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Oceanographers work a quarter of the world away from ship they’re ’on’


Being seasick is not a problem for scientists on a major expedition now under way in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. That’s because most of the researchers investigating the eerie Lost City hydrothermal vent field are working "aboard" a landlocked science command center in Seattle.

Only four scientists are with University of Rhode Island oceanographer Bob Ballard aboard the Ronald H. Brown, a research vessel operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the expedition’s major sponsor. The other 21 are with University of Washington oceanographer Deborah Kelley in a classroom on the UW campus that has been outfitted so scientists can direct sampling efforts and can be in constant contact with pilots and navigators on the Brown. Ballard is the mission’s principal investigator and Kelley is chief scientist. Operations are supported by a command center at the University of Rhode Island.

The expedition marks the return to the Lost City vent field discovered in 2000 during a National Science Foundation cruise. The field, formed in a very different way than the black smoker vents studied since the 1970s, includes a massive 18-story vent taller than any seen before.

"Having most of the members of an oceanographic science party on land has never been tried. The approach will provide an opportunity for a much larger number of researchers to explore the oceans," Kelley says.

"Our primary reason for conducting this cruise is to get ready for NOAA’s new ship of exploration, the Okeanos Explorer, when it comes on line in 2007," Ballard says. "Since this ship will ’go where no one has gone before,’ it is important that we are able to ’beam’ scientists aboard when a new discovery is made to guide the team of explorers on board the ship. Although the cruise is still not over, we have already accomplished this primary goal and can’t wait to see the discoveries that await us."

For those ashore it’s meant adjustments ranging from out-of-town scientists finding taxis back to their hotels at 2 in the morning when their shifts end to worrying whether there are enough scientists aboard the ship to analyze samples from the seafloor and chew over the implications that might guide the rest of the expedition.

At the same time scientists ashore and those on board the Brown used the remotely operated vehicles Argus and Hercules to see the field like never before and in real time.

"For the first time, we traveled the entire field and discussed its many varied features with people at the Seattle command center and on the ship at the same time," says Jeff Karson, a Duke University geologist. "The powerful lighting system provided unprecedented overviews of large areas of the seafloor and sections of major hydrothermal structures seen previously only in very limited glimpses."

Other science firsts accomplished or planned for the July 23 to Aug. 1 expedition include:

  • Learning whether the microbes in the mantle rocks beneath Lost City are residents, thriving in tiny fissures, or are commuters simply coursing through on highways of fluid without much need for the rock, says Gretchen Früh-Green, a scientist with Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. By carefully correlating samples of rock, fluid and biology, scientists hope to determine if the energy these microorganisms need is coming from the rocks reacting with seawater. If so, the ocean floor is littered with vast, exposed deposits of mantle rock like those under Lost City that could be filled with life that no one realized was there.
  • Sampling for radiogenic age dating from across a broader swath of Lost City, seeking areas that may be older than the 30,000 years previously determined, Kelley says. Lost City-type systems might persist hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of years, she says, far longer than black-smoker systems, and could provide a whole new avenue for looking for the earliest life on Earth and for signs of life on other planets.
  • Learning whether the animals, most of which are less than a half-inch in size and have translucent or invisible shells, are unique to Lost City or if they are found at other vent systems. Tim Shank, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says, "Another fundamental question is how they have evolved to thrive at Lost City."

Major partners in the expedition are NOAA, University of Washington, University of Rhode Island, Institute for Exploration, Jason Foundation for Education, Immersion Presents and National Geographic. The public can follow the voyage at: or

Immersion Presents broadcasts are being seen at select Boys and Girls Clubs, aquariums and museums.

"This summer’s expedition to Lost City could be the prototype of many voyages envisioned for the newly converted NOAA vessel Okeanos Explorer, unique to NOAA and the federal fleet as the only U.S. government ship dedicated to exploring the Earth’s oceans," Kelley says.

"I hope that the students from Woodstock High School in Chicago, who came up with the Okeanos name in a nationwide contest, might one day sail on the vessel," Ballard says. "Perhaps one of them will be a scientist or operator of deep-sea robots, or a teacher whose class takes advantage of the educational activities that bring the excitement of expeditions such as this into the classroom."

Sandra Hines | EurekAlert!
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