for National Geographic News
Deep in the ocean where the sun never shines, stinky clams, slippery tubeworms, ghost-white crabs, eel-like fish, and a gaggle of funky microscopic bacteria huddle around cracks in the Earth that spew scalding hot, toxic brews.
The spewing cracks are known as hydrothermal vents and the life that thrives around them fascinates the scientific community.
This month, thousands of school children are logging on to the Internet to join scientists exploring a series of hydrothermal vents on the East Pacific Rise about 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) west of Costa Rica. The rise is part of an underwater mountain range known as the Mid-Ocean Ridge system that snakes the globe like the stitching on a baseball.
"We call the program a virtual field trip, we want [the students] to feel like they are out here with us," said Craig Cary, a marine biologist at the University of Delaware in Lewes, who is leading the Extreme 2004: Exploring the Deep Frontier expedition.
Cary and his team embarked November 30 from Manzanillo, Mexico, on their 21-day voyage aboard the 274-foot (84-meter) research vessel Atlantis. On most days, they'll dive 1 mile (0.6 kilometer) down to the vents in the submersible Alvin.
This is the sixth year in a row Cary has led an expedition to the East Pacific Rise, the fourth involving interaction with middle and high school students who follow along via the Internet and can ask the research team questions and propose experiments.
"It provides a fantastic real-life connection to science for my students," Lana Crumrine, a science teacher at Klamath High School in Klamath Falls, Oregon, said. Crumrine's students are part of the estimated 52,000 from more than 750 participating schools.
"So often students sit in science class and hear about science as something someone did or discovered a long time ago and this program allows students to realize science is dynamic, it's current, and there are still things about our world we don't know," she added.
Of great interest to the scientists this year is the complex life of the microorganisms living at the hydrothermal vent sites. The environment is unlike anything else on the planet. Within the length of the human arm, temperatures range from near freezing to boiling.
"We really do not understand how a community of bacteria is mediated by its local environment, especially one that is changing so rapidly as we see in these diffuse flow vent sites," Cary said. "The chemistry is very complicated and very difficult to measure."
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