly strike. This western
boundary to the active volcanic zone was observed directly using a deep-towed television and
still-photo observation system along an E-W track located near 26°37'S, 111 °10'W. The deep-
towed survey showed the presence of the recently-formed pillow lava and sheet flows on the
Ahu volcano. The boundary between the young flows and the ancient oceanic crust is marked by
several west-facing fault scarps,
each with less than 5 m throw.

3. Bathymetry and camera observations

Figure 3

The young volcanic structures surveyed and sampled are divided into four major
provigeographic locations: (1) The northern area near 26°40'S, 110°55'W corresponds to the Ahu
Volcanic Field previously recognized by Hagen et al. (1990) as a recentlyformed volcanic
terrain. It consists of a general E-W (090 °) oriented ridge made up of several volcanic cones, the
shallowest of which rises to 1800 m water depth (Fig. 3). (2) The southern area near 27°S, l lI°W
is characterized by a NE-SW (045 °) and an E-W (090 ° ) oriented ridge. We have named this
area the Umu Volcanic Field. (3) The most prominent shallow structures located near Easter
Island at 26°33'S, l10°15'W, Pukao and Moai Seamounts (Hagen et al., 1990) (Figs. 2 and 3). (4)
Further south at 27°54'S, 110°30'W another volcanic edifice exists which we call Tupa Volcanic
Field ("Tupa" is a stone turret in Rapa Nui) as our scarce data suggest that this volcano resembles
the Ahu and Umu fields (Fig. 3).

3.1. Ahu Volcanic Field

The Ahu Volcanic Field comprises an area of about 2700 km 2, and consists of several
constructional edifices of variable sizes. In the eastern part of the Ahu Field area, there is a
shallow (1600 m depth) volcano with a truncated and elongated summit about 4 km long (labeled
a in Fig. 3). This seamount shows steep scarps (>30 ° slopes) oriented 110 ° which probably
represent step-faulted structures. Further west of this seamount an E-W trending volcanic ridge is
about 50 km long and 20-30 km wide (b in Fig. 3). This ridge is at about 1500-2000 m depth and
the summit consists of four volcanic cones having a diameter of 3-8 km and made up of pillow
lava. The southern flank of the ridge consists of small terraces and scarps with steeper slopes (>
30 °) than its northern flank. To the west of this ridge another elongated volcanic edifice about
15 km in length, oriented 060 ° and 300 m above the surrounding seafloor, occurs at 26°40'S,
ll0°10'W (c in Fig. 3). A deep-towed television camera station (OFOS 88) was made from the
top of the most westerly volcanic peak (1600 m depth) of the Ahu ridge near 26°40'S, 11 l°05'W
westward into the deeper (< 3000 m depth) part of the seafloor with normal accreting ridge plate
fabric (Fig. 4a). On the Ahu volcano the slopes consist of pillow lavas which frequently emerge
from the sediment (Fig. 5). The small cone on the top of Ahu ridge is comprised of pillow lava
with variable amount of sediment cover and abundant talus. The bathymetric profile shows three
terraces between 2400 and 2000 m depth possibly indicating the fronts of two large lava flows
(Fig. 4a). These terraces are built up of pillow lavas and rare sheet flows on the top while the
steep flanks are often covered with lava talus rather than with in situ pillows. No signs of recent
volcanic or hydrothermal activity were seen. The lower part of Ahu ridge forms a steep slope
with several fault scarps up to 5 m high which indicate tectonic movements on the flank of the
volcano. At a depth of about 2850 m a transition occurs to 100% sediment coverage. This
transition between the young constructional features of the Ahu Volcanic Field and the N-S
oriented seafloor fabric is located roughly along the 11 l°lS'W longitude line. Another camera
tow was made from the central part of the Ahu ridge toward the south (Fig. 4b). This short
profile showed much less sediment cover on the lavas than the OFOS observations further to the
west (Fig. 5). Generally less than 30% sediment was observed on the pillows with the exceptions
of some heavily sedimented patches. In situ pillows form small mounds and cover most of the
flank, while on steeper areas talus piles were observed and sheet flows occur in flat sections of
the slope. The dredges on the Ahu Volcanic Field recovered mostly pillow fragments with some
sheet flow pieces. The appearance of the lavas ranged from very fresh with no alteration rim at
all, to millimeter-thin brown-black corrugated crusts of Fe-Mn oxides.
3.2. Umu Volcanic Field
Another area, identified during our survey as being formed by relatively recent flows, is
located south of the Ahu field and is called the Umu Volcanic Field (Fig. 2 and 3). This field is
characterized by two major elongated constructional features: one oriented at 060 ° and located
at 27°S, lll°05'W, and the other one at 27°S, 110°45'W and oriented 090 ° (d and e, respectively
in Fig. 3). These ridges are also overlain by volcanic cones about 200-500m in height rising to
1150 m depths at the shallowest point. The western ridge covers an area of about 1300 km 2 and
the smaller eastern one probably about 550 km 2. An OFOS on the southern slope of the western
ridge showed pillow lavas often forming small mounds and only rare sediment cover. Only in
patches was sediment more abundant than 40%, suggesting a very young age of the lavas. On
Umu volcanic field the dredged material was also fresh with nearly no palagonitization and only
thin corrugated crusts on the pillows.

