Sampling mats of iron-oxidizing microbes (photo credit: Brian Glazer, courtesy of WHOI ROV Jason II)

Beginning on June 25, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology will lead an expedition to Lōʻihi Seamount, southeast of the island of Hawaiʻi, whose base remains largely unexplored. Brian Glazer, lead scientist and associate professor of oceanography, and his research team will map the Seamount’s deeper reaches aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor using the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Sentry autonomous underwater vehicle.

The team, including researchers from UH Mānoa, University of Minnesota, IFREMER Centre de Brest and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, will also collect water column samples and explore Lōʻihi’s extraordinary mats of iron-oxidizing bacteria&#8212microbes that are able to use iron as an energy source, creating rust in the process.

Mats of iron-oxidizing bacteria are not uncommon in hydrothermal vent fields. However, the microbial mats at the base of Lōʻihi are extensive and impressively thick—a meter or more deep at some sites.

Processes at Lōʻihi have the potential to provide iron to a large area of the Pacific Ocean. “Lōʻihi is a giant leaky iron mountain, providing plenty of energy for iron-eating bacteria near the vents, and pumping iron out into the ocean as the hydrothermal fluids disperse,” said Glazer.

“Iron-oxidizing microbial activity like what is occurring at Lōʻihi could be an important component in the ocean’s iron and carbon cycling—a critical driver in overall ocean balance—particularly if exploration proves the activity is more widespread than previously thought,” adds Glazer.

The work aboard the R/V Falkor could also have implications for the search for life elsewhere in the solar system.

“At various times in Earth history, much of the world ocean was dominated by processes that are occurring at Lōʻihi today. In accessing Lōʻihi, we have a window to the ancient Earth that also provides clues about the potential for life ‘out there’ in habitats that could exist on places like Mars or Europa,” said Glazer.

For more information, read the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology news release.

Schmidt Ocean Institute and UH cruises

Including the current expedition, UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology scientists were awarded nearly 100 days at sea aboard R/V Falkor.

This opportunity, along with the past UH research cruises on the R/V Falkor, has supported ocean research in Hawaiʻi, contributing to enhanced understanding of these important marine ecosystems.