There’s a new Hawaiian island on its way, but don’t plan your vacation just yet. It will be between 10,000 and 100,000 years before it makes an above-water appearance.
Researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, University of Minnesota, IFREMER Centre de Brest and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute departed Wednesday on an expedition to map and uncover the secrets of Loihi -- the (slowly) emerging member of the Hawaiian archipelago -- according to a press release.
The fledgling island is located off the southeast coast of Hawaii's Big Island and is basically just a seamount -- or an underwater volcano -- sitting in very, very deep water. So deep, in fact, researchers have to dive up to 5,000 meters just to map the base of it, according to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald. That's like going down the length of 13 Empire State Buildings, top to bottom.
Brian Glazer, lead researcher and associate professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said that the expedition will provide a "window to the ancient Earth," so the trip will shed light on the growth processes of the planet we know today. Basically, the researchers will be going back in time.
In addition to mapping the developing island, the team will also be collecting water samples and observing the “Iron Eaters of Loihi,” bacteria that thrive on the iron-rich outputs of the seamount’s hydrothermal vents as described by Schmidt Ocean Institute, operators of the team's research vessel. The iron-oxidizing bacteria creates rust as a byproduct, resulting in thick, orange microbial mats near the vents. This type of bacteria is not exclusive to Loihi, but researchers say the mats are “impressively thick” in some places, reaching up to a meter deep.
Glazer described Loihi as a “giant leaky iron mountain,” which continuously pumps iron out into the ocean. The growth of microscopic organisms that form the base of marine food webs is limited by iron availability, so the growing island's iron production has the potential to benefit the overall balance within the Pacific Ocean.
This mission will also provide “clues about the potential for life 'out there,' in habitats that could exist on places like Mars or Europa,” Glazer said in a statement.
While the mapping of Loihi is a remarkable undertaking, we still have much to explore.
“On a global scale, we've mapped less than 5 or 10 percent of the sea floor," Glazer told KITV. "We just don't know what's down there."