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Undersea search begins for life at top of the world

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Interest in sampling the bottom of the ocean at the top of the world has been building since the end of the cold war, when US and Soviet nuclear submarines stalked each other under the ice. In 1995, the US Navy allowed marine scientists to charter Arctic-capable nuclear attack submarines for research in a five-year program called Scicex. Among its achievements, Scicex developed the most detailed maps of the Arctic Ocean floor yet available. During the program's final cruise in 1999, scientists aboard the USS Hawkbill were mapping the Gakkel Ridge when they picked up evidence of a recent volcanic eruption.

Two years later, scientists returned to the ridge aboard USCGC Healy, a Coast Guard icebreaker dedicated to polar research, and the German icebreaker Polarstern. The main objective was to dredge for rocks along the ridge to better understand its geology. But the team also was interested in spotting any hydrothermal activity along the ridge. So scientists fastened sensor packages to the dredge cables and added hydrothermal-vent specialist Henrietta Edmonds to the team to interpret the data the sensors captured.

Mid-oceanic ridges supply the planet with new crust, which spreads outward from the line of volcanoes and rift valleys they form. Gakkel has the slowest spreading rate of them all. Based on studies of spreading rates and hydrothermal activity, researchers suspected Gakkel was too cool to host much hydrothermal activity.

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