International Team to Honor 30th Anniversary of Deep-Sea Vent Discovery in Galápagos
Scientists first discovered volcanic hot vents surrounded by bizarre animals thriving in total darkness—without energy from the sun—at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in 1977. At the end of June an international team of scientists, including many of the original explorers, will honor the 30th anniversary of the landmark discovery at a special meeting and public event in the Galápagos Islands, located just south of the discovery site.
“The discovery of hydrothermal vents—ecosystems driven by chemical energy from the seafloor rather than energy from the sun—led to a fundamental change in our understanding of life on Earth,” said Paul Tyler, co-chair of ChEss, the group holding the meeting. ChEss is one of the 14 field programs of the Census of Marine Life, a global collaboration to document the ocean’s life by 2010.
The discovery spawned a global quest to further explore one of Earth’s most extreme environments in search of answers to questions about crust formation, the origin of life, ocean chemistry and more. “It remains one of the most exciting discoveries in the past century,” Tyler said.
The Galápagos Islands provide a fitting venue to hold this celebration, said Maria Baker, ChEss program coordinator. “The islands are very close to the actual discovery site.
We are thrilled with the opportunity to showcase how far the research on these incredible ecosystems has come in this natural treasure of the world where Charles Darwin first formed his theory of evolution,” she said.
Roughly 50 scientists will attend the meeting, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which will include discussions about new—and controversial—issues facing vent science such as the onset of deep-sea mining and plans for conservation and management, said Eva Ramirez-Llodra, ChEss’s other program coordinator.
An entire day will also be devoted to public outreach to foster a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, these remote environments, she said. Public talks by leading scientists and the photographer who has been on the deep-sea vent scene since the initial discovery, will be presented in both Spanish and English.
“Vents in the deep sea—only accessible by submersibles—are generally out of sight and therefore out of the public mind,” Ramirez-Llodra said. “We [ChEss] believe that holding a public event is essential to increase the public’s awareness of the existence, functioning and beauty of these ecosystems that some scientists believe may be the site for the origin of life”.
Based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton in the United Kingdom, ChEss focuses on the diversity, abundance and distribution of the animals living in hydrothermal systems and other chemosynthetic—or chemically driven—environments and aims to produce a catalogue of these deep-sea species by 2010.
30 Years of Vent Research: Milestones and Challenges
Since the 1977 discovery, scientists have explored about 10 percent of the mid-ocean ridge. This 40,000-mile-long mountain range zigzags up and down the middle of the world’s ocean basins like a giant zipper, said Christopher German, ChEss co-chair and also co-chair of InterRidge, an international nonprofit organization that will help run the public event.
The ridge marks the area where the Earth’s tectonic plates spread apart and new crust forms from hot lava rising from the mantle. In and around the ridge are hydrothermal vents, volcanic structures that look like chimneys and gush super-hot, mineral-rich fluids. About 100 vent sites have so far been discovered, German said.
“Wherever we look along the ridge, we find vents,” he said, “and the vents in different regions of the ocean host very different animals.”
“The biggest challenge for the future of our research is to design more efficient ways of exploring the remaining 90 percent of the ridge crest,” said German, who is also Chief Scientist of Deep Submergence at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, USA. Vent-related technologies have evolved tremendously in the last three decades, he explained, and finding vents—which used to take months to years—now can be done in a few dives to the bottom with newer submersibles. Still, it’s a huge ocean out there, and the ridge—Earth’s largest geologic feature—can be as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon in places and as tall as Mount Everest in others, he said.
Roughly 550 vent species have been discovered living in extreme temperature and pressure conditions, and new vent species are discovered at a rate of nearly two per month, Tyler said. “Vent science has dominated the field of deep-sea biology in the last 30 years,” he said.
Explorer and author Cindy Van Dover, director of Duke University Marine Lab, USA who will also present a public talk at the event, said, “Strange animals live in the deep sea, animals that have looks and habits unlike those of any creature one might meet at the edge of the sea. There are paradoxes: eyeless shrimp that can see in the dark, beauties: giant worms of exquisite design, and curiosities: snails with plates of armor.”
The most well known animal affiliated with vents is the giant tubeworm found around Pacific Ocean vents. The fastest-growing marine invertebrate known, it can grow to six feet, lacks a mouth and digestive system, and survives thanks to a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. “A recent ChEss-related discovery led by a research team from the University of Bremen, Germany, was that of shrimp and other animals living very close to chimneys gushing the hottest fluid recorded in the deep sea (407° C) around vents in the Atlantic Ocean,” said Ramirez-Llodra.
Animals similar to those found around vents have been discovered in other chemical-driven environments, such as whale carcasses, sunken wood, mud volcanoes and cold seeps where methane—a well-known greenhouse gas and major component of natural gas—seeps through sediments in the ocean floor, Tyler said.
“I expect more chemically driven sites like these will be discovered in the next 30 years,” Tyler said. ChEss scientists are also excited about the possibilities deep-ocean technologies may open up for space exploration. “Because we believe that hydrothermal activity must also occur on liquid oceans already known to exist elsewhere in space (such as Europa, a moon of Jupiter), the robotic devices that we are learning to work with in our own deep oceans may also represent the explorers of the future searching for life in outer space,” German said.
The meeting was held at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz from June 27-28, 2007. The public event, held on June 29 in the Municipality Hall, featured interactive displays, a showing of the recently released giant-screen film called “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea,” and lectures by noted vent science pioneers including:
• J. Frederick Grassle (Rutgers University): The First Biological Expedition to Hydrothermal Vents
• Emory Kristof (National Geographic): The Discovery From the Eye of a Lens
• Cindy Van Dover (Duke University): The Exotic Fauna of Deep-Sea Oases
• Christopher German (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution): Modern vent exploration and links with Outer Space, Launch of 30th Anniversary web-based project
All talks will be presented in English and Spanish, and audio files of the talks and images from the event will be available on the ChEss website following the event.