Random Samples

Oceanographers Make Their Own Hot Springs

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Science  18 Oct 1996:
Vol. 274, Issue 5286, pp. 349
DOI: 10.1126/science.274.5286.349a

Earth is girdled by 60,000 kilometers of midocean ridges, all of them spewing hot, mineral-laden waters that feed some of the most exotic animals on the planet. But catching a look at a submarine hot spring as it first bursts to life has naturally been problematic. Now oceanographers are finding themselves in the midst of the desired experiment: While drilling on a ridge 240 kilometers off Vancouver Island, they serendipitously punched open two new vents

Nomads. Tube worms thrive near short-lived ocean vents


Scientists on board the international Ocean Drilling Program's ship JOIDES Resolution drilled the holes last month on the Juan de Fuca ridge to retrieve sediments and crustal rock that waters of dormant vents had turned into mineral deposits long ago. But they created a live one. "It was incredible," says co-chief scientist Yves Fouquet of IFREMER, an oceanographic institute in Brest, France. "We couldn't even see the seabed because hot water was rushing out of the hole so fast," creating a 30-meter plume of debris.

According to marine biologist Verena Tunnicliffe of the University of Victoria, British Columbia, the 350oC water was carrying so much "white junk"--probably the byproducts of microbial activity--that it seems likely there's abundant life beneath the vents. Scientists have suspected that midocean ridges harbor a wealth of microbes because whole mats of them have swiftly colonized the sea floor after volcanic ridge eruptions open up new vents. Now researchers should be able to catch subsurface bacteria in the act.

Biologists will also be looking for the first arrival of larger creatures, such as giant tube worms, from other vents. How animals that live off the dissolved minerals and bacteria surrounding vents manage to move from one short-lived vent to another is still a mystery. The Resolution vents should help unravel their travel habits.

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