Lurking in these writhing ecosystems are communities of Archaea, the infinitesimally small bacteria at the very beginning of the food chain. Archaea can spawn and thrive in the buried depths of the ocean and in the crags and gullies of hydrothermal vents because they don't need sun or photosynthesis for survival. Instead, they use sulfide, which is plentiful in the vents, to create food, in a process called chemosynthesis. And they eat nutrients from seabed rocks, which are transferred to them by the water. Ever since the discovery of Archaea in the late 1970s, more than three hundred species of vent animals higher up the food chain that feed on Archaea have been identified in hydrothermal vent habitats --- exotica like the red-tipped, white Vestimentiferan tubeworm; the giant Vescomyid clam; the Bathymodiolid mussel; and the deep-water skate.

But what was different about the hydrothermal vent that suddenly appeared on Atlantis's monitors was the absence of visible life. There were no tubeworms, no clams or mussels, only the Archaea and an incredible amount of volcanic activity. As the crew moved the cameras back and forth to examine different parts of the hydrothermal vent --- which by now was dubbed the Lost City, because of its primordial appearance --- their excitement mounted. Unlike other vents that looked more mature, the Lost City had fresh white-colored deposits in its youngest areas, and hot viscous fluids discernibly streaming up the edges of its pillars, as well as brand-new crystals forming on its edges. It was possible, the crew thought, that with this feverish explosion of spewing hot liquids, crystallizing to extend the walls of the vast ziggurat, and with the emergence of the tiny Archaea in the middle of the blast furnace, they were actually watching life begin.

"These structures were forming right before our eyes by the precipitation of minerals from fluids that derive solely from chemical reactions, not from anything else," Kelley told me. "This was a gigantic surprise."

The next day Kelley, Jeffrey Karson (Kelley's research partner aboard the Atlantis and head of the geology department at Duke University), and a pilot squeezed into a small submarine and dove deep into the ocean to get a closer look at the Lost City. As they neared it, they turned on the high-beam klieg lights. Kelley and Karson were spellbound, staring through the submarine's porthole, as they slid down the south side of the face of the vent's scarp and then rose up until they came to the edge of the tallest structure. It seemed to go on endlessly. "It was incredible," Karson says. "Every time we found a new structure, it was like, my God, this field is just getting bigger and bigger and bigger."

No science fiction movie about searching for a lost ark or buried treasure had prepared them for what they saw. There was movement everywhere, constant, undulating movement. It seemed that the Lost City was made up of thousands and thousands of kinetic parts each creating ecosystem after ecosystem, rhythmically pulsating in concert as if they were enlivened by a drumbeat that no one else could hear, building a steamy hothouse from which life could emerge. With robotic arms, the submarine's crew grabbed hundreds of samples of the Lost City to take back to land. Then after four hours at the hydrothermal vent, the crew had to return to the home vessel. It was almost impossible to pry themselves away. Speaking about the exhilarating experience months later, Kelley sounded exhausted, as if just recalling it overpowered her again. "I've struggled for words to describe what I saw," she says. "They don't exist."

It will take the Atlantis oceanographers some time before they figure out what they found in the Lost City. Researchers at Woods Hole are testing the specimens they brought back and mulling over the photographs, videos, logs, and researchers' diaries. Before anything is concluded with certainty, numerous teams of other water scientists, representing a vast range of organizations, are likely to take further exploration voyages to the Lost City. The Atlantis crew is still a bit shell-shocked by what they saw. Lingering with them most of all is the ferociousness of the formative activity they witnessed firsthand --- the establishment of mountains out of the planet's core, the spontaneous blast of chemical reactions, the uncoupling and emergence of primitive plant and animal life, the belching screams of volcanic eruptions, all of which, they know, continues to play out at the bottom of the ocean day and night. It's impossible to forget the sight of the planet in a burst of anger and frenzy recreating itself over and over in the deepest ocean, where the Earth is most at home.

--- From Every Drop for Sale
By Jeffrey Rothfeder
©2001 Tarcher/Putnam

Go to a review of the book from which this reading was taken

Go Up     Subscribe     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH