Spectacular new discoveries arising from deep ocean hot springs

11/23/05

Press conference at AGU, Dec. 5 at 3 p.m.

Rutgers' Peter Rona and his colleagues will regale assembled scientists with accounts of ocean floor discoveries during the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco Dec. 6 and 7. A press conference on Monday, Dec. 5, will precede two special sessions on hydrothermal vents Tuesday morning (OS21C and OS22A) and a poster session on Wednesday afternoon (OS33A).

Among the discoveries scientists will reveal in those sessions are the first hydrothermal fields found in the Arctic Ocean (paper OS21C-01), and in the south Atlantic (papers OS21C-04 and -05), the first hydrothermal megaplume found in the Indian Ocean (papers OS21C-03 and OS33A), a new type of seafloor hydrothermal field fueled by chemical reactions rather than volcanism with implications for the origin of life (papers OS21C-06 and -07), and a new understanding of the relationship between fluid flow and earthquakes (paper OS22A-07).

Rona, a marine geologist at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; Colin Devey of the University of Kiel; Robert Reves-Sohn of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Bramley Murton of the British National Oceanography Center; and Jerome Dyment of the French Institute of the Physics of the Globe are co-conveners of the sessions.

The Monday press conference describing the discoveries will take place in the press room on Level 2 of the Moscone Center. The two special sessions will be held back-to-back Tuesday morning, beginning at 8 a.m. in Salon 8 at the Marriott Hotel. The poster session opens at 1:40 p.m. Wednesday on Level 2 at Moscone Center.

For Rona, the discoveries are a culmination of a 10-year search that began with his finding the first "black smokers" on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge a submerged volcanic mountain range that extends along the center of the North and South Atlantic oceans. "After the hot hydrothermal vents, known as 'black smokers,' were discovered on the East Pacific Rise in 1979, the scientific consensus was that such vents could only occur in the Pacific because of the frequent volcanic activity there and the faster sea-floor spreading up to 10 times faster than anywhere else," Rona says. "In research terms, this consensus put slow-spreading ocean ridges in the Atlantic, Arctic and Indian oceans off limits."

In 1985, Rona and his colleagues discovered an Astrodome-sized mound, topped by a forest of black smoker vents and built of metallic minerals on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It turned out to be only one of several such mounds in what is now called the TAG Hydrothermal Field, one of the largest and most studied hydrothermal fields in the world.

The work of Rona and other researchers since 1985 has established that sea-floor hot springs are a global, not a regional, phenomenon. And yet, the life forms found on or near them, the gases issuing from them and the chemical reactions taking place in and above them are widely diverse.

"The oceans are a chemical soup," Rona says. "And the global diversity of these hot springs reported in these sessions adds different chemical ingredients to that soup, support other-worldly ecosystems at the vents where life may have originated, make the oceans habitable for life, concentrate metallic mineral deposits, and modulate the Earth's temperature as a water-cooled planet."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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