Bathymetry (ocean depth) map of the Lau Basin. Credit: Fernando Martinez and Brian Taylor, University of Hawaii
A team of 27 U.S. marine scientists beginning an intensive program of exploration at the Lau Basin in the South Pacific has discovered a new cluster of hydrothermal vents along a volcanically active crack in the seafloor. About a mile and a half down, the basin could hold answers to questions about the origin of life on Earth, say the scientists, whose plans for their "South Pacific Odyssey" include an unprecedented number of research expeditions to this geologically unique "back-arc basin" during the next two years.
"This major undertaking will require the coordinated efforts of dozens of large research groups, numerous research expeditions, and the deployment of a wide array of specialized deep-sea research tools," said Penn State Professor of Biology Chuck Fisher, chair of the NSF-funded Ridge 2000 research initiative, which is behind this effort. “Because of the unusual properties of the ocean crust in the Lau Basin, we can expect to discover new species there--species that perhaps will hold new and unique secrets to share with us," Fisher said. "The microbes at sites like these--thriving in super-hot temperatures--likely have their own remarkable biochemical pathways and capabilities that we are only beginning to appreciate."
"The Lau Basin is a candy store of scientific problems, and this is the first time there’s been a regional-scale perspective of hydrothermal activity in an entire back-arc basin," said Charlie Langmuir of Harvard University, a marine geologist who is the chief scientist of the current cruise and a veteran of over 20 deep-sea expeditions in the last two decades. "If we’re successful, it will also be the first time that a systematic exploration and discovery of hydrothermal vents over hundreds of kilometers has been achieved."
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