Saturday | April 25, 2015
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WHAT LIES BENEATH: Researchers kick off exploration of underwater Loihi

University of Hawaii researchers were set this morning to kick off an exploration of the deepest reaches of the erupting undersea volcano located about 20 miles southeast of the Big Island.

Including scientists from the University of Minnesota, France’s IFREMER Centre de Brest and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, the expedition will seek to map the largely unexplored base of the volcano. The team, led by UH-Manoa professor Brian Glazer, will also collect water samples and explore the so-called “Iron Eaters of Loihi” — groupings of bacteria that use iron as an energy source, creating telltale orange patches of rust as a byproduct.

Using Woods Hole’s autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry, the researchers will dive about 5,000 meters, where they will effectively be traveling back in time, Glazer said in a phone interview Tuesday.

“Loihi, today, looks at times like what much of the Earth looked like in the past,” he said. “It’s a window into Earth’s history.”

As well as providing a glimpse into the processes that helped form the Earth, the exploration could also inform scientists as they continue to seek extraterrestrial lifeforms.

“In accessing Loihi, we have a window into the ancient Earth that also provides clues about the potential for life out there, in habitats that could exist on places like Mars or Europa,” Glazer said. “The search for life is going to be microbial. We’re not looking for green meanies.”

If researchers can identify a chemical signature for geological features formed by microbes such as those around Loihi, that signature could ultimately allow them to decipher whether similar features on other planets were biologically produced — a potentially simpler task than finding living cells, according to a UH-Manoa press release.

Mats of iron-oxidizing bacteria are not unique to hydrothermal vents in Hawaiian waters, but how they interact with the ocean and the nutrients available to them is still largely a mystery, Glazer said.

“To be very honest, we just don’t know. We’re just starting to understand these microbes and the other places on the planet where they thrive,” he said.

Processes at Loihi have the potential to provide iron to a large area of the Pacific Ocean, according to a press release. The iron-rich hydrothermal vent acts like a “giant, leaky iron mountain,” providing energy for bacteria near the vents, as well as pumping iron out into the ocean.

In the upper ocean, the growth of microscopic organisms, which produce oxygen we breathe and form the base of marine food webs, is limited by the availability of iron in about a third of the global surface ocean.

“Iron-oxidizing microbial activity like what is occurring at Loihi could be an important component in the ocean’s iron and carbon cycling — a critical driver in overall ocean balance — particularly if exploration proves the activity is more widespread than previously thought,” Glazer said.

Initially, the team planned to use Woods Hole’s Nereus, a hybrid remotely operated vehicle (HROV) to explore the seamount, but that vehicle imploded in May as it was exploring at depths of 10,000 meters in the Kermadec Trench northeast of New Zealand.

“As so often happens when something like this happens, we adapt,” Glazer said.

Sentry will provide the researchers access to a high-resolution camera, sonar systems and chemical sensors, allowing them to produce a much higher resolution map of the area than ever made before, as well as assessing the extent of the bacterial communities.

As the scientists work aboard The Schmidt Ocean Institute-operated 272-foot R/V Falkor, Big Isle residents should be able to see the research vessel from South Point, said SOI spokeswoman Carlie Wiener. The expedition begins today and will end July 6.

For more information, access to an expedition map and to read regular cruise log updates, visit http://schmidtocean.org.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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