HMS Protector alongside King Edward Point in South Georgia.

The Royal Navy is helping scientists warn of potentially devastating tsunamis by researching huge underwater volcanoes on the fringe of Antarctica.
HMS Protector used her state-of-the-art sensors to scan a series of peaks in the South Sandwich Islands, one of the most remote British territories on the planet.

The chain of volcanoes off Zavodovski Island rise hundreds of metres above the seabed. They are active with numerous seismic events every year.

A major underwater eruption could trigger a landslide and, in turn, a tsunami, with potentially devastating consequences. One such wave in August 2021 led to the evacuation of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) research station on South Georgia – 375 miles away.

Caldera and 90m Subsea Peak

The volcanic chain was last surveyed by BAS, with whom the Plymouth-based Royal Navy icebreaker regularly works.

Scientists asked the ship to return to the area, known as the Protector Seamounts, which are named after a previous Royal Navy ship which operated in the polar region more than 50 years ago.

The data Protector gathered will be used by scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and University of Plymouth to assess the stability of the volcanoes’ flanks and look for evidence of ‘mass wasting’: huge volumes of sediment shifting, potentially triggering tsunamis which could impact people across the southern hemisphere.

“We need to understand the origin and wider significance of mass wasting in the South Sandwich Islands,” explained the project’s lead scientist Dr Jenny Gales, Lecturer in Hydrography and Ocean Exploration at the University of Plymouth.

“This is important because mass wasting events on volcanic islands represent some of the largest sediment flux events on Earth. The levels of past activity in this particular region show they are a significant geohazard, with the potential to trigger tsunamis.”