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

Chad Cohen
National Geographic Today
February 21, 2003
At 150 meters (500 feet) below the ocean surface, all is dark—until the submersible, Alvin, descends into a firestorm of bioluminescence produced by barely visible sea creatures.

As Alvin approaches the bottom the pilot flicks on the outboard light revealing an undersea world of giant spider crabs and deep-sea corals that cling to the rocky slopes of an ancient volcano—the Patton seamount—in the Gulf of Alaska.

"This is one of the best parts," said Brad Stevens, a biologist with National Marine Fisheries Service in Kodiak, Alaska. "Looking out the porthole and seeing the bottom come up, it's like landing on the moon but you're landing on Earth—a part of Earth you've never seen before, that nobody's ever seen."

The Alvin and its mother ship the Atlantis are on a mission from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Just as NASA explores space, so does NOAA explore the trackless undersea realm. Like a space shuttle, the ship provides a lab for a team of scientists from different disciplines.

"We go to find out what's there, map it, quantify it, sample the biodiversity—basically prepare the site for the next wave of science," said Captain Craig McLean, director of the Office of Ocean Exploration (OOE), in Silver Spring, Maryland.

NOAA founded OOE in 2001 after the Presidents Panel for Ocean Exploration issued a mandate to search and investigate the deepest reaches of our oceans for the purpose of discovery.

Ventures into the Unknown

During the past two years the OOE has dispatched multidisciplinary teams to the Galapagos Rift, the Canadian Basin, Alaska's seamounts and more than 10 other locations. OOE's 2003 budget—U.S.$13.2 million—is currently funding expeditions to the Puerto Rico Trench and the Pacific Ring of Fire, among others.

The recent voyage in the Gulf of Alaska followed a string of a half-dozen underwater volcanoes, or seamounts—30 million-year-old peaks with dramatic cliffs and even more dramatic inhabitants.

Oceanography can be expensive. Renting the 274-foot (83.5-meter) research vessel Atlantis—and the famed submersible Alvin, which located the Titanic—costs about U.S.$30,000 per day. In the Gulf of Alaska the Atlantis carried about 50 passengershalf scientists and half crew.

Part of the motivation for the researchers is that the Atlantis ventures into the unknown.

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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