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Saturday, December 4, 2010




The Pitch Black



Pitch Black is a scifi movie. A spaceship makes and emergency landing on a barren planet. The planet is one big desert, no vegetation, absolutely nothing. Then a long night descends on the planet, everything disappears in pitch black and the planet suddenly comes alive and boy does it come alive. The pitch black night is swarming with dangerous alien life.





I love that "It's a way to see... with sound." I had to include this part too. This is just it. He got it right. Other aspects of the fauna don't make sense. It's impossible that they got only predators there. Somebody has to do photosynthesis or extract energy from any other source. But echolocation in pitch black darkness, they got it just right.

Anyway, what am I trying to say here? Deep down a few thousands feet below the ocean used to be uninhabitable. There are several reasons for this sorry state of affairs, but the first one is the absence of sunlight. The deep ocean is pitch black, no sunlight penetrates there and, as most people already know, life on earth is based on sunlight - photosynthesis.

Other than that, a handful of species, that managed to adapt to scavenging on remains of dead marine animals occasionally reaching these depths, have to survive freezing temperatures and crashing pressures that only the most modern of modern submersibles can withstand.

In 1977 one such submersible descended 8000 feet into the darkness to study hydrothermal vents, a geological feature that enlivens this harsh environment by pumping it with tons of highly toxic minerals and water boiling at 400 °C. When the scientists started processing video recordings brought back by the submarine, they were shocked. Amidst the otherwise barren Abyssal Plane, the vents were surrounded by clouds of alien life. The Pitch Black was swarming with life.



Think about the fact that scientists now believe that the biomass of only the bacterium populating the deep sea, is several times more than the entire mass of all living creatures living in the air, on the ground and in the top layers of the ocean. The Pitch Black is doing just fine. It's the surface of the planet which is uninhabitable and not the other way round as science used to think.

The Pitch Black is home to even more bizarre geological features than hydrothermal vents. Thousands meters under water the Alvin submersible hits an underwater lake and sets a wave in motion across the lake.



Amazed by the underwater lake? Now go back to the previous video and ask yourself when was the last time you've seen clouds of smoke under water. Yet, this is what that thing is officially called - the black smoker.

David Attenborough on the biology of hydrothermal vents and underwater lakes.


So far we have explored only 1% of the deep ocean floor. Who knows what's still out there to be discovered?"

David Attenborough

Indeed. In recent years it was found that large areas of the Gulf of Mexico at depths of 3,000 meters are paved with a thick layer of asphalt made of viscous oil. And, yet, this is no BP disaster. Life is swarming on the asphalt.



When watching this movie, one should keep two things in mind. First, This is also part of the pitch black world. It's illuminated by the lights of the submersible. Otherwise, total darkness rules there. This is another ecosystem that does not care if the sun goes out tomorrow. It extracts its energy from oil.

Two, many people are bound to be surprised by the presence of so much oil on the seabed. The truth is that just as oil is extracted from the depths of the ocean, it's seeping into the water all the time. There is no way so much oil can be hidden under the seabed without some of it making way into the ocean. Oil is part of nature and part of the ocean. It's a natural thing and obviously life in the ocean is adapted to it.

The Pitch Black beats the surface of this planet not only by the sheer biomass of alien life lurking down there. Its economic potential surpasses the surface by orders of magnitude and it has never been really tapped. We'll be running out of resources on this planet only for as long as we keep insisting that this planet consists only of its surface. Remember the underwater lake?



Why does it all matter? For one very simple reason. 1,000 meters under water and below lies an entire world in total darkness. People think about that place as a motionless darkness devoid of life. Yet, we now know that it's a superactive place. The seabed is created mostly by volcanic eruptions. There are dozens of volcanoes erupting there at this very moment.

The Pitch Black may be mostly an inhabitable desert, but its oasis are teeming with alien life, parallel ecosystems that don't need energy of the sun to thrive. We used to think that it's an unihabitable place. Yet, we now know that measured by the sheer mass of creatures living down there, it's the surface of this planet that's subsisting on scarce energy of the sun that reaches the Earth. The world below sustains itself by tapping directly into the energy of the Earth which it has no shortage of.

People are dreaming about space exploration and intergalatic space travels. Yet we have another planet right here. We know more about the surface of the Mars than we know of the Pitch Black. This is for one simple reason. We can watch the Mars through telescope but it's pointless to peer into the Pitch Black from above. We need to send there submersibles that can hardly illuminate even their immediate surroundings and we have barely started doing this.

Yet, the planet below may be the origin of life on Earth. The Pitch Black is teeming with a kind of alien life that we should expect to find on other planets of the Solar System if they got a biosphere. The Pitch Black is packed with natural resources that can sustain this civilization for generations after oil and other stuff run out on the surface. Now compare this to huge distances between the planets of the solar system, never mind other stars, and ask yourself: where should humanity go next?

The Pitch Black - The mankind's next frontier


And the last but not the least. Our chances to reach another star system in the near future are pretty much zero. As a matter of fact humanity may never learn to travel for distances of light years to reach another star system. Inter star journeys may remain in the domain of science fiction for as long as humanity exists, a wishful copy paste from the age of great oceanic travels that will never materialize. But across the solar system there are planets on which there are oceans of water under the sheet of ice with underwater volcanoes and hydrothermal vents going on. This is at least what science believes right now.

There should be ideal conditions for life there. No sunlight. Crashing pressure of thousands of atmospheres. Sharp contrast between freezing temperatures of the depth and the boiling water of deep sea geizers. Huge amounts of highly poisonous and toxic stuff being constantly pumped into the water. Everything that life needs to thrive which we know because we got the same stuff down there. What we have around hydrothermal vents is the closest approximation to extraterrestrial life that we may found on other planets of the solar system. If you ever wanted to see what an alien life may look like, here you have it. Take it as a basis and use your imagination for the rest.



Extra Search Tags: Hydrogen Sulfides, Robert Ballard, The Chronicles of Riddick, Cold Seeps, Methane Hydrates, Deep-Sea Brine Pools, Titanic, Jupiter's Moons, Europe, NASA

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