U.S. Deep-Sea Expedition Probes Earth's Final Frontier

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Randy Keller, a geologist from Oregon State University in Corvallis, is using Alvin to retrieve rocks from the Murray seamount about two miles (3.2 kilometers) down.

"I almost envision the volcano erupting when I see the rocks," said Keller. "These seamounts basically hold the story of what happened to them 30 million years ago."

Analysis of the rocks, and the chemicals and crystals within will give Keller's team clues about how quickly the lava solidified when it hit the cold water millions of years ago—and possibly reveal why one seamount breaks the surface to become a tropical paradise and another does not.

Corals and Crabs

"If you build an understanding of how the Earth works then maybe you can make some predictions about the future (of volcanic activity)," Keller said.

Each morning begins as Alvin swings over the stern of the Atlantis and slips beneath the waves. Deep down, the pilot plucks specimens from the seamount slopes with its claw—crabs, corals, rocks and soil samples—and dumps them in a wire cage.

At the end of each day, the cage surfaces and starts a scientific feeding frenzy on deck.

Naomi Ward, a microbiologist from The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, is collecting bacteria—from rocks, soil, water and even the slime from corals and crabs.

Ward's goal is to figure out where on the bacterial tree of life these various undersea families belong. She hopes that eventually the DNA of these bacteria will reveal metabolic capabilities that have industrial or medical applications.

Tom Guilderson, a geochemist affiliated with the University of California, Santa Cruz and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and his team are sampling dozens of deep sea corals to understand climate trends. Corals—the redwoods of the deep—contain biological archives of the oceans.

"We are trying to understand how the ocean interacts with the atmosphere over long time scales, 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years—and use that to figure out what might happen in the future," Guilderson said.

At the Patton seamount, Stevens is looking for juvenile king crabs. On a previous expedition he found the adults but not the juveniles. Now he wants to see where the future of the crab population is living.

"That will tell us whether this is the important type of habitat that we should be protecting, whether we should discourage fishing activities here, and what we need to maintain a healthy population," Stevens said.

The oceans are a vast and promising frontier. "In one mission the space shuttle can map the land to a nine-foot resolution," McLean points out. "But less than five percent of the oceans have been mapped. We harvest and use resources from the sea without a good understanding of its intricacies."

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