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Scientists to map undersea volcano off Big Island

Updated: 
June 25, 2014 - 8:34am

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 Hawaii 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 down about 16,000 feet, 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 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 like 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 Hawaii waters, but how they interact with the ocean and the nutrients available to them is still largely a mystery, he 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.

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

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