The search had been going on for four days. Crammed into the cockpit of the submersible Alvin—the research vessel used to survey the Titanic—geochemist Harmon Craig and a group of colleagues from Scripps Institution of Oceanography were scouring the Pacific Ocean floor off the island of Hawaii, looking for the crater of Loihi, an undersea hot spot thought to be the volcanic precursor of the next Hawaiian island. At a depth of 1,000 meters, with the darkness relieved only by the Alvin’s sweeping lights, the dead black of the ocean floor suddenly gave way to an unearthly Vista: a softly glowing white crack in a large red mound. From the fissure issued forth a plume of shimmering, bubbly water—a plume so weighted with carbon dioxide that despite its temperature in excess of 700F, the effervescent water actually flowed down the sides of the mound. Surrounding the crater, or caldera, were...

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