Why conserve deep-sea hydrothermal vents?

Of all the questions I am asked as a deep-sea biologist, the hardest to answer is “why conserve deep-sea hydrothermal vents?” Sure there are the classic canards of economics (vents produce valuable minerals) and biotechnology (vents house unique organisms that may produce useful pharmaceutical or technological products) but these are hollow, belie a conservation ethic driven by human selfishness, and pander to an exploitative system. Beyond those lie a series of high minded, though vague, ethics about preserving biodiversity, protecting unique habitats, and understanding an ecosystem more alien than any science fiction story before destroying it.

Our global society is coming around to the idea that biodiversity is valuable in its own right, that species are precious, and that we have a duty to minimize the damage we inflict upon the world. We still have a long way to go, but the wind is in the sails and the ship is coming about. Despite this growing environmental ethic, the tragic reality is that before 1977 we didn’t even know hydrothermal vents existed and if every vent community was wiped from the face of the seafloor, few outside of a handful of fortunate scientists and deep-sea enthusiasts would notice.

So why conserve deep-sea hydrothermal vents?

My answer to that question is not the only answer, and it is probably not the best answer. It is informed by my philosophy of fatal optimism: the changes occurring on our planet, driven by human growth and exploitation, are largely inevitable, and, while we should do all we can to restrict the damage we are causing and restore that which can still recover, we are also in the midst of the largest and most fascinating experiment ever conducted, and the ways in which life adapts to the new world we are constructing will be terrifying and beautiful.

In conservation, we often talk about the destructive power of the human race, and for good reason. Our capacity to destroy is awesome beyond measure, but it is exceptional only in its magnitude. We are not alone in the pantheon of selfish species; all living things act in their own self-interest. We are simply the best at it. Contrary to the myth of balance in the natural world, ecosystems exist in a constant flux between expansion and collapse, as organisms compete for dominance over limited resources, and all resources are limited.

What makes us truly unique is not our ability to destroy, but our ability to conserve. No other species in the history of the planet has recognized the inherent value in another species, not as a resource, food source, or substrate, but simply as another living organism. No other species has expended its own resources, its own precious energy, to protect another, simply for the sake of the other species existence. No other species has ever planned and implemented an initiative to bring a species back from the brink of extinction. As certain as humanity’s ability to destroy has driven countless species to extinction, it is our unique and, frankly, unnatural desire to preserve and protect species and ecosystems for purely altruistic reasons that defines us.

There are myriad ways life on this planet could come to an end, but only the thoughtful ape, Homo sapiens sapiens, can save it.

And that brings us back to deep-sea hydrothermal vents. In the icy darkness of the deep ocean, beyond the region where 19th century explorers thought no life could flourish, communities, driven by the chemical energy produced by the earth’s mantle thrive. Contrary to popular references, they are not independent of sun light, but rather, indirectly dependent. The oxygen produced by photosynthesis is ancient, taking up to 12,000 years to reach the sea floor, but it is a necessary component. These high biomass systems thrive off an energy source few imagined could exist prior to their discovery. They are enclaves of life so far removed from what we commonly recognize that the best description of these communities is alien.

They are detached from the rest of life, not completely, but enough. The vent ecosystem is patchy and subject to frequent and massive disruptions, it is lousy with heavy metals and toxic compounds. The vent itself may be radioactive. In short, the organisms that live there are tough and unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

And that is one reason hydrothermal vents matter. They have the potential to be survivors. It is unlikely, but not inconceivable, that either through human activity or from extraterrestrial transgression, life as we know it could come to an end. The odds are minuscule, but not negligible. Because of that, if we are truly concerned about the continuation and propagation of life, not just human life, we must maintain enclaves of biodiversity and we must play the odds by protecting those ecosystems that differ so wildly from our own that they could endure where others fail.

January 3, 2011 • 1:00 pm