What if you were to find out that the infernal realm of Mordor from The Lord of the Rings actually exists, and it was actually forged in fire? At least some of it was forged in fire. The most terrifying feature of a seamount off the coast of Australia is an ancient volcano that eventually collapsed in on itself. It ended up forming something eerily reminiscent of the Dark Lord’s eye, from the eyelid down to the demonic slit pupil.
As unapologetic Tolkien fans, the scientists who discovered this volcano, led by Tim O’Hara, decided to call it the Eye of Sauron.
The surrounding areas were so eerily reminiscent of the fortress of Barad-dûr (cue threatening music and marching feet of dark armies) and the desolate mountains of ash known as Ered Lithui that the names stuck. At least no hobbits have to take a quest to this place, because it lies over 10,000 feet underwater.
“Our ‘Barad Dur’ is surrounded by sharp peaks and pinnacles,” he told SYFY WIRE. “Our ‘Ered Lithui’ is covered by a later of pumice stones—perhaps from the Eye of Sauron, or even from more recent eruptions, such as Krakatoa, so it really is a 'mountain of ash'."
Though it looks like nightmare fuel, the Eye of Sauron is actually a volcanic formation called a caldera. Volcanoes that erupt and collapse leave calderas behind. Magma is what supports the inner chamber of a volcano, but when it is belched out too fast, there is nothing else to support those walls, which then collapse. The Eye of Sauron formed out of such a large volcano that it left an island in the middle which just happened to form into the exact same shape as Sauron’s pupil, with its outer rim as his unblinking eyelid.
O’Hara and his team discovered this underwater Mordor by beaming sonar beneath their research vessel, the RV Investigator, after almost two weeks of exploring the waters around Australia. They used multibeam sonar, which is often used to map the seafloor as they were attempting to do. This type of sonar has multiple sensors, a transducer array. Transducers convert one type of signal into another. Unlike single-beam sonar, which only uses one transducer, multibeam sonar emits several beams that an out and cover more space.
“Using a multibeam sonar on all these structures revealed all their marvelous detail, in comparison to the way they show up as fuzzy blobs on maps of gravity measurements from satellites,” O’Hara said.
What the researchers saw on their ship’s computer screen was nothing short of a scene straight out of The Return of the King. They first stared back at the Eye of Sauron, then realizing that it was just one feature on an entire seamount. These seamounts are thought to have formed along a mid-ocean ridge during the Cretaceous period. This was when Australia was much closer to Antarctica and had a substantial amount of ocean crust, with the ridge and most of the northern region of its seafloor, the Neotethys. Both were subducted into the Sunda Trench.
This could explain the volcano. When tectonic plates run into each other and one slides underneath in the phenomenon of subduction, they often lead to earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Whether the Eye of Sauron still erupts is unknown. It is possible for a smaller peak that forms within a caldera to keep spewing magma, and this iteration of Mordor is so deep that any newer eruptions may have gone undetected.
Something about the Eye of Sauron that confused O’Hara is that sediment from Ered Lithui should have buried it within a hundred million years, but never did.
“We suspect that the Eye of Sauron caldera is much younger than the surrounding seamounts, so it has not experienced the same sedimentation,” he said. “But further research is required to determine when this may have happened.”
If we really did live in a Middle-Earth altverse, at least Sauron himself would not even be able to spy on you through a palantir if he was doomed to a fortress in the ocean’s darkest depths.