The Eye of Sauron is the image most often associated with Sauron in The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. Sauron’s Orcs bore the symbol of the Eye on their helmets and shields, and referred to Sauron himself as the “Eye” because he did not allow his name to be written or spoken, according to Aragorn. The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, alert and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.
But now we have a modern version, and a real one at that.
Southeast of Christmas Island
Looking like the Eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, an ancient undersea volcano has been revealed by multi-beam sonar 3,100 metres below the sea’s surface. The location was 280 kilometres southeast of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. This was found on the twelfth day of exploration on board CSIRO’s dedicated ocean research vessel, the RV Investigator.
Previously unknown, this volcano emerged from the vessel’s screens as a giant oval-shaped depression called a caldera, 6.2km by 4.8km across. It is surrounded by a 300m-high rim (resembling Sauron’s eyelids), and has a 300 m high cone-shaped peak at its centre that looks like a pupil.
There was more:
However, this volcanic ‘eye’ was surrounded by other geological structures.. Further mapping to the south revealed a smaller sea mountain covered in numerous volcanic cones. Further south yet was a larger, flat-topped seamount. Following the Lord of the Rings theme, they have been nicknamed Barad-dûr (Dark Fortress) and Ered Lithui (Ash Mountains), respectively.
Although author J.R.R. Tolkein’s knowledge of mountain geology was apparently not perfect, the names are wonderfully appropriate given the jagged nature of the first and the pumice-covered surface of the second.
The Eye of Sauron, Barad-dûr, and Ered Lithui are part of the Karma cluster of seamounts that have been estimated by geologists to be more than 100 million years old. They formed next to an ancient sea ridge from a time when Australia was situated much further south, near Antarctica. The flat summit of Ered Lithui was formed by wave erosion when the seamount protruded above the sea surface, before the heavy seamount slowly sank back down into the soft ocean seafloor. The summit of Ered Lithui is now 2.6km below sea level.
But there is a geological conundrum. This caldera looks surprisingly fresh for a structure that should be more than 100 million years old. Ered Lithui has almost 100 metres of sand and mud layers draped over its summit, formed by sinking dead organisms over millions of years. Such sedimentation rate would have partially smothered the caldera. Instead, it is possible that volcanoes have continued to sprout or new ones formed long after the original foundation. Earth is ever restless.
Nice to see that Tolkien names are being used in the oceans. I’m sure there must be quite a few in New Zealand, too, and other places in the world.
Life has invaded these geological changes, and Ered Lithui is now covered in seafloor animals. Brittle-stars, sea-stars, crabs and worms burrow into or skate over the sandy surface. Erect black corals, fan-corals, sea-whips, sponges and barnacles grow on exposed rocks. Gelatinous cusk-eels prowl around rock gullies and boulders. Batfish lie in wait for unsuspecting prey.
The CSIRO mission is to map the seafloor and survey sea life from these ancient and secluded seascapes. The Australian government recently announced plans to create two massive marine parks across the regions. The expedition will supply scientific data that will help Parks Australia to manage these areas into the future.
CSIRO [Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is an Australian Government agency responsible for scientific research].