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Undersea search begins for life at top of the world

An expedition will probe one of the Arctic Ocean's most inaccessible spots.

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Ice-covered and isolated, the Arctic Ocean has been stingier with its deepest secrets than any other of Earth's oceans. It might as well be on another planet.

Now, armed with a unique set of robotic tools, an international team of scientists is heading there to hunt for life along a little-explored gash in the ocean floor known as the Gakkel Ridge.

A decade ago, the project would have seemed quixotic. But since then, scientists have uncovered evidence suggesting that spots along this oddball ridge might be capable of supplying the heat and nutrients to support colonies of creatures that thrive in the pitch-black water thousands of feet below the surface. Once that evidence emerged, the search for basic life in one of the world's most inaccessible places became a must, say several of the scientists involved. The voyage begins July 1.

The expedition also has caught the eye of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Techniques for operating autonomous robotic vehicles under ice would be key to exploring below the icy crust of Jupiter's moon Europa.

The voyage is as dicey as any robotic mission NASA has launched to explore the solar system. "This is a very risky venture," says Hanumant Singh, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who developed the unmanned undersea vehicles that will negotiate the Gakkel Ridge's icy environs. "I'm prepared to lose a vehicle.... But when you do a risk-versus-benefit analysis, it's absolutely worth it."

A successful voyage hinges on a lot of "ifs and buts," he says. For instance, no one has yet detected evidence of biological activity along the ridge. Yet the deepest parts of the Arctic Ocean – including the 1,100-mile ridge – have been isolated from the rest of the world's ocean floors for up to 65 million years. If organisms exist around Arctic hydrothermal vents, "then the very basis of life there has been evolving independently for tens of millions of years," he says.

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