Black Smokers

Newby found a video showing a black smoker in the Juan de Fuca ridge system near Vancouver Island.

During the expeditions of the Nautilus many here have been watching the ROV Herkules exploring some black smokers in the Mediteranian Sea. So i thought I´d try to portrait them in a post.

Lost City hdrothermal field on the Mid Atlantic Ridge.

Lost City hdrothermal field on the Mid Atlantic Ridge.

The first black smoker was found 1977 by the famous submarine ALVIN when Robert Ballard used it to explore the seafloor near the Galapagos Islands. Subheated water over 400 °C hot, also very acidic emerged from natural chimneys in around 2000 meter depth. Hydrothermal vents, found at an average depth of 7,000 feet, are shrouded in total darkness. Toxic chemicals, extreme water pressure and temperature dictated boundaries all combine to produce a problematic habitat. And yet despite this intimidating description, they support a surprisingly wide variety of marine life. This discovery came as a total suprise, if not even as a shock to scientists. Before mankind had been thinking that the deep oceans, where sunlight does not reach anymore, are pretty lifeless. Now it was found that those vents harbour many life forms and millions of creatures are a result of chemosynthetic bacteria.

At the very base of the food chain bacteria-like organisms called archaea that use a process called chemosynthesis to turn chemicals from the vents into energy. By creating energy, these archaea provide the basis for all life within the hydrothermal vent habitat.

The bacteria use hydrogene sulfid to produce energy. They grow in thick mats on which creatures like amphipods and copepods graze directly.
tubewormA biological community is formed and animals like snails, shrimp, crabs, tube worms, fish, and octopuses are on top of this food chain.
Later a new form of photosynthesis was discovered around a Black Smoker in the deep sea before Mexcio. Chlorobiaceae is a form of bacteria who can use the faint glow emerging from the hydrothermal vent for photosynthesis. Beforehand people had been thinking, only sunlight can be used for this procedure. Another variety of those hydrolthermal vents are called “White Smokers”. The name results in the lighter colour of the emitted minerals such as Barium, Calcium and Silicon at a lower temperature. The chimneys Black Smokers build often consist of Anhydrite first and later the sulfides of Zinc Copper and Iron are added. Some chimneys have been found to grow up to 30 cm a day!

Black smokers have been discovered in every ocean, the ones farther north 73 degrees between Norway and Greenland go by a very romantic name “Loki’s Castle“. The world’s deepest black smokers explored so far are located in the Cayman Trough, around 5000 m  below sea level. Many of those vents have really inventive names like Losts City or Medusa hydrothermal vent field  ( Costa Rica) or Magic Mountain ( west of Vancouver Island Canada) or Endevaour Hydrothermal Vents ( southwest of Vancouver Island Canada)  or even Godzilla.

Distribution of chemicals around a hydrothermal vent.

Distribution of chemicals around a hydrothermal vent.

One of the most astounding creatures that have been discovered close to hydrothermal vents on the seafloor are giant tube worms. Those creature extent to a length of up to 4 meters and are one of the fastest growing species on earth. And they sure need to be able to grow that fast. Such black smoker systems often only exist for some decades. An earthquake or even a submarine volcanic eruption might change the habitat and life has to start again, in another spot on the seafloor. What also suprised the scientist … when a submarine ditched down on a tube worm accidently, it was suddenly surrounded by a red liquid. When this was studied later, people found that this liquid is very similar to human blood!

BBC Wildlife in the Oceans. Giant Tube Worms.

BBC Wildlife in the Oceans.
Giant Tube Worms.

Prior to the scientists understanding the role played by archaea it has been thought that the deep sea creatures lived solely off marine snow slowly decending to the seafloor. But now, in the light of this new information, a dramtically different hypothesis has been published. Now scientists think it possible that all life on earth has  evolved from hydrothermal vents in the ocean. This opens new possibilties for life outside the earth. It is considered possible, that Jupiters moon Europa might have such vents in its ocean below its ice cover. But going there, finding those vents and exploring them wont be easy and will cost lots of money. If life on earth emerged from hdrotherml vents… this opens a whole new set of options within our solar system and also within the universe.

A number of Hydrothermal vents have led to the formation of exploitable mineral resources via deposition of seafloor massive sulfide deposits. Recent rises in the price of base metals have attracted mineral exploration companies who are turning their attention to extraction of mineral resources from the seafloor. This has the potential for disasterous consequenses for these habitats.   Within a relatively short period of time the environmental impacts would include dust plumes from mining machinery affecting filter feeding organisms, collapsing or reopening vents, methane clathrate release, or even sub-oceanic landslides.

A final point, for the last twenty years the conservation of hydrothermal vents has been the subject of frequent heated discussion within the Oceanographic Community. The ecosystem is considered particularly vulnerable to light intrusion and it has been pointed out that, prior to the possible commencement of mineral mining,  those that are currently causing serious damage to this rare and fascinating habitat are scientists. Despite attempts to reach an understanding governing their behaviour when investigating vent sites, and although there is an agreed code of practice there is, as yet, no formal international and legally binding agreement.

