There are holes on the seabed.  Scientists don’t know why.

There are holes on the seabed. Scientists don’t know why.

Deep in the water along a volcanic ridge at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, marine scientists using a remote-controlled vehicle to survey largely unexplored areas found a pattern of holes in the sand.

During the dive, north of the Azores, near mainland Portugal, on July 23, they saw about a dozen sets of holes that resembled a trace of lines on the sea floor, at a depth of 1.6 miles.

Then about a week later, on Thursday, there were four more sightings on the Azores Plateau, which is underwater terrain where three tectonic plates meet. These holes were about a kilometer deep and about 300 miles away from the site of the expedition’s first discovery.

The question the researchers ask themselves and the public in posts about Twitter and Facebook, is: What are these marks creating on the seabed?

“The origin of the holes has disappeared,” said the post on Twitter from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ocean exploration project. “The holes look man-made, but the small mounds of sediment around them suggest they were dug out by… something.”

Nearly two decades ago, about 17 miles away from the site of the current expedition’s first observation, scientists discovered similar holes during an exploration, said Emily Crum, a NOAA spokeswoman.

But the passage of time has provided no clear answers, said Michael Vecchione, a NOAA deep-sea biologist who participated in that project and is also involved in part of this latest expedition.

“There’s something important going on there, and we don’t know what it is,” Dr. Vecchione said. “This highlights the fact that there are still mysteries out there.”

The holes are just one of the questions that scientists on an ambitious ocean expedition are investigating as they explore the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is part of a massive deep-sea ridge that stretches more than 10,000 miles beneath the Atlantic Ocean. Ocean.

Experts with NOAA are seeking answers during three expeditions they call Voyage to the Ridge 2022, which began in May and will end in September, on journeys that take them from the waters off Newport, R.I., to the Azores and back to Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.

Explorers want to know what lives along the continuous range of underwater volcanoes and what happens when geological processes that create life-sustaining heat are stopped.

They’re keeping a close eye on deep-sea coral and sponge communities, which are “some of the most valuable marine ecosystems on Earth,” said Derek Sowers, an expedition coordinator aboard the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer.

Dr Sowers said expeditions such as the Voyage of the Ridge projects were “fundamental” to establishing an understanding of the planet’s biodiversity and “the new connections produced by all these life forms.”

And they want to know more about areas where seawater is heated by magma, with deep-sea life drawing energy from this source and chemicals, rather than the sun, like most life on Earth.

“This has expanded our understanding of the conditions under which life on other planets might arise,” said Dr. Sowers.

After the agency turned to social media in an effort to engage the public, dozens of comments poured in, with some deeper in speculation. Are the holes man-made? Could they be a sign from extraterrestrials? Are they tracks left by a submarine? Can they be the breathing holes of a “deep sea animals that bury themselves under the sand?”

That last guess wasn’t necessarily so far-fetched, Dr. Vecchione said. In an article about the holes discovered in 2004, Vecchione and his co-author, Odd Aksel Bergstad, a former researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research, proposed two main hypotheses for why the holes exist. Both involved life in the sea, either walking or swimming over the sediment and burrowing down, or the reverse scenario, burrowing into the sediment and burrowing up.

The holes seen on Thursday appeared to have been pushed out from the underside, Dr. Vecchione said.

The rover’s suction unit collected sediment samples to investigate whether there was an organism inside the holes, Dr Sowers said.

Dr Vecchione said that while he was pleased to encounter the seafloor holes again, he was “a bit disappointed” that scientists still lacked an explanation.

“It reinforces the idea that it’s a mystery that we will one day figure out,” he said. – But we haven’t found that out yet.

A final dive, which will be livestreamed, remains to be performed in the second expedition of the series, NOAA said. The third expedition starts on 7 August.

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