‘Lost city’ in the depths of the ocean is unlike anything we’ve ever seen on Earth: ScienceAlert

‘Lost city’ in the depths of the ocean is unlike anything we’ve ever seen on Earth: ScienceAlert

Near the top of an underwater mountain west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a jagged landscape of towers rises from the darkness.

Its creamy carbonate walls and columns appear ghostly blue in the light of a remotely operated vehicle sent to explore.

They range in height from small mounds the size of frog benches to large monoliths 60 meters (about 200 feet) high. This is the lost city.

View of the lost city
Remotely operated vehicle highlights the towers of the Lost City. (Dr.. Kelly/UW/URI-IAO/NOAA).

Scientists discovered it in 2000 More than 700 meters (2,300 feet) below the surface, The Lost City hydrothermal field is the longest known venting environment in the ocean. Nothing else like it has ever been found.

For at least 120,000 years and perhaps longer, the upwelling mantle in this part of the world has interacted with seawater to spew hydrogen, methane and other dissolved gases into the ocean.

In the cracks and crevices of field openings, hydrocarbons fuel new microbial communities even without the presence of oxygen.

Bacteria on a calcite column.
Strands of bacteria live in a calcite vent in the Lost City. (University of Washington/CC BY 3.0).

Chimneys emit gases at temperatures up to 40°C (104°F) Home to a large number of snails and crustaceans. Larger animals such as crabs, shrimp, sea urchins and eels are rare but still found.

Despite the harsh nature of the environment, it appears to be teeming with life, and researchers believe it deserves our attention and protection.

While other hydrothermal fields like this one may exist elsewhere in the world’s oceans, this is the only one that remotely operated vehicles have been able to find so far.

The hydrocarbons produced by the Lost City’s vents were not formed from atmospheric carbon dioxide or sunlight, but by chemical reactions on the deep sea floor.

Since hydrocarbons are the building blocks of life, this leaves open the possibility that life could have arisen in a habitat just like this. And not only on our planet.

“This is an example of the kind of ecosystem that could be active on Enceladus or Europa at this moment,” microbiologist William Brazelton said. Smithsonian In 2018, in reference to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

“And perhaps Mars in the past.”

Unlike underwater volcanic vents called black smokers, which have also been named as a possible first habitat, the Lost City’s ecosystem does not depend on the heat of magma.

Black smokers produce mostly minerals rich in iron and sulfur, while the smokestacks of the Lost City produce up to 100 times more hydrogen and methane.

The Lost City’s calcite vents are also much larger than the black smokers’, indicating that they were active for longer.

Tall vent of the lost city
A nine-metre-high chimney in the Lost City. (University of Washington/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).

The tallest of these rocks is named Poseidon, after the Greek god of the sea, and its height extends to more than 60 meters.

Meanwhile, to the northeast of the tower is a rocky slope with short periods of activity. Researchers at the University of Washington describe the vents here as “weeping” with fluid to produce “clusters of tiny, multi-branched carbonate appendages that extend outward like the fingers of upturned hands.”

Unfortunately, scientists are not the only ones attracted by this unusual terrain.

In 2018, it was announced that Poland had won the rights to deep-sea exploration around the lost city. While there are no precious resources to be extracted in the actual thermal field itself, the destruction of the city’s surroundings could have unintended consequences.

Scientists warn that any plumes or drainages caused by mining could easily submerge the magnificent habitat.

Therefore, some experts are calling for the Lost City to be included as a World Heritage Site, to protect natural wonders before it is too late.

For tens of thousands of years, the Lost City has stood as a testament to the enduring power of life.

It would be just like us to destroy it.

A previous version of this article was published in August 2022.

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