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Black smoke appears to rise from the chimney-like formations of the hottest and deepest known hydrothermal vents on Earth.
In the summer Anna Michel could see them for herself – several miles below the surface of the ocean.
Michel, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, was part of the three-person crew of the submersible Alvin to dove down to the middle of the Cayman Islands. Known as the Beebe Hydrothermal Vent Field, these vents exist in an area of the ocean where two tectonic plates separate about half an inch (15 millimeters) per year south of the Cayman Islands.
Hydrothermal vents form where magma rises under the sea, creating ridges of water under the sea called ocean ridges.
Cold seawater flows through sea cracks and is heated to 750 degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius) to interact with magma-heated rocks. This trade releases minerals from the rocks, providing nutrients and a perfect ecosystem for the unusual marine life that grows around them.
Alvin, which has operated for 58 years, reached a record height of 6,453 meters (4 miles) in July in the Puerto Rico Trench, north of San Juan, Puerto Rico. On multiple excursions, Alvin went 6,200 to 6,500 meters (3.8 to 4 miles) below the ocean’s surface after meeting the requirements of the US Navy and Naval Sea Systems Command.
The new environment means that around 99% of the sea area is now inside the Alvin and its pilot and two passengers are now inside. Alvin’s third in depth growth since its submersible has been ordered, according to Andrew Bowen, principal engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering.
“This is the first time I’ve come to a hydrothermal vent site in person and for me, that was absolutely incredible,” said Michel, also the chief scientist of the National Deep Submergence Facility that operates Alvin. “We’ve been able to bring people to see places that we can’t at Alvin.”
Michel has worked with remote underwater vehicles for 20 years, but this summer was his first Alvin passenger. Despite the enclosed space of the Titan under the cabinets, Michel never felt claustrophobic. But he said he felt like riding in an elevator, and the eight-hour campaign flew by.
“You see more three-dimensionality in real life and the spatial awareness is very different from these giant spirals,” he said of the vents.
Scientists will now have direct access to the deepest parts of the ocean, exploring places humans have never before Researchers hope to discover new species and study the basis of life.
Michel and University of Rhode Island geophysicist Adam Soule, professor of oceanography, led five scientific expeditions for the Alvin Verification Science Expedition over the summer to Puerto Rico and the Caymans.
At the Puerto Rico Trench, where underwater cliffs form as the tectonic plates of North America and the Caribbean collide, the team is collecting samples of exposed ocean crust and some of the deepest known samples of marine organisms. During the Middle Cayman Rise expedition, researchers took biological and chemical samples from hydrothermal vents.
Previously, Alvin could only travel 4,500 meters (2.7 miles). The new 18-month-old 43,000-pound (19,500-kilogram) submersible can be submerged. Alvin’s new upgrades include a 4K imaging system, a new hydraulic manipulator arm, more powerful thrusters, a new motor controller and an integrated command and control system.
Alvin contributed many discoveries, including shipwrecks and ocean science. Human operated vehicle, or HOV; more than 3,000 people advanced over 5,000 in height. This is the only deep submergence vehicle in the US able men to the deep ocean.
Researchers have used Alvin to study plate tectonics and hydrothermal vents, find alien marine life — and even explore the RMS Titanic in 1986 after Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist Robert Ballard located the wreck. Submersibles also helped the Navy locate a missing hydrogen bomb from World War II and took scientists to the seabed below the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
“For almost 60 years, the Alvin deep-submergence vehicle has revealed the mysteries of the ocean – not only for military and national security purposes, but also for the scientific benefit of society as a whole,” he said. Rear Adm. Lorin C. Selby, chief of naval research, in a statement.
He uses his two underarms to collect samples that can be brought to the surface when Alvin is “locked” aboard his ship, the R/V Atlantis. Alvin’s capabilities mean that scientists participating in the dive can capture images and visual maps of alien and rare sea creatures, conduct experiments and deploy scientific instruments.
Alvin is named after Allyn Vitis, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist and oceanographer who championed the idea of submersibles that could carry researchers safely across the deep sea to carry knowledge to an otherwise inaccessible place.
“Alvinus is built and maintained to provide new discoveries and new insights into the way our planet works,” Michel said. “Every generation of scientists poses new questions; and Alvin answered in the written manner. There’s a new generation waiting to use the subs, to which we say, ‘Alvin is ready, where do you want to go?’
Scientists submit proposals to reserve time on Alvin to conduct research, and about 100 submersibles per year to explore the biodiversity of the ocean, the Earth’s crust and the life that thrives in the depths.
A variety of other underwater vehicles, including autonomous ones, are increasing exploration capabilities under the waves.
“Imagine exploring the Grand Canyon at night by flashlight,” Bowen said. “Historically, we’ve been able to do that, and Alvin was a key part of that. With the addition of more technology in the form of drones, tethered vehicles and autonomous systems, the Alvin submersibles are actually expanding their footprint.
“Visiting the deep ocean is a laborious process.” The biggest benefit is getting out where the technology has a huge potential benefit.”
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