Earth’s largest volcano found by Handley grad

Posted: September 18, 2013

The Winchester Star

William Sager, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, in front of an image of a massive volcano in his office at the University of Houston. A couple decades ago, Sager and colleagues surveyed a large plateau in the northwestern Pacific Ocean and named it Tamu Massif. Recently he was able to return to the site to discover that the plateau is actually a massive, long-dormant volcano. (Photo by Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle)

WINCHESTER — Handley High School alumnus William Sager is making headlines for discovering the world’s largest volcano.

Sager, who graduated from Handley in 1972, has spent the past 20 years studying an undersea mountain range called Shatsky Rise, of which the newly discovered volcano is a part.

What Sager and his colleagues recently uncovered is that much of Shatsky Rise is made up of one large central volcano and not multiple ones.

According to the scientist, there was no eureka moment.

“We knew it was volcanic,” he said. “But we didn’t know if it was one or many.”

Sager, a geophysicist who works at the University of Houston, named the 120,000-square-mile volcano Tamu Massif after Texas A&M University (TAMU), where he worked for more than two decades. Massif is defined as a large mountain mass or compact group of connected mountains forming an independent portion of a range.

The behemoth, which has been extinct for millions of years, is located in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 miles east of Japan. The size of New Mexico, it dwarfs the previous world-record holder for largest volcano — Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii — which is only 2 percent the size of Tamu Massif.

The biggest volcano in the solar system is Olympus Mons on Mars, which rises 16 miles above the sea floor. Comparatively, Tamu Massif rises only a few miles above.

Sager, 59, was born in Washington, D.C., and moved to Winchester in 1960.

“I was one of those rare kids who knew I wanted to be a scientist at 10 years old,” he said. “But I wanted to be an astronomer.”

He fondly remembers Handley chemistry teacher Mary Virginia Carson and physics teacher Harold Phillips.

“I don’t know if I wouldn’t have become a scientist without them, but they encouraged me,” he said.

None of Sager’s family remains in the Winchester area.

After graduating from Handley, he went on to receive an undergraduate degree in physics from Duke University in North Carolina and a master’s and doctorate in geophysics from the University of Hawaii.

After realizing that there were only a limited number of jobs in astronomy, Sager took an interest in geophysics. In 1977, he took his first research cruise and was intrigued by the vast expanse of the ocean and what lies beneath its depths.

“There’s still lots to explore in the ocean and that struck me,” he said.

Sager decided to study Shatsky Rise to learn how the oceanic plateau had formed. In 1994, he submitted a research proposal to collect samples through an oceanic drilling program. After 15 years, it was accepted.

“It takes years to get a proposal funded and approved,” he said.

What Sager found was lava flows emanating from one center, not multiple ones. There was also no secondary source of volcanism.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Billy Pifer, a friend and fellow classmate of Sager. “He was good academically and enjoyed academic challenges.”

Sager, recalls Pifer, had a “wonderful” telescope and won awards in many science fairs.

“Will was always a good student and a bright guy,” he said. “He was always known for being interested in science, particularly astronomy.”

For his discovery, Sager said he didn’t get paid more nor did he receive any benefits. It also doesn’t make it any easier or likely that future proposals from him will be funded, he said, because funding is hard to get and it’s expensive to study the ocean.

For Sager’s study on Tamu Massif, the research ship cost $50,000 a day for more than two months and the drilling crews cost about $8 million.

Sager is hopeful that with the recent discovery, people will see the value of oceanic research, and that the oceanic drilling program, which is in peril of being cut, will survive.

“I’m hopeful with something like this, it comes home to people,” he said. “People kinda get jaded. They don’t know they’re living in the greatest period of discovery in mankind.”

Sager said he plans to write a proposal to collect magnetic data from the volcano to discover how it evolved. But because writing the proposal and getting it approved will take years and the project will cost millions of dollars, he isn’t quite certain he will get to see it come to fruition.

“I don’t know if there is a next step for me,” he said.

— Contact Rebecca Layne at rlayne@winchesterstar.com