Peering through the porthole of a submersible is like looking at outer space with a flashlight. You can't see much. But rigged with high-intensity movie lights, a sub becomes a deep-sea Hubble, revealing such eccentric beauties as the teetering spires of a sulfide chimney or spiny brisingid sea stars combing currents for food. Along with the National Science Foundation and Stephen Low Productions, a team of scientists is helping create an IMAX-format film to show in unrivaled detail the riches of hydrothermal ventsecosystems that may hold clues to early life on Earth.
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Late one night in December 2000, as the research vessel Atlantis towed a camera some 2,300 feet (700 meters) below the surface of the Atlantic, geologist Debbie Kelley and colleagues spotted a snow-white chimney in water shimmering with heat. Exploring by sub, the team discovered a "redwood forest" of spires, one nearly 200 feet (60 meters) tall. They named the site Lost Cityan entirely new type of hydrothermal vent field, where active chimneys emit water heated to a relatively cool 100°F (40°C) to 170°F (80°C). This heat results from a chemical reaction between water and a subcrustal rock called peridotite. When the alkaline solution emerges, calcium carbonate crystallizes, building shapes like stalagmites.
Until Lost City was found, most known deep-sea vents sprang from young, volcanically active regions such as mid-ocean ridges, where sulfide chimneys expel water as hot as 760°F (400°C). Yet Lost City's formations lie nine miles from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge on 1.5-million-year-old rock in an alkaline environment that may be similar to that of early Earth.
Other than dense mats of microbes, life at Lost City is sparse but for an occasional wreckfish. When we visited to film the site, we were moved by the monochromatic beauty of its carbonate chimneys. One three-story tower stood like a solemn cathedral, lost at sea.
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"Humans hate darkness," says filmmaker Stephen Low. "To inspire people to care about the deep ocean, we had to light it." That took some doing. Low and Emory Kristofveterans of filming the Titanic wreckalong with sub pilots from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution outfitted Alvin for the task. Eight 400-watt lights and a 1,200-watt boom-mounted spotlight threw light 150 feet (45 meters) out into the water, an amazing distance. That light took a lot of juice. "We were just at the edge of running out of power," recalls Bill Reeve, Low's director of photography. Quarters were tight: Only a filmmaker and pilot could fit aboard Alvin; the third seat was filled by the IMAX camera. Because it also hogged the main viewport, pilots navigated by viewing TV monitors. "It was the pits," says pilot Pat Hickey, who had to avoid the scalding black smokers.
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