Thursday, April 4, 2019

Otherworldly Mirror Pools, Mesmerizing Landscapes and New Lifeforms Discovered on Ocean Floor



Scientists aboard Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor recently discovered and explored a hydrothermal field at 2,000 meters depth in the Gulf of California where towering mineral structures serve as biological hotspots for life. These newly discovered geological formations feature upside down ‘mirror-like flanges’ that act as pooling sites for discharged fluids.

Hydrothermal vent fluid collects under these ledges and provides the chemical energy that drives the entire ecosystem of microbes, scale worms, and riftia.
Credit: ROV SuBastian / SOI

While exploring hydrothermal vent and cold seep environments, Dr. Mandy Joye (University of Georgia), and her interdisciplinary research team discovered large venting mineral towers that reach up to 23 meters in height and 10 meters across. These towers featured numerous volcanic flanges that create the illusion of looking at a mirror when observing the superheated (366oC) hydrothermal fluids beneath them. The minerals across the features were laden with metals and the fluids were highly sulfidic, yet these sites were teeming with biodiversity and potentially novel fauna.


This image of an oil-saturated chimney shows oil droplets and pink nematodes. Nematodes are the most numerous multicellular animals on earth. Nematodes are structurally simple organisms and many of the known species are microscopic wormsCredit: ROV SuBastian / SOI

“We discovered remarkable towers where every surface was occupied by some type of life. The vibrant colors found on the ‘living rocks’ was striking, and reflects a diversity in biological composition as well as mineral distributions,” said Dr. Joye. “This is an amazing natural laboratory to document incredible organisms and better understand how they survive in extremely challenging environments. Unfortunately, even in these remote and beautiful environments we saw copious amounts of trash including fishing nets, deflated Mylar balloons, and even a discarded Christmas trees. This provided a stark juxtaposition next to the spectacular mineral structures and biodiversity.”


Credit: Schmidt Ocean

The expedition was an unprecedented study of hydrothermal and gas plumes, with researchers using advanced technology including 4K deep-sea underwater cameras and radiation tracking devices, as well as sediment and fluid samplers working via a remotely operated vehicle, ROV SuBastian. To get a true measure of methane and other volatile substances existing in the deep sea, scientists need to capture the samples at the source. The scientists were able to do this with a unique osmo sampler, a device that draws hydrothermal fluids into small capillary-like tubing, mounted onto the ROV. Several other in-situ experiments were performed, including a high throughput water filtration for viruses that allowed the team to reduce processing bias.

ROV SuBastian sampling from a chimney in a small smoker field (ORP-2) surrounded by microbial mats in the Guaymas Basin.
Credit: ROV SuBastian / SOI

View of methane hydrates, which look similar to crystals. These are shaped a bit differently, leading the researcher to ask how they had been warped or melted 
A .ROV SuBastian / SOI

From super-hot hydrothermal vents to slowly discharging cold seeps, the common thread of the sample collections involved studies of methane cycling. Hydrothermal fluids and gas plume samples all contained highly elevated concentrations of methane and surface-breaching methane hydrate mounds. Methane is a potent atmospheric greenhouse gas, 30 times the strength of carbon dioxide, and this study will advance the knowledge of the biological storage for methane in water column and sediment systems.


“It is a different world down there. Each dive feels like floating into a science fiction film,” said Schmidt Ocean Institute Cofounder Wendy Schmidt. “The complex layers of data we’ve collected aboard Falkor during this expedition will help tell the story of this remote place and bring it to public attention. Witnessing these remarkable oceanscapes, we are reminded that although they are out of our everyday sight, they are hardly immune from human impact. Our hope is to inspire people to learn more and care more about our ocean.”

ROV SuBastian measuring the temperature at a hydrothermal vent in the Guaymas Basin. This black smoker vent was named “Falkor’s Fountain.” 
Credit: ROV SuBastian / SOI

The team will now spend the next few months analyzing samples and plans to publicly share the results. As the different data sets are synthesized, scientists will generate a more complete understanding of the Gulf of California system. This understanding will be applicable to oceanic environments around the globe, as well as allow scientists to identify and frame exciting new questions.

This work would not have been possible without the considerate authorization of the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores) to allow for marine scientific research to be conducted in their waters.


Contacts and sources:
Schmidt Ocean Institute


Citation: 

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