3.3. Pukao and Moai Seamounts

Hagen et al. (1990) described these large volcanoes which form the E-W trending line: Easter
Island-Moai Seamount-Pukao Seamount (Fig. 2). Pukao Seamount has a summit plateau at 260
m depth and, with its round shapes, resembles the typical seamounts commonly observed in
nearridge and truly intraplate areas. TV-grab observations showed that the level areas near the
summit are covered by sediments. Dredges near the summit recovered hydrothermally altered
basalts and foraminiferal sand. Another dredge on a northern flank cone of Pukao in a high-
reflectivity area of Hagen et al. (1990) recovered very fresh glassy basalts. Moai Seamount was
only sparsely covered by our mapping and no clear contours outline the size and shape of this
volcano. Dredging on this seamount also recovered lavas generally more altered than those of the
volcanic fields described earlier. Mn-crusts up to 2 mm thick cover some of the lavas, suggesting
a relatively old age for the volcanism for this volcano.

3.4. Tupa Volcanic FieM

On the last day of the cruise we investigated a shallow area about 100 km south of Umu
Volcanic Field (Fig. 2). A large volcano reaching a depth of only 500 m was found and a dredge
on this feature recovered fresh pillow lavas with thin Fe-Mn crusts similar to those from Ahu and
Umu Volcanic Fields. The shape of the Tupa volcano appears to be elongated in E-W direction,
thus it also resembles the volcanic fields further north in this respect.

Composition of the volcanics

The lavas from the Ahu and Umu Volcanic Fields are mainly pillows, only few sheet
flow fragments were recovered. They are all porphyritic (in some cases highly porphyritic)
plagioclase and olivine bearing basalts with fresh glassy rims. Samples from Pukao and Moai
Seamounts are more strongly altered, with carbonates and zeolites often filling vesicles. The
basalts from the volcanic fields differ from those of the subaerial volcanoes of Easter Island by
their general lower K20 (<0.6%) and TiO 2 (1-2.5%). Tupa Volcanic Field lavas are similar to
those from the Ahu/Umu volcanoes. The basalts of the volcanic fields consist of depleted to
slightly enriched types (K/Ti= 0.15-0.30) while Easter Island lavas show a wide range of their
K/Ti (0.05-0.4) (Fig. 6) and have generally lower Mg numbers. The low K/Ti of the island lavas
may to some extent be due to K-loss during alteration and crystal fractionation. The submarine
Easter hotspot basalts are comparable to those from some of the seamounts of the western Easter
Microplate-Crough region (Fig. 6) (Hekinian et al., in prep). EPR MORB north of the microplate
generally has K/Ti below 0.1 but some more enriched lavas reach ratios of 0.2 (Sinton et al.,
1991). Thus, most of the basalts from the volcanic fields do not resemble normal depleted EPR
MORB but come from more enriched mantle sources or are derived by lower degrees of partial
melting. They are comparable to the enriched tholeiites occurring on the Easter Microplate
spreading axes. Detailed petrological and geochemical studies of the lavas recovered are
currently in preparation.

5. Conclusions
The present work confirms previous conclusions of the existence of recent volcanic
activity west of Easter Island (Hagen et al., 1990). The two volcanic fields, Ahu and Umu,
described in this paper cover an area of more than 4000 km 2. Another possibly even larger
volcano (Tupa Volcanic Field) exists about 100 km south of these two volcanic fields and
consists of young lavas of comparable composition. Thus the volcanically active area of the
Easter hotspot is probably about 200 km wide in N-S direction with its centre beneath the Umu
Volcanic Field. However, young volcanic flows appear to be widely distributed in E-W direction
and also occur several hundered kilometers to the east of Easter Island near Sala y Gomez (e.g.
Liuet al., 1993). Since the spreading direction is also E-W a shearing of the Easter plume by the
litho-sphere appears possible as it is suggested by fluid dynamic experiments (e.g. Griffiths and
Campbell, 1991). The location of the plume centre beneath the Umu volcanic field would fit well
with the plate motion vector because Naar and Hey (1989) noted a northward deviation of the
vector of the assumed Ahu hotspot compared to the vectors of the other Nazca Plate hotspot
tracks (Galapagos and Juan Fernandez). The most westerly limits of the Easter hotspot occur
near lll°18'W, that is about 150 km from the East Rift zone of the Easter Microplate. Some of the
dredges in the Easter/Moai/Pukao region were taken in areas of high sonar reflectivity of the
SeaMARC II investigation of Hagen et al. (1990). Samples recovered from these dredges have
always a fresh appearance and thus confirm Hagen et al.'s suggestion of abundant young lava
flows on the seafloor around Easter Island. The youngest samples appear to come from small
cones on the flanks of Pukao Seamount and Rano Kao Ridge while the rest of the lavas from the
large volcanic edifices are more altered and rarely have glass rims. Thus the volcanism in the
Pukao and Easter Island region has not ceased very long ago, consistent with the age dates of less
than 0.25 Ma for flows of Terevaka volcano on Easter Island' (Clark and Dymond, 1974). The
type of lava encountered on the volcanic fields consists essentially of transitional (K/Ti= 0.15-
0.25) and enriched (K/Ti = 0.25-0.40) tholeiites. The basalts compositionally resemble the
volcanic from the Easter Microplate region and differ from previously published data of Easter
Island and the Easter Seamount Chain volcanoes by their depletion, e.g. in K20. They are also
more enriched than EPR N-MORB from the spreading axes north of the microplate and thus
have a different petrogenetic history. The geochemical similarities of the Ahu/Umu samples to
lavas from the western microplate region indicates a hotspot influence on this volcanism.

Stoffers, P., a, R. H6kinian b. 1994. Geology of young submarine volcanoes west of Easter
Island, Southeast Pacific. Elsevier.