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Before 1977, the thought of deep-sea creatures that thrived in extreme heat and dined on a chemical soup was something found only in science fiction novels. But after a trip to the Galapagos that year, what scientists discovered went from science fiction to science fact.
What the scientists found were hydrothermal vents, which were amazing in their own right. But upon further investigation, they also found thriving communities of sea life, including clams, mussels, and tubeworms, living on or in the vents.
How and if the sea life around the vents has changed, along with a search for new vent communities in the area which lies about 8,000 feet below the water's surface, will be part of the focus of a scientific expedition May 24 to June 2 to the Galapagos to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the initial discovery.
Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), National Science Foundation (NSF) and other institutions and universities will travel aboard the 274-foot-long research ship Atlantis, operated by Woods Hole. The trip is the first of NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration 2002 missions.
During the journey, scientists will collect samples, map new areas, and conduct biological, chemical, and geologic studies. The manned submersible Alvin and the unmanned Autonomous Benthic Explorer will also be used.
"The expedition will provide a very dramatic example of the amazing and exotic biological environments we now know exist along the crest of the mid-ocean ridge that encircles the Earth," said Steve Hammond, director of NOAA's VENTS program and co-chief scientist for the Galapagos expedition. "Without a doubt, exploration of these deep ocean realms will lead to major scientific discoveries and eventually to tangible economic benefits as well."
Before 1977, it was commonly thought that life depended on the sun or photosynthesis. But the creatures discovered in and around the thermal vents thrive on chemosynthesis, or the energy and heat from the Earth's interior.
"Some scientific discoveries are profound because they make pieces fall into place and solve long-standing puzzles. Others are profound because they shatter old notions and launch entirely new lines of inquiry. The discovery of the Galapagos vents in 1977 did both," said Timothy Shank of Woods Hole, the other co-chief scientist on the cruise.
Students and the general public can follow the expedition online through two websites: NOAA's Ocean Explorer - www.oceanexplorer.noaa.gov and WHOI's Dive and Discover - http://www.divediscover.whoi.edu.
"Discovery of the hydrothermal vent communities is one of the most exciting developments in oceanography in the past 50 years," said Jim Yoder, director of NSF's Division of Ocean Sciences. "The upcoming cruise is a great opportunity to see how these fascinating communities may have changed over the years."
The expedition is funded primarily by the NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration, with support from WHOI and NSF. NSF supported the 1977 cruise as well as many subsequent expeditions to explore hydrothermal vents around the world.
Alvin is a deep-sea vehicle of the U.S. National Deep Submergence Facility (NDSF), part of the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS). NDSF is operated by WHOI and supported by NOAA, NSF, and the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research.
To learn more about NOAA's vents program, visit http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/vents/.
The Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. To learn more about NOAA, please visit http://www.noaa.gov.
Editor's Note: Video and still images are available upon request through the WHOI Media Relations Office (508) 289-3340 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHOI is distributing a free CD that tells the story of the discovery of the hydrothermal vents: Contact Stephanie Murphy (508) 298-2271 or email@example.com.