Kamchatka for those who've never played Risk
Anyone who's played Risk will probably remember Kamchatka as "That place you can attack Alaska from." Like most of the territories in Risk, Kamchatka of the Hasbro game doesn't exactly match its modern political boundaries :
400,000 people live on the peninsula, and about 13,000 are Koryak (about 3%). For comparison, Alaska has about 686,000 people, of which roughly 100,000 (15%) are native peoples. In terms of population, the Koryaks' situation more closely resembles that of the Ainu of Hokkaido (also about 3% of the population, going by self-identification) than native Alaskans.
Kamchatka has volcanoes. Lots and lots of volcanoes. It's part of the Ring of Fire, with 160 volcanoes, 29 of which are active. The whole area is seismically active, and there was a decent-size quake off the coast just this Sunday.
Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy posted about an this awesome photo of two Kamchatkan volcanoes erupting at the same time. It was captured in February, 2010 by NASA's TERRA Earth-observing satellite as it flew over (the TERRA website appears to be down right now - this isn't rocket science, NASA!).
These volcanoes, and the microbes that live in and around them, are the reason why we're traveling around the world to see this place. Wherever magma is close enough to the surface to interact with groundwater, superheated steam can be forced toward the surface. Depending on the how much it cools before reaching the surface and the pressure under which it emerges, the liquid can for a variety of hydrothermal features; geysers, fumaroles and springs if the liquid emerges on land, and black smokers and white smokers if it emerges under water.
Along the way, the water dissolves various minerals and gases from the rock, and catalyzes the formation of new minerals and gases. By the time it emerges at the surface, it has become a complex suspension of minerals, gases and liquids, some dissolved, others suspended as a colloid, and others in bubbles and grains. I'm going to stop calling it "water" and call this stuff "volcanic liquid."
The chemistry of the emerging liquid depends on the chemistry, temperature, depth, thickness, packing and order of each layer of rock and soil it transits on the way to the surface, as well as the pressure and temperature of the liquid at each step along its journey.
A thermal pool at Lassen Volcanic National Park
My favorite way to explain how there could be so much variety in volcanic liquids is to think about coffee. It's possible to make several very different kinds of coffee from the same beans. If you grind them very fine, pack them tightly, and force steam through the grounds at high pressure, you get espresso. If you grind them even finer and suspend them in hot water as a colloid, you get Turkish coffee. If you grind them coarsely, suspend them in water, and remove them with a sieve, you get French-style coffee. If you grind them moderately, put them in a filter cone, and pour hot water through them, you get American-style drip coffee. They each taste totally different, despite being made from exactly the same ingredients.
Now, instead of coffee grounds, imagine many layers of rock, each with different chemistry, packing density, and thickness. Rocks, by the way, are pretty complicated things, and can be made out of almost anything. Practically every source of volcanic liquid from around the world has a unique chemical composition.
This variety is one of the reasons microbiologists are so interested in the organisms that live in these liquids. Organisms that live in the Earth's atmosphere, like you and me, have only a few attractive options for how we run our metabolisms. For organisms that live in volcanic liquids, every combination of dissolved and suspended minerals and gases offers its own unique metabolic opportunities. Volcanic structures tend to persist for a long time, and so their denizens have time to evolve very well-adapted strategies for living in these places.
Visiting these volcanic vents is like taking a trip to an alien world, or like visiting Earth when it was a radically different planet. Volcanic zones don't just look alien, they are alien!
An alien habitat at Lassen Volcanic National Park
I will be spending almost two weeks up-close-and-personal with some of these alien habitats, so there will be more to come.