World's Deepest Known Undersea Volcanic Vent Found

By: Raphael G. Satter - AP Writer
By: Raphael G. Satter - AP Writer

LONDON (AP) - Scientists using a remote-controlled submarine have discovered the deepest known volcanic vent and say the superheated waters inside could contain undiscovered marine species and perhaps even clues to the origin of life on earth.

Experts aboard the RRS James Cook said they found the underwater
volcanic vent more than three miles (five kilometers) beneath the
surface of the Caribbean in an area known as the Cayman Trough, a
deep-sea canyon that served as the setting for James Cameron's
underwater thriller "The Abyss."

Geologist Bramley Murton, the submersible's pilot, said
exploring the area was "like wandering across the surface of
another world," complete with spires of multicolored mineral
deposits and thick collections of fluorescent blue microorganisms
thriving in the slightly cooler waters around the chimneys.

The scenes "were like nothing I had ever seen before," Murton
said.

Volcanic vents are areas where sea water seaps into small cracks
that penetrate deep into the earth's crust - some reaching down
more than a mile (two kilometers.) Temperatures there can reach 750
degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius), heating the water to the
point where it can melt lead.

The blazing hot mineral-rich fluid is expelled into the icy cold
of the deep ocean, creating a smoke-like effect and leaving behind
towering chimneys of metal ore, some two stories tall. The
spectacular pressure - 500 times stronger than the earth's
atmosphere - keeps the water from boiling.

The environment in volcanic vents may appear brutal: the intense
heat and pressure combines with toxic metals to form a highly
acidic undersea cocktail. But vents host lush colonies of exotic
animals such as blind shrimp, giant white crabs, and even large
red-lipped tubeworms whose lack of any apparent digestive system
once left scientists scratching their heads.

At the base of this ecosystem present are chemical-eating
bacteria who draw on the hydrogen sulphide and methane erupting
from the vents to make food.

"Although those are lethally hostile conditions for
surface-dwellers like us, life exists at all depths in the oceans,
right down to the bottom of the deepest trenches," said marine
biologist Jon Copley in an e-mail interview from the James Cook.

"We're still figuring out how."

Because the vent area is nearly half a mile deeper than any
previously discovered, scientists speculate that it could be the
hottest ever found. Study of the vent could yield a variety of new
insights into the history of the ocean, the physics of so-called
"supercritical fluids" - liquids so hot they act like gasses -
and the chemical makeup of the deep ocean.

Most tantalizing is the prospect that the expedition, led by
geochemist Douglas Connelly of Britain's National Oceanography
Center, could also reveal a variety of new life forms specially
adapted to the Trough's punishing environment.

"The deep sea is full of surprises," a statement posted to the
expedition's Web site said. "We may find species unlike any seen
before. The Cayman Trough may be like (Arthur) Conan Doyle's 'Lost
World,"' a novel that imagines an area populated by prehistoric
monsters hidden deep in the Amazonian rain forest.

Other scientists said they were excited by the discovery.

"I'm extremely curious to see and hear what they have found
there in terms of biology," said Maya Tolstoy, a marine
geophysicist with the department of earth sciences at Columbia
University.

This vent and others like it are also of interest to scientists
because of the role some scientists believe they played in the
creation of life on earth.

Copley said it has been theorized that life may have originated
in similar environments early in the Earth's history - in part
because the microorganisms found in deep-sea vents appear close to
some of the Earth's most ancient organisms.

Still, Copley said, "there are a lot of assumptions in that
deduction."

"The origin of life is one of the greatest unanswered questions
in science, and at the moment vents are one of the contenders, but
they are certainly not the only one."

The Cayman Trough vent was discovered on April 6, according to
Copley, who said the team used a cube-shaped submersible linked to
the ship by three miles (five kilometers) of cable. Copley said the
discovery had been three years in the making and built on the
previous efforts to scour the depths for signs of the cloudy,
mineral-laden water which the vents emit.

He said the find illustrated how little was known about what
lurks at the bottom of the sea, a sentiment backed by Tolstoy.

"We know more about the surface of the Moon and Mars than we do
about our own planet because two-thirds of our planet is covered by
ocean making it very hard to explore," she said.

"We've only seen a tiny fraction of the deep sea floor so there
are undoubtedly many more vents and other amazing things to
discover."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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