This summer, the 235-foot research vessel Marcus G. Langseth set out into the ocean off the Pacific Northwest. Trailing the ship were four electronic serpents, each five miles in length. These cables were adorned with scientific instruments able to peer into the beating heart of a monster a mile below the waves: Axial Seamount, a volcanic mountain.
The ship’s crew had one overriding imperative: Do not let the cables get tangled.
If they did, “it’s game over,” said Sam Mitchell, a submarine volcanologist who joined the voyage.
The Axial Seamount sits 300 miles off the coast of Oregon. Scientists have long had hints of its vast scale, but following sonar work by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the early 1980s, “the light bulb went off: wow, there’s a big volcano out here.”