Scientists locate apparent hydrothermal vents off Antarctica

Mar 03, 2010
A vent spews chemical fluids from the East Pacific Rise, about 5,600 miles from newly suspected vents on the Pacific Antarctic Ridge. Credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Scientists at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have found evidence of hydrothermal vents on the seafloor near Antarctica, formerly a blank spot on the map for researchers wanting to learn more about seafloor formation and the bizarre life forms drawn to these extreme environments.

Hydrothermal vents spew volcanically heated from the planet's ranges—the vast mid-ocean ridge system, where lava erupts and new crust forms. Chemicals dissolved in those vents influence ocean chemistry and sustain a complex web of organisms, much as sunlight does on land. In recent decades more than 220 vents have been discovered worldwide, but so far no one has looked for them in the rough and frigid waters off Antarctica.

From her lab in Palisades, N.Y., geochemist Gisela Winckler recently took up the search. By analyzing thousands of oceanographic measurements, she and her Lamont colleagues pinpointed six spots on the remote Pacific Antarctic Ridge, about 2,000 miles from New Zealand, the closest inhabited country, and 1,000 miles from the west coast of Antarctica, where they think vents are likely to be found. The sites are described in a paper published this week in the journal .

"Most of the deep ocean is like a desert, but these vents are oases of life and weirdness," said Winckler. "The Pacific Antarctic ridge is one of the ridges we know least about. It would be fantastic if researchers were to dive to the seafloor to study the vents we believe are there."

Two important facts helped the scientists isolate the hidden vents. First, the ocean is stratified with layers of lighter water sitting on top of layers of denser water. Second, when a seafloor vent erupts, it spews gases rich in rare helium-3, an isotope found in earth's mantle and in the magma bubbling below the vent. As helium-3 disperses through the ocean, it mixes into a density layer and stays there, forming a plume that can stretch over thousands of kilometers.

The Pacific Antarctic Ridge may be the least-studied of the underwater volcanic mountains that crisscross the globe. Blue square indicates suspected vents. Credit: Modified image from Chris German and Karen Von Damm

The Lamont scientists were analyzing ocean-helium measurements to study how the exchanges dissolved gases with the atmosphere when they came across a helium plume that looked out of place. It was in a southern portion of the Pacific Ocean, below a large and well-known helium plume coming off the East Pacific Rise, one of the best-studied vent regions on earth. But this mystery plume appeared too deep to have the same source.

Suspecting that it was coming from the Pacific Antarctic Ridge instead, the researchers compiled a detailed map of ocean-density layers in that region, using some 25,000 salinity, temperature and depth measurements. After locating the helium plume along a single density layer, they compared the layer to topographic maps of the Pacific Antarctic Ridge to figure out where the plume would intersect.

The sites they identified cover 340 miles of ridge line--the approximate distance between Manhattan and Richmond, Va.--or about 7 percent of the total 4,300 mile-ridge. This chain of volcanic mountains lies about three miles below the ocean surface, and its mile-high peaks are cut by steep canyons and fracture zones created as the sea floor spreads apart. It is a cold and lonely stretch of ocean, far from land or commercial shipping lanes.

"They haven't found vents, but they've narrowed the places to look by quite a bit," said Edward Baker, a vent expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Pressure, temperature and salinity measurements from the Southern Ocean helped the researcher calculate density gradients. Credit: Anthony Dachille

Of course, finding vents in polar waters is not easy, even with a rough idea where to look. In 2007, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution geophysicist Rob Reves-Sohn led a team of scientists to the Gakkel Ridge between Greenland and Siberia to look for vents detected six years earlier. Although they discovered regions where warm fluids appeared to be seeping from the , they failed to find the high-temperature, black smoker vents they had come for. In a pending paper, Sohn now says he has narrowed down the search to a 400-kilometer-square area where he expects to find seven new vents, including at least one black smoker.

The search for vents off may be equally unpredictable, but the map produced by the Lamont scientists should greatly improve the odds of success, said Robert Newton, a Lamont oceanographer and study co-author. "You don't have to land right on top of a vent to know it's there," he said. "You get a rich mineral soup coming out of these smokers—methane, iron, manganese, sulphur and many other minerals. Once you get within a few tens of kilometers, you can detect these other tracers."

Since the discovery of the first in the late 1970s, scientists have searched for far-flung sites, in the hunt for new species and adaptive patterns that can shed light on how species evolved in different spots. Cindy Van Dover, a deep sea biologist and director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory, says she expects that new species will be found on the Pacific Antarctic Ridge, and that this region may hold important clues about how creatures vary between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, on either end.

"These vents are living laboratories," said Van Dover, who was not involved in the study. "When we went to the Indian Ocean, we discovered the scaly-foot gastropod, a deep-sea snail whose foot is covered in armor made of iron sulfides. The military may be interested in studying the snail to develop a better armor. The adaptations found in these animals may have many other applications."

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Provided by The Earth Institute at Columbia University

4.5 /5 (11 votes)

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User comments : 20

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DachpyarviIe
1.5 / 5 (13) Mar 03, 2010
This is what I've been telling you guys, AGW is a SCAM, it's these hydrothermal vents that have heated the opean up, not CO2!!
frenchie
2 / 5 (4) Mar 03, 2010
you're a scam
frenchie
3 / 5 (4) Mar 03, 2010
wasn't it earthquakes last week, and volcanoes before that?
JayK
3.4 / 5 (5) Mar 03, 2010
frenchie, that is a real troll, he's mocking the other dachypyarvile.
Shootist
1.7 / 5 (6) Mar 03, 2010
"A vent spews chemical fluids . . ."

