Researchers marvel at world's deepest sea vents

Feb 27, 2013 by David Mcfadden
In this February 2013 picture released by Britain's National Oceanography Center, Isis, a deep-diving remotely operated vehicle, hangs special high-temperature loggers onto the side of a tall vent chimney, at Beebe hydrothermal vent in the Cayman Trough, more than 3 miles or 5 kilometers below the sea's surface between the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. Jon Copley, chief scientist for the expedition, said he believes that laboratory analysis in coming months will reveal some new life forms that have evolved in the pitch-black vent areas of the Cayman Trough. (AP Photo/National Oceanography Center)

Researchers steering a remote-controlled submarine around the world's deepest known hydrothermal vents have collected numerous samples from sunless depths of the Caribbean Sea where blazing hot, mineral-rich fluid gushes from volcanic chimneys that look like gnarled tree stumps.

Jon Copley, chief scientist for the expedition of Britain's National Oceanography Center, said Wednesday he believes that laboratory analysis in the coming months will reveal some new life forms that have evolved in the pitch-black vent areas of the Cayman Trough, more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) below the sea's surface between the Cayman Islands and Jamaica.

"From body form alone, I am confident that we have found several new species on this expedition: probably a new species of sea anemone, a few species of bristle worms, and some small crustaceans," Copley said in an email from the RRS James Cook research ship.

The researchers discovered the deepest known hydrothermal and new organisms in the Caribbean trench nearly three years ago. At a depth of 4,960 meters (16,273 feet), the Beebe Vent Field spews out inky, copper-enriched fluids from hot regions below the sea floor into the frigid depths of the sea.

The undersea vents are among the hottest found anywhere on the planet. The highest sustained temperature that researchers measured was just over 400 Celsius (752 Fahrenheit), said Copley, a who works at Britain's University of Southampton.

This 2010 photo released by Britain's National Oceanography Center and made by Isis, a deep-diving remotely operated vehicle, shows sea anemones and vent shrimps at the Beebe hydrothermal vent in the Cayman Trough, more than 3 miles or 5 kilometers below the sea's surface between the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. Jon Copley, chief scientist for the expedition, said he believes that laboratory analysis in coming months will reveal some new life forms that have evolved in the pitch-black vent areas of the Cayman Trough. (AP Photo/ National Oceanography Center)

Besides discovering new life, scientists say the study of the vents could yield a variety of new insights into the that form and drive them, the physics of so-called "supercritical fluids"—liquids so hot they act like gasses—and the of the ocean's depths.

Copley said studies of the marine life found in the area should also tell scientists more about how animals disperse and evolve in the dark ocean depths, which cover most of our planet.

Another scientist aboard the ship, Andrew David Thaler, a post-doctoral researcher at the Duke University marine laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina, said there were abundant populations of some species around the vents, particularly an eyeless shrimp dubbed Rimicaris hybisae that was discovered by the research team in 2010.

This 2010 picture released by Britain's National Oceanography Center and photographed byIsis, a deep-diving remotely operated vehicle, shows a sea star at a hydrothermal vent in the Cayman Trough, more than 3 miles or 5 kilometers below the sea's surface between the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. Jon Copley, chief scientist for the expedition, said he believes that laboratory analysis in coming months will reveal some new life forms that have evolved in the pitch-black vent areas of the Cayman Trough. (AP Photo/National Oceanography Center)

"They're so thick that you often can't even see the rock beneath because they're buried in blankets of shrimp," Thaler said in an email from the James Cook.

Such large amounts of anemones were found at the Beebe site that Thayer said they "look almost like meadows."

Among other things, researchers recorded images of a slender mineral chimney almost 10 meters (33 feet) tall. At another site, a mound of minerals formed by the superheated fluid rushing from the vents rises some 30-meters (98 feet) from the seafloor. They saw brilliant oranges and red colors on the seabed from the bounty of iron, and also blues and greens from copper.

The ultra-hot fluid shooting from the vents into the icy cold of the deep ocean creates a smoke-like effect and leaves behind pinnacle-shaped structures of metal ore. The pressure—500 times stronger than the earth's atmosphere—keeps the water from boiling.

This 2010 picture released by Britain's National Oceanography Center and taken Isis, a deep-diving remotely operated vehicle, shows a Rimicaris shrimp at a hydrothermal vent in the Cayman Trough, more than 3 miles or 5 kilometers below the sea's surface between the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. Jon Copley, chief scientist for the expedition, said he believes that laboratory analysis in coming months will reveal some new life forms that have evolved in the pitch-black vent areas of the Cayman Trough. (AP Photo/National Oceanography Center)

At the base of this ecosystem are chemical-eating bacteria that draw on the hydrogen sulphide and methane erupting from the vents to make food.

Unlike other living things, the organisms that inhabit the dark vent areas do not depend on photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy. Instead, chemosynthetic bacteria is the base of the food chain.

To see what scavengers might show up, a big slab of pork was dropped into depths some distance away from the . Cusk eels about 1.5 meters long and scavenging crustaceans called amphipods made short work of the meat offering, according to the expedition scientists.

"The fact that it has been so quickly eaten means that, despite being very nutrient-limited, the deep sea can still support animals capable of exploiting the random occurrence of large carcasses sinking to the sea floor," Thayer said.

Explore further: Tropical Storm Genevieve forms in Eastern Pacific

More information: The researchers' blog: intothecaymanabyss.blogspot.com/

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gwrede
5 / 5 (3) Feb 27, 2013
There's minerals for mining and alien life forms to study right there.

That is not to say we should spend less in space, but we could also spend more under water.
betterexists
1 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2013
Why NOT Drive a Pipe through it and collect the heat, minerals etc etc
Shootist
2 / 5 (4) Feb 27, 2013
Why NOT Drive a Pipe through it and collect the heat, minerals etc etc


So called, "environmentalists", I think.

The big question is, why aren't any of the usual hammerheads complaining about all the thermal and chemical pollution from these vents? They differ little from blown oil pipelines (except they last many orders of magnitude longer).