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VOL 2005
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Volcanoes Spewing Asphalt; What Next?


By James Donahue


Imagine the ocean floor, paved with a square meter of asphalt thicker than you might find on a New York City parking lot.


A team of scientists from Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, was exploring the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for deep sea methane as a fuel alternative in 2003 when the discovery was made.


But instead of man-made, the asphalt they found was natural. And it came like lava from the heart of a number of small volcanoes, said German specialist Gerhard Bohrmann.


The volcanoes stand from 450 to 800 meters in height, and surprisingly, a variety of life forms, including bacteria, live on them.


It is the first time asphalt volcanism has ever been found in the world. While asphalt is usually a manufactured substance from crude oil used as surfacing for roads and parking lots, it can be produced in nature under certain conditions.


Bohrmann said the conditions apparently are just right for the phenomenon to occur at the bottom of the gulf.


Asphalt can be created in deep water, if there is a mixture of salt and crude oil deposits, and if special micro-organisms are present that feed on the oil. While small amounts of asphalt have been found under water, this is the first time a large amount of it has been found to have been produced from volcanism.


Bohrman said asphalt also is considered a hostile environment that should not support life. Yet he said the team found an entire ecosystem “not just living on asphalt but actually feeding off it.”


The site is in the gulf, just west of the Yucatan peninsula, in a field of salt domes known as the Campeche Knolls. The area was selected for the research because of natural leaking oil and gas deposits.


The discovery was made when the team hung a remote-controlled camera from the German ship RV Sonne to the seafloor.


Writer Andrew Alden summed up the significance of this discovery: “Chapopote is more evidence that this planet is alive from top to bottom. There is no place on Earth where life is absent; wherever life gets the slightest foothold, it will adapt and blossom.”


What a tragedy that we humans are foolishly doing all that we can to kill this magical garden.