It has been my privilege to visit WHOI on several occasions, and to and work with and learn from their scientists. They have collected specimens from hydrothermal vents for me and sent these in dry ice to Edithburgh South Australia where we live. My deep thanks to Dr  Edgcomb for her guidance and friendship over many years.

 “Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is the world’s leading, independent non-profit organization dedicated to ocean research, exploration, and education. Our scientists and engineers push the boundaries of knowledge about the ocean to reveal its impacts on our planet and our lives”.

What are Hydrothermal Vents?

In 1977, scientists made a stunning discovery on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean: vents pouring hot, mineral-rich fluids from beneath the seafloor. They later found the vents were inhabited by previously unknown organisms that thrived in the absence of sunlight. These discoveries fundamentally changed our understanding of Earth and life on it.

Like hot springs and geysers on land, hydrothermal vents form in volcanically active areas—often on mid-ocean ridges, where Earth’s tectonic plates are spreading apart and where magma wells up to the surface or close beneath the seafloor. Ocean water percolates into the crust through cracks and porous rocks and is heated by underlying magma. The heat helps drive chemical reactions that remove oxygen, magnesium, sulfates and other chemicals from the water that entered the ocean through rain, rivers, and groundwater. In the process, the fluids also become hotter and more acidic, causing them to leach metals such as iron, zinc, copper, lead, and cobalt from the surrounding rocks. The heated fluids rise back to the surface through openings in the seafloor. Hydrothermal fluid temperatures can reach 400°C (750°F) or more, but they do not boil under the extreme pressure of the deep ocean.

As they pour out of a vent, the fluids encounter cold, oxygenated seawater, causing another, more rapid series of chemical reactions to occur. Sulfur and other materials precipitate, or come out of solution, to form metal-rich towers and deposits of minerals on the seafloor. The fluids also contain chemicals that feed microbes at the base of a unique food web that survives apart from the sun. Instead of relying on photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into organic carbon, the bacteria use chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide to provide the energy source that drives their metabolic processes and ultimately support a wide range of other organisms such as tubeworms, shrimp, and mussels.

Why Do They Matter?

Hydrothermal vents act as natural plumbing systems that transport heat and chemicals from the interior of the Earth and that help regulate global ocean chemistry. In the process, they accumulate vast amounts of potentially valuable minerals on the seafloor.

The mammoth copper mines of Cyprus, for example, were formed by hydrothermal activity millions of years ago before those rocks were uplifted from the seafloor to become dry land. Commercially valuable mineral deposits are believed to exist on the seafloor near hydrothermal vents, and a few companies have had plans in development for years to exploit some of these. The difficulty of mining in deep water near fragile ecosystems and the relatively small size of ocean bottom deposits compared to those on land have so far prevented seafloor mining from becoming commercially viable.

Vents also support complex ecosystems of exotic organisms that have developed unique biochemical adaptations to high temperatures and environmental conditions we would consider toxic. Learning about these organisms can teach us about the evolution of life on Earth and the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system and the universe. Many previously unknown metabolic processes and compounds found in vent organisms could also have commercial uses one day.

During an OASIS cruise to the Mid-Cayman Rise in January 2012, the manipulator arm of the remotely operated vehicle Jason placed the intake tube of an isobaric gas-tight sampler (IGTS) into the stream of fluid gushing out of a hydrothermal vent. The fluid contains gases that are in liquid form because of the high pressure of the deep ocean. In the past, bringing such samples to the surface resulted in loss of the gaseous portion. WHOI scientists and engineers developed the IGTS to keep samples of vent fluid at high pressure until they can be brought to a lab for analysis. WHOI geologist Chris German led the expedition, which visited the deepest known hydrothermal vents in the world. (Photos and Text by Chris German and the Jason Group, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).

Godzilla, Sasquatch, & Homer Simpson

The names of hydrothermal vent fields along the Endeavour segment of the Juan de Fuca ridge.

The names of hydrothermal vent fields along the Endeavour segment of the Juan de Fuca ridge. (Image courtesy American Geophysical Union).

