new_map tectonic plates

SAN JUAN, Puer­to Rico — The man whose research team dis­cov­ered the Titan­ic ship­wreck is now lead­ing a mis­sion to inves­ti­gate major faults and under­wa­ter vol­ca­noes in the north­ern and east­ern Caribbean to col­lect infor­ma­tion that could help man­age nat­ur­al disasters.

Robert Bal­lard is over­see­ing 31 sci­en­tists who will set out Fri­day using remote­ly oper­at­ed vehi­cles to explore the Septen­tri­on­al and oth­er faults and under­wa­ter for­ma­tions around Puer­to Rico, the U.S. Vir­gin Islands and the east­ern Caribbean islands of Domini­ca and Montserrat.

The Septen­tri­on­al fault lies along the bor­der of the Caribbean and North Amer­i­can tec­ton­ic plates.

“It’s a pret­ty seri­ous thing we’re look­ing at … The Puer­to Rico trench can gen­er­ate very large and pow­er­ful earth­quakes,” Bal­lard told The Asso­ci­at­ed Press in a phone inter­view from Connecticut.

The first part of the expe­di­tion will focus on Puer­to Rico’s north coast, where an Octo­ber 1918 earth­quake of mag­ni­tude 7.2 killed 116 peo­ple and unleashed a tsuna­mi. The researchers will explore an under­wa­ter land­slide that they believe trig­gered the tsuna­mi with 20-foot (6‑meter) waves.

They also will use the vehi­cles to dive the Mona Rift that plunges to depths of 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) and ana­lyze sev­er­al faults, includ­ing the Septen­tri­on­al, which ends in what sci­en­tists say is an unusu­al cir­cu­lar depres­sion not seen in any oth­er major strike-slip fault in the world.

“I’ve nev­er seen some­thing that ends so strange­ly,” said Uri ten Brink, a geo­physi­cist with the U.S. Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey who is par­tic­i­pat­ing in the mis­sion. “It’s a lit­tle hole in the ground.”

Ten Brink said it’s the first time sci­en­tists will explore a por­tion of the Septen­tri­on­al fault up close, not­ing that such research is expen­sive and complex.

“We real­ly don’t know what’s down there in terms of how the fault looks,” he said.

The infor­ma­tion col­lect­ed will help seis­mol­o­gists under­stand what’s hap­pen­ing along those faults and help them man­age future nat­ur­al dis­as­ters, said Dwight Cole­man, oceanog­ra­ph­er and leader of the expe­di­tion focus­ing on Puer­to Rico and the U.S. Vir­gin Islands.

Sci­en­tists also will study the organ­isms and seafloor of the Mona Pas­sage, which lies between Puer­to Rico and the Domini­can Repub­lic and is one of sev­er­al spots where Atlantic waters cir­cu­late into the Caribbean, becom­ing warmer and saltier.

The 211-foot (64-meter) explo­ration ves­sel, the Nau­tilus, will then trav­el to the neigh­bor­ing U.S. Vir­gin Islands to try to pin­point the ori­gin of an Octo­ber 1867 earth­quake of mag­ni­tude 7.5 that unleashed tsunamis that struck St. Thomas and St. Croix.

It then goes on to the east­ern Caribbean islands of Montser­rat and Domini­ca, which have had big vol­canic eruptions.

Remote­ly oper­at­ed vehi­cles also will probe unex­plored sub­ma­rine vol­ca­noes and deter­mine if they are active, as well as map an active under­wa­ter vol­cano just north of Grena­da named Kick ’em Jen­ny that has­n’t been explored in the past 10 years.

The $3 mil­lion mis­sion that begins in Puer­to Rico and ends in Grena­da is being fund­ed through a part­ner­ship with agen­cies and orga­ni­za­tions includ­ing the U.S. Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rhode Island.

In late August, sci­en­tists aboard the Nau­tilus explored the deep­est trough of the Caribbean Sea, locat­ed near the Cay­man Islands.