Saturday, May 21, 2005

Discovery of undersea volcanoes

It's like driving a bus with blinders on. Pilots of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory's two submersibles rely more on sonar than sight.

The landscape they're canvassing is unforgiving. It's thousands of feet below the ocean's surface in hell's kitchen.

"They're diving in a volcano that would be perhaps five times the size of Kilauea," HURL acting director John Wiltshire said.

Volcano dives are nothing new but an exploration this extensive has never been attempted. The five-month project covers 20 volcanoes in the South Pacific from New Zealand to Tonga -- part of the earth's explosive "Ring of Fire."

"They're going down in a submersible with two pilots and a scientist, going down into actively venting hydrothermal waters, some of which are coming out over 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
The fact that anything survives is mind boggling. But the depths are teeming with underwater creatures that can stand the heat and tremendous pressure at the volcanoes' floor. The South Pacific zone is famous for frequent earthquakes and eruptions and breathtaking images.

"They're seeing things they've never seen before," HURL's Rachel Shackelford said.

Shackelford sees it secondhand. She catalogues the mountain of data the scientists send back.
"Out of those water samples the scientists probably are going to be looking at gas concentrations, bacteria concentrations, different kinds of chemistry," Shackelford said.

The ship and submersibles set sail in mid-March. They'll return in August loaded with treasures of the deep, samples from a part of earth that's out of this world.

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