Look at all that pollution!
zevkirsh
5 / 5 (3) Mar 03, 2010
this is AWESOME research. this is the last frontier. the ocean, and it's so big that the only way it's really explorable is through rooting through massive data sets of water sample information laid over 3dimensional ocean maps to hypothesize areas which are suitable for exploration.

go go hybrid explorer/researchers!
KB6
3 / 5 (1) Mar 03, 2010
Couldn't these vents also be found using hydrophones? It seems they would make some distinctive noise.
Loodt
1.7 / 5 (6) Mar 03, 2010
Methane a mineral? Surely a new geological classification! That's the fun with Climate Science; you can make rules up as you go along!

Elements or minerals, what's the difference between a few well connected Peers!
Megadeth312
5 / 5 (4) Mar 03, 2010
"A vent spews chemical fluids . . ."

Look at all that pollution!


maybe these are just exhaust from underground factories run by mole people.

Discuss.
Caliban
4.3 / 5 (6) Mar 03, 2010
One thing is for sure, though- unless these proposed vents just became active in the past 100 years or so, we can safely assume that they've been contributing to the baseline global temperature since the get go -most likely since the formation of that particular spreading plate boundary became active(Millions of years), and therefore have been contributing in a more or less "steady-state" to the current climate. And that, my friends, is a crucial distinction that has to be pointed out.
bhiestand
5 / 5 (2) Mar 04, 2010
One thing is for sure, though- unless these proposed vents just became active in the past 100 years or so, we can safely assume that they've been contributing to the baseline global temperature since the get go -most likely since the formation of that particular spreading plate boundary became active(Millions of years), and therefore have been contributing in a more or less "steady-state" to the current climate. And that, my friends, is a crucial distinction that has to be pointed out.

I knew when I clicked this link I'd see more AGW Deniers posting about how this was proof against AGW...

This has absolutely nothing to do with AGW or climate modeling. This is just the discovery of a few more vents in a place we haven't really looked before. 220+ vents are already known, a few more won't exactly revolutionize any models.
Loodt
1.4 / 5 (5) Mar 04, 2010
Calling methane, an organic compound, a mineral is just poor science!

Please get your scientific nomenclature sorted!
Hatguy
1 / 5 (2) Mar 04, 2010
OK, OK, this whole AGW thing has got to be resolved. Yes I agree that we humans are contributing to the problem, but we are not the major contributors. We are but minor players in this issue.

I suggest that we have a meeting with some of the other planets that are experiencing golbal warming and find out what they are doing about it. Both Mars and Pluto are experiencing warming so we should see what they are doing to combat it.

We are destroying this planet and we need to rethink how we do things, but we are not the major contributor to global warming, but rather a small bit player in the event.
Shootist
1 / 5 (2) Mar 04, 2010
"A vent spews chemical fluids . . ."

Look at all that pollution!


maybe these are just exhaust from underground factories run by mole people.

Discuss.


Reed Richards might have something to say about that.

But in all seriousness, I would bet a dollar that more "pollutants", are spewed from these vents than all of Mankind's endeavors combined.
Loodt
1 / 5 (5) Mar 04, 2010
Shootist,

Be very careful with your money!

We know it is par for the course that some AGW peer reviewed papers will be rolled that state that your boghouse emmits more pong than these Antarctic Ridge vents, and then you are out of pocket!
frenchie
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 04, 2010
OK, OK, this whole AGW thing has got to be resolved. Yes I agree that we humans are contributing to the problem, but we are not the major contributors. We are but minor players in this issue.

I suggest that we have a meeting with some of the other planets that are experiencing golbal warming and find out what they are doing about it. Both Mars and Pluto are experiencing warming so we should see what they are doing to combat it.

We are destroying this planet and we need to rethink how we do things, but we are not the major contributor to global warming, but rather a small bit player in the event.


mars and pluto? my god man you drop planet names like that and don't mention Venus?

FAIL!

@ loodt
Learn your chemistry please:
http://en.wikiped...lathrate

Methane clathrate, also called methane hydrate, methane ice or "fire ice" is a solid clathrate compound have been found under sediments on the ocean floor
Loodt
1.1 / 5 (7) Mar 04, 2010
frenchie, Wikipedia, controlled by the AGW trolls, as a reference!

I repeat, what fun we have with Climate Science, we make things up as we go along!

Methane is not listed in my book of minerals, it is an organic compound, I don't care what you AGW clowns say!
frenchie
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 04, 2010
afraid of your shadow much?
Loodt
1 / 5 (5) Mar 04, 2010
Frenchie, which page in Wikipedia do you use to lookup such witty remarks?

And you are going to follow a plume created by a solid mineral in the ocean?

Just make sure you insist on double time for Sundays!
Skeptic_Heretic
4 / 5 (2) Mar 04, 2010
One thing is for sure, though- unless these proposed vents just became active in the past 100 years or so, we can safely assume that they've been contributing to the baseline global temperature since the get go -most likely since the formation of that particular spreading plate boundary became active(Millions of years), and therefore have been contributing in a more or less "steady-state" to the current climate. And that, my friends, is a crucial distinction that has to be pointed out.

And shifting Icecaps spru or decrease the tectonic activity of their local area due to the weight of the ice being either increased or decreased on the corresponding plates.

I agree with you that this discovery is most likely a non-element, however, we can't oversimplify if we don't know for sure. It'd be dishonest.