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Deep-sea Thera expedition explores volcanic mysteries

We inform the bridge that we are 487 meters deep in the middle of the crater of the underwater volcano, Columbo. «The currents are strong. Makes it easier for us,» says the pilot of the remote-controlled submarine. «The bridge is listening and we’re watching from the monitor,» the captain responds. Scientists sit entranced before the monitor on the electronic oceanographic ship, the Aegaeo. «Should we grab this?» the pilot asks the mission leader, Matina Alexandri. «Yeah, that looks good,» she says. The pilot’s assistant carefully moves the small levers of the mechanical arm to grab an old piece of lava. «OK, we’ve got it. We’ll bring it up.» The Aegaeo never stops. Its engines are always running, the kitchen always has food and its scientific instruments are recording everything during the two-week voyage. Fifty crew members and scientists live together on the 61-meter vessel. Inside this virtual village, the group works, jokes, makes merry, argues, watches television and sometimes descends into melancholy. Television screens, top-line technological equipment, deep-sea vessels, cables and ropes are used in the extensive fact-gathering taking place here. The research is a joint venture by the University of Rhode Island in the United States, and the National Center for Marine Research (ELKETHE) and the Institute of Geology and Mineral Exploration (IGME) in Greece. Through mapping, acoustic/visual plotting of the depths, seismic tomography and the collection of samples from the seabed, scientists are hoping to learn many things. First, they want to examine how the volcanic deposits following the Minoan age explosion were distributed in the deep waters around the greater Santorini (or Thera) area. They also want to study Santorini’s morphology before the explosion, the geological foundation and evolution of the caldera, and how the underwater volcano Columbo was created. Little is known about Columbo except that it erupted in 1650 and that its name comes from the Italian for «dove.»