Updates from the Deep: New and Noteworthy in Hydrothermal Vent Research

From hairy-chested yeti crabs to the deepest known fields, hydrothermal vents have been enjoying a bit of science celebrity in the last few weeks. Beneath the headlines, there has been an eruption of vent-related research published in the scientific literature and some exciting new expeditions just left port.

The Discovery of New Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vent Communities in the Southern Ocean and Implications for Biogeography

'Hoff' crabs in paradise. Image from ChEss Southern Ocean Consortium

'Hoff' crabs in paradise. Image from ChEss Southern Ocean Consortium

The exhaustive author list on this paper reads like a who’s who in hydrothermal vent biogeography. This is the paper that introduced “the Hoff” crab to the world, but the findings are far more significant. Hydrothermal vent systems are sorted into biogeographic provinces, with different regions supporting different communities. The iconic giant tube worms dominate the eastern Pacific, while the western Pacific (prominently featured in Deep Fried Sea) plays host to fist sized snails, and the Atlantic features shrimp as its dominant species. There are several missing gaps in our understanding of how these qualitatively different communities are connected – the Southern Ocean, the south Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, and the Cayman Trough, among others. Filling in these gaps in our knowledge can help us understand the history and evolution of hydrothermal vent ecosystems.

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Mining the Deep Sea: what’s it worth?

a fragment of a hydrothermal vent

The shimmering insides of a vent chimney

In Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea*, the iconic Captain Nemo announced that “in the depths of the ocean, there are mines of zinc, iron, silver and gold that would be quite easy to exploit” while predicting that the abundance of marine resources could satisfy human need. If the pace of development for deep-sea mining projects and the estimated value of deep-sea ores is any indicator, it seems as though our misanthropic mariner was wrong on both counts.

In The abundance of seafloor massive sulfide deposits, an international team of geologists attempts to quantify the total available copper and zinc contained in deep-sea massive sulfide mounds. Seafloor massive sulfide mounds are a byproduct of the processes that create deep-sea hydrothermal vents. As super-heated sea water emerges from the vent, it deposits heavy metals and other elements and minerals along the walls of the vent. Over thousands of years, an active vent field can build up a huge mound of metal and mineral rich ore – a massive sulfide mound. In addition to copper and zinc, these mounds can contain gold and silver. Generally, the ore is of much higher quality than its terrestrial counterpart. Over the last few decades, many exploration companies were eyeing these deposits, but it’s only recently that technological developments and economic incentives have aligned to permit potentially profitable deep-sea mining.

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