Scientists investigate mystery moss in pristine Crater Lake

Scientists investigate mystery moss in pristine Crater Lake
CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK, Ore. (AP) - Call it the mystery of the moss.

After all, it sounds like science fiction: Thick patches of moss that grow in large, dense mats 100 feet below the surface of crystalline Crater Lake. Mysterious cylindrical holes spiral deep into sections of the mats. Core samples of the moss ooze pungent odors from unknown millennia of growth and decay.

"It's certainly like no other environment I've seen," says Mark Buktenica, Crater Lake National Park's aquatic ecologist.

Buktenica was a member of a team of scientists that recently spent a week in the park's research vessel, the Neuston, collecting core samples from what's known as Deep Moss.

Earlier this summer, he and Scott Girdner, the park's fisheries biologist, made 120-foot-deep scuba dives in a moss-laden region around Wizard Island to verify maps of moss layers made by U.S. Geological Survey cameras last summer.

Layers of living 3-to-6-foot deep moss lay atop dead moss that dips another 20 feet between depths of 100 and 460 feet, mostly on submerged volcanic platforms and underwater fumaroles in a crescent shape around the island.

"It's more than scientific curiosity," Girdner said.

Researchers hope their efforts will answer a lot of questions about Crater Lake's ecosystem as well as the possible effects of global warming. Along with determining the distribution of the moss, they want to determine its age.

"We don't have any good guesses on how old it is or how long it took to form. The one thing we do know is it's younger than 7,700 years," Girdner said, referring to the age of the lake, which was created by the eruption of prehistoric Mount Mazama that many years ago.

The mystery of the moss has intrigued lake researchers since 1988, when ROVs, or remotely operated vehicles, discovered the beds. Other dives, including one Buktenica took in a tiny submarine to the lake bottom, have fed the desire to learn more. Scientists have wondered if the moss has something to do with how clear Crater Lake is.

"The clarity of the lake is a big interest," oceanographer Robert "Bob" Collier of Oregon State University said, referring to Crater Lake's reputation as the nation's clearest lake. "We hadn't really come to grips with the importance of the moss. For years we've been promising each other we'd investigate it. Once we convinced ourselves ... how extensive it is, the next step was to see how deep it was and core it."

Buktenica said because Crater Lake is so cold and well oxygenated, the moss' decomposition process is very slow.

"The more we find the more I'm convinced these moss beds are really, really old," Collier said. "I think they could be as old as the lake."

Assisting with the recent core collection work in Fumarole Bay off Wizard Island was Amy Myrbo of the University of Minnesota. She hopes to study some of the core samples, which will be sent to various labs. Carbon 14 dating will be used on pine pollens from those cores to determine ages of the living and dead moss.

"Hopefully by next spring, we'll know something," Myrbo said.

"It's certainly exciting," Buktenica said. "There are not a lot of things you can study these days that you know nothing about."

Collier agreed.

"Nothing we've found has illuminated the answers. It has only illuminated the mystery."