Massive Deep Sea Volcano
Erupts off Oregon Coast

SEATTLE (AP) - A massive underwater volcano has been erupting off he Oregon coast for days, and scientists are scrambling to get closer to study how life survives deep in the ocean.
The eruptions at Axial Seamount are no danger to the public, said Chris Fox, a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration geologist who has tracked thousands of regional earthquakes since the volcano awoke Saturday night. Axial rises 4,500 feet off the ocean floor about 300 miles west of Cannon Beach, Ore. Its peak is nearly 4,000 feet below the ocean surface. The eruption could shed light on subjects as diverse as the origin of life, genetic compounds and whether life might be possible on Jupiter's moons, researchers said Wednesday.
Research into seismology, geology, chemistry and the strange organisms that live on and beneath the mountain and the mysterious undersea Juan de Fuca Ridge "will keep us busy for years," Fox said. The ridge runs north and south for 400 miles, part of a zigzagging breach in the ocean floor where two of the plates that form the Earth's crust are spreading apart. Since initial mapping in the 1970s and 80s, scientists have found numerous signs of seismic activity, including other eruptions. Studying the ridge has helped reveal how the crust is formed. It also has led to the discovery of strange organisms, including clams, worms and crabs, that thrive in high temperatures and pressures and are part of a food chain based on bacteria in volcanic vents.
A 1993 eruption disclosed the presence of an entire ecosystem of bacteria and viruses in the volcanic rock of the sea floor, where they live on hydrogen sulfide gas associated with volcanic activity. When there is a hydrothermal event, they reproduce very rapidly and are blasted upward throughout the water column - one reason scientists want to get to the volcano as soon as possible, Fox said.
Some scientists think that the underwater vents might be the source of life on the planet, and that the bacteria could contain genes millions of years old.
Studying those organisms not only might illuminate how life arose on Earth, but could describe scenarios where life might exist in hostile environments elsewhere in the solar system, including Jupiter's moons, Fox said. On a more practical level, he said, the bacteria's genetic material is of great interest to biomedical and other research companies who hope it can be used to produce new products.
"When an eruption goes off in the deep ocean, it's an environment that's so strange to us in many regards, it immediately conjures up discovery," said Steve Hammond, director of NOAA's ocean vents program.
No one has seen the eruption. But Fox and other researchers say it's likely that rivers of red-hot lava are flowing out of the volcano, along with giant plumes of scalding, mineral-rich water carrying microbes that thrive beneath the ocean floor. The eruption could last weeks or longer.
Fox said the Oregon State University research ship Wecoma will probably be sent to the sea above the mountain in early February in an expedition sponsored by NOAA and the National Science Foundation.
Unlike Mount St. Helens, which devastated hundreds of square miles with its 1980 explosion, Axial is more likely oozing lava similar to volcanoes on Hawaii. Hammond said the undersea mountains along the ridge in some ways resemble the Hawaiian Islands, which are volcanoes that grew from the ocean floor to eventually break the surface.
On Monda, a conference opened at NOAA's regional center here to discuss summer explorations at Axial, including the creation of the New Millennium Observator, a permanent underwater network of sensors at the site.

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