What do giant 250-year-old worms living deep in the Gulf of Mexico have to teach mankind?
Perhaps something about the earth's earliest life forms, or even possible life elsewhere in the universe. Perhaps something about cleaning up oil spills, since the worms thrive in an environment where oil naturally seeps from the ocean floor. With 95 percent of the underwater world unknown to man, scientists can't exactly say what they might learn from such creatures - but they are about to find out.
Acting like a presidential Jacques Cousteau, Bill Clinton this week announced the launch of three major deep-sea explorations, including one about 100 miles from Florida's Tampa Bay, where these worms flourish far beyond the reach of sunlight. The explorations will study the biology of habitats as diverse as an underwater Grand Canyon and a towering volcano.
Marine scientists see it as a step toward righting the enormous imbalance between space and ocean pioneering.
"We know more about outer space than we know about the inner space of the oceans," says Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation. Indeed, the federal government spends 10 times more on exploration beyond Earth than on research beneath its watery surface.
Two years ago, with the advent of the "year of the ocean," the Clinton administration began to focus more attention on the marine world, initiating efforts to restore coral reefs, rebuild fisheries, and protect coasts from oil drilling.
Last year, the Cabinet recommended a strategy to protect and "sustainably" use the oceans. The recent executive order to develop marine sanctuaries, and this week's announcement - which includes a mandate for the Commerce Department to devise an ocean-exploration plan within 120 days - are the latest chapters in an ongoing effort.
James Baker, undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere, says the point of these explorations - which will include leading marine institutes - is to focus primarily on deep-sea biology, a field he calls "really underexplored."
The science community wants to learn about all kinds of things, from the medical applications of sea life, to the role of deep-sea creatures in the marine food chain. By looking at three vastly different habitats off the three coasts of the country, the administration believes it can cover a lot of ground, Dr. Baker says. In coming months, government and private researchers will probe:
*The Hudson River Canyon, off the New York-New Jersey coast. The most predominant underwater feature on the Eastern Seaboard, the canyon is thought to be an enormous hatchery for sea life. It's teeming with lobster, crab, shrimp, and fish and is "very biologically rich," says Baker. Scientists believe it is also full of deep-sea creatures of economic value, especially to pharmaceutical firms. But before commercial harvesting begins, officials want to know how the ecosystem works, so it's not destroyed.
*Deep reefs and oil seeps, off the coast of Florida. This is home to thickets of long-living worms, mussel beds, and thick mats of bacteria that all feed on chemicals that ooze from the sea floor. Scientists believe these creatures may be the oldest life forms on the planet. They wonder: If these ancients can survive on chemicals and without sunlight, could organisms exist elsewhere - such as below the ice surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa?
*Davidson Seamount, about 80 miles southwest of Monterey, Calif. This is the equivalent of a national park, says Paterno Castillo, associate professor of geology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Remotely operated vehicles have recently begun exploring this 9,000-foot-high, 30-mile-long formation, home to dense patches of sponges and extremely old coral reefs. Currents moving around the seamount - whose tip is 4,000 feet below the ocean surface - create eddies that trap food for a multitude of life forms. The area above it is very productive in terms of fish and mammals, and scientists want to know why.
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