Detail of a hydrothermal chimney in the Mothra Field

Detail of a hydrothermal chimney in the Mothra Field. Note the crabs.


Chemistry of a Hydrothermal Vent.

The Curious Names of Deep-sea Features

The 15-story black smoker chimney resembles a monster on the seafloor, with hot fluids billowing from holes near its 40-foot wide, mushroom-shaped top. For the awestruck oceanographers who discovered the deep-sea structure in 1991 off the Washington coast, there seemed only one appropriate name: Godzilla.

Hydrothermal vent fields and their individual chimneys may be places for serious scientific research, but some of their names come straight from science fiction. Take Sasquatch and Mothra, two of five vent fields located here at the Endeavour Segment. These undersea features, like Godzilla, were named for monsters.

Throughout history, when explorers and pioneers on land have discovered a new mountain, valley, or river, they have named it. The sea is no different. The scientists who name hydrothermal vents, chimneys, seamounts, volcanoes, and other undersea features say their inspiration comes from a variety of sources.

Inspirations for names

Many deep-sea features are named for their distinct shapes (Organ Pipe and Broken Spur) and formidable sizes (Boomer, Mammoth, Hulk, and Cathedral). Other features are named for research vessels (two seamounts named for research ships, Knorr and Kairei). Still others honor pioneering scientists: the Edmond hydrothermal vent field in the Indian Ocean was named in 2001 for the late oceanographer John Edmond.

Scientists missing their families sometimes name things they find in the oceans for them. Dan Fornari, a geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, named a seamount in the eastern Pacific for his son Sasha, and hydrothermal vents for his wife, CL, and son, Simon.

Sometimes, scientists are simply needing entertainment. In the southeast Pacific, west of Easter Island, sits a cluster of vents named for cartoon characters. Scooby, Tweety, Road Runner, and yes—Homer Simpson—can be found on maps in scientific journals.

Formal name recognition

Naming rights usually go to scientists on a research expedition who play a major role in locating the find, said Marvin Lilley, a chemist at the University of Washington who has named a half dozen seafloor features. But not all names are recognized outside the world of independent oceanographic research.

Like mountains, valleys, and other features on land, names must comply with policies and procedures to be formally documented by government agencies, said Trent Palmer, who helps manage an international name database of sea and land-based features at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.

“Nothing prevents anyone from naming a mountain Winnie the Pooh Mountain, but it is never going to be labeled as such on a federal map or publication,” said Palmer. “Even though very few people are going to visit these places, we hope that the researchers who identify them will pick appropriate names.”

The name Juan de Fuca Ridge, for example, was borrowed from the nearby Juan de Fuca Strait, named after the 16th century Greek explorer who was employed by the Spanish to find a northern passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. The name was approved at the federal level in 1969. So while a name may not have government recognition, researchers say that when a newly appointed name, however unique, appears in a journal publication, it is accepted within the scientific community.

Sasquatch and the Dawg

At the Endeavour Segment–home to a dynamic community of worms, crabs, smoking chimneys, and other unusual features–the five vent fields were given some of the more curious names in the undersea world.

Sasquatch, a vent field in the north was named for a hairy, ape-like creature that some believe roams in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Salty Dawg, both the name of a hydrothermal vent field and the name of one of the structures in the field, was discovered emitting some particularly salty fluids. Lilley gave a nod to the University of Washington for the second part of the name. The school’s athletes, who have a Husky for a mascot, are often called “dawgs.”

At the High Rise field, the hydrothermal chimneys are so large and close together that they remind some scientists of skyscrapers emerging from the sea floor. “Flying around there in the submersible Alvin is reminiscent of driving a car downtown in U.S. cities,” said Veronique Robigou, a scientist at the University of Washington who has conducted research at the Endeavour Segment.

The Main Endeavour field got its name because it has long been a “main” focus of scientific research at the Endeavour Segment. It hosts more than 100 black smoker chimneys positioned on other, even larger sulfide chimneys towering over 100 feet in height.