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The black smoke is said to rise from the chimney-like formations of Earth’s hottest and deepest hydrothermal vents.
In the summer, Anna Michel could see them herself, just a few kilometers below the surface of the ocean.
Michel, an associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, was part of a three-man crew aboard the submersible Alvin as it dived into the Mid-Cayman Rise. Known as the Beebe Hydrothermal Vent Field, these vents lie on the ocean floor where two tectonic plates are moving apart about half an inch (15 millimeters) a year south of the Cayman Islands.
Hydrothermal vents form where rising magma beneath the seafloor creates underwater ridges called ocean ridges.
Cold seawater seeps through cracks in the seafloor and is heated to 750 degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius) by interacting with magma-heated rocks. This interaction releases minerals from the rocks, releases nutrients and provides the perfect ecosystem for the unusual marine life that gathers around them.
Alvin, which has been operating for 58 years, reached a record depth of 6,453 meters (4 miles) in July in the Puerto Rico Trench, north of San Juan, Puerto Rico. On several excursions, Alvin traveled 6,200 to 6,500 meters (3.8 to 4 miles) below the ocean’s surface after meeting requirements set by the US Navy and Naval Sea Systems Command.
The new range means that about 99% of the seabed is within reach of Alvin, as well as its pilot and two passengers. This is Alvin’s third depth increase since the submersible was commissioned, said Andrew Bowen, principal engineer of Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
“That was the first time I had personally been to a hydrothermal vent and for me, that was absolutely incredible,” said Michel, who is also the chief scientist at the National Deep Underwater Facility, which operates Alvin. “We managed to bring humans to see places we haven’t gone before with Alvin.”
Michel has worked with remotely operated underwater vehicles for 20 years, but this summer was his first time as a passenger on Alvin. Despite the enclosed space of the titanium-clad sub, Michel never felt claustrophobic. Instead, he said it felt like riding in an elevator, and the eight-hour expedition flew by.
“In real life you see a lot more three dimensions and your spatial awareness is very different from these big spikes,” he said, referring to the windmills.
Scientists will now have direct access to the deepest parts of the ocean, exploring places where humans have been never been Researchers hope to discover new species and study the basis of life.
Michel and University of Rhode Island geophysicist Adam Soule, a professor of oceanography, led five scientific dives for Alvin’s Science Verification Expedition this summer, traveling to Puerto Rico and the Cayman Islands.
In the Puerto Rico Trench, where underwater cliffs form when the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates collide, the team collected samples of exposed oceanic crust and some of the deepest examples of seafloor organisms. During the Mid-Cayman Rise expedition, researchers took biological and chemical samples from the hydrothermal vents.
Previously, Alvin had only traveled 4,500 meters (2.7 miles). The new feat was made possible after 18 months of refurbishing the 43,000-pound (19,500-kilogram) submersible. Alvin’s upgrades include a 4K imaging system, a new hydraulic manipulator arm, more powerful thrusters, new engine controllers and an integrated command and control system.
Alvin has contributed to many discoveries, including shipwrecks and ocean science. Human Driven Vehicle or HOV, He has taken more than 3,000 people to the depths on more than 5,000 dives. It is the only deep underwater vehicle in the US capable of taking humans to the deep ocean.
Researchers have used Alvin to study plate tectonics and hydrothermal vents, discover rare marine life, and even explore the RMS Titanic after Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist Robert Ballard discovered the famous wreck in 1986. The submersible also helped the Navy find a missing hydrogen bomb from World War II and took scientists to the seabed beneath the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“For nearly 60 years, the Alvin deep-sea 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, said in a statement.
The sub uses its two arms to collect samples that can be brought to the surface when Alvin “parks” aboard its vessel, the R/V Atlantis. Alvin’s capabilities mean that scientists taking part in a dive can take photos and videos of strange seabed landscapes and strange creatures, conduct experiments and deploy scientific instruments.
Alvin is named after Allyn Vine, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution physicist and oceanographer. who championed the idea of submersibles that could safely carry researchers into the deep sea to conduct science in otherwise inaccessible places.
“Alvin is built and maintained to enable new discoveries and provide new insights into how our planet works,” Michel said. “Each generation of scientists presents new questions, and Alvin has responded in ways that have rewritten the textbooks. There is a new generation waiting to use the sub, and we say to them: ‘Alvin is ready, where do you want to go?'”
Scientists submit proposals to Alvin to reserve time for research, and the submersible makes about 100 dives a year to study the biodiversity of the oceans, the Earth’s crust and how life thrives at extreme depths.
A variety of other underwater vehicles, including autonomous ones, are increasing opportunities for exploration beneath the waves.
“Imagine exploring the Grand Canyon at night with a flashlight,” Bowen said. “Historically, that’s what we’ve been able to do, and Alvin has been key. We’ve added more and more technology in the form of drones, tethered vehicles, and autonomous systems that really expand the Alvin submersible’s footprint.
“Visiting the deep ocean is a laborious process. Getting the most out of going there technology has a huge potential benefit.’