Exploring an Underwater Mountain

It is a key part of the renewal process that this planet has been going through since shortly after it was formed.

Stretching and Breaking

While no one knows why Atlantis Massif is so big, theories abound.

Some scientists believe the Mid-Atlantic Ridge may be quite similar to the Southwest part of the United States, where new mountains are formed as the ground is slowly stretched apart in response to tectonic forces along the Pacific seaboard. Huge chunks of rock slowly tilt as the crust is thinned, forming the Basin and Range Province and other major mountain ranges.

It is similar to pulling an art gum eraser apart. The eraser gets thinner in the middle and forms deep cracks before it breaks. When that happens in the Earth’s crust, chunks of the “eraser” tilt, lifting one edge up and depressing the opposite side in a classic mountain-building scenario.

Compounding the mystery, however, is the fact that earlier researchers found little evidence of lava, the normal stuff used to build the rocks that form the mountains, so there may be some sort of additional geochemical process going on as well.

Exploring by Sonar, Cameras and Alvin

To try to get the answers, the scientists will drag some sophisticated devices through the water as the ship passes over the mountain. A side-scan sonar that uses sound waves to create images, much the same as a camera uses light waves, will map the entire area. Then they will send a camera down to capture pictures of the mountain.

And finally, they will take turns going down in Alvin, the historic submersible that has probed so many of the world’s oceans. Two scientists and a pilot will be aboard the craft, which can dive down to 14,764 feet and stay there for eight hours.

They will use their eyeballs as research tools, gazing through the 3 1/2-inch thick windows at the steep slopes of Atlantis Massif. Alvin also has two robotic arms that will break off pieces of the mountain and bring them home.

When it’s all over, we should have a better understanding of why Atlantis Massif is so big, and how the forces of nature go about constantly rebuilding our planet.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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