If you check for “Hydrothermal Vent” on Youtube you will find lots of videos.
I linked some for you:
BBC page
Aukland Museum movie on hydrothermal vents.
David Attemborough on Hydrothermal Vents.
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer: Galápagos Rift, New Hydrothermal Vent 

Spica and Kilgharrah.

Update: Link to MESA: Deep Sea Biology, Questions and answers about hydrothermal vents 


80 thoughts on “Black Smokers

  1. Schteve 42 had problems leaving his comment under this post – so this is simply a test …..?

    Working ok now 😉

  2. I have many questions concerning black smokers’ ecology. For example: are those critters (mollusks, arthropod and even fishes) evolved from pre-existing oceanic environments?
    If these habitats are so ephemeral, how did they have time to evolve?
    And so on.
    Great post, anyway. Thank you!

  3. @Spica and Kilgharrah. Many thanks for an excellent post on a very fascinating subject. Well timed too as yesterday I found a link to a video of black smokers on Google Earth. I had never before noticed that there are markers over the seabed maps and some of them have links to undersea videos.

        • I think the word is “writhing.”

          Just imagine that you are skewering the things lengthwise on a hook so that you can catch an obscenely large catfish. One so large that you will have plenty to fry up with the fritters (or hush puppies) after rolling the meat in corn meal batter.

          The wiggling tendency is what gets the catfish’s attention. The motion is useful to you.

          • Strange really GeoLurking. I was once fishing with my husband who became very impatient with me that I wanted him to bait up my hook all the time. I actually summoned up the courage to bait up the hook and caught an 10lb Sea Bass. Only difference was, I was using Mackerel as bait!!! Much better than lugworm for catching big fish in the sea.
            That Bass made a lot of steaks as well as a couple of beautiful fillets. And I used to detest fish to eat before I started catching it myself. 😀

  4. There is a moderate swarm occuring near Tungnafelljokull volcano, just a few days after some minor swarms over Bardarbunga and Kverfjoll, other two nearby volcanoes. Swarms on these 3 volcanoes seem to occur at nearly same time. Probably some magmatic movements over the north part of Vatnajokull, just where the plume is located. Probably there is another plume pulse underneath them.

  5. The first black smoker was found 1977 by the famous submarine ALVIN

    Nice. What did Alvin find 11 years earlier? (in april)

    Green sulfur bacteria { Chlorobiaceae} uses bacteriochlorophyll a, c and d. They have peak spectral responses around 805 830 and 890 nm, well into the infrared. c – 745-755nm, d – 705-740nm.

    Sir Fred Hoyle, the person who coined the term “Big Bang” (a theory that he was not fond of) noted that chlorophyll had similarities of its light absorbing properties to interstellar dust.

    • With regards to the “11 years earlier” bit…. look on the bright side. It provided the motivations to develop advanced search methodology… mainly using Bayes’ theorem to predict the liklihood of findind “x” at a particular location. More advanced versions implement Monte Carlo methods to refine the predictions.

  6. Some deem it derogatory, but I don’t. The Spaghetti Western was a stable of entertainment when I was younger. Even watching them years later, its a breath of fresh air to see the bad characters eliminated, even if it is at the hands of a proto anti-hero. “A Fistful of Dollars”. “For a Few Dollars More” and the classic “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” {Tuco: “What’s this? One arsehole goes in, two arseholes come out?” said while laying hogtied on the front porch of the sheriff’s office where he is being turned in for his bounty} But the later movie, “High Plains Drifter” was directed by Clint Eastwood for a US company, and though inspired by them, is not a Spaghetti Western. Of the Dollars Trilogy, most were shot on location in Spain.

    High Plains Drifter was different… and as I learned tonight, was shot on the shores of Mono Lake. To a volcanophile, that is really neat.

    Just thought that I would pass that along. 😀

    • Thanks Geolurking, I never knew that, will have to re watch the movie at some point, I do like a bit of Clint Eastwood. Actually I do like a good western; Shane, with Alan Ladd is a particular favourite…

      • “the Outlaw Josey Wales” and ‘High Plains Drifter ‘ are my two personal favorite Eastwood movies.. Was on a field trip to the area of Mono lake about the time that was filmed..had a first hand look at what Mullholland and his band of water pirates
        did…(Those water pirates wanted to do the same thing with the Columbia
        River water in the 1960-70’s)

        • That was what actually struck me the most when I visited; the former water level, the conservation fightback was beginning when I visited in 2003ish but even so, many of the famed tufa outcrops were crumbling because they were no longer in the water.
          That’s the problem with building big cities in deserts, you have to source water from somewhere… Mono Lake’s tributaries were tapped to supply Los Angeles, the lake water itself is definately not for drinking….

  7. The Spaghetti Western! Ahhhh! I always wanted a Poncho Like Clint’s! Lurking I am not fond of the more “reality” methods of filming, or the Huge , dark science fiction/ fantasy type thing that takes no account of aging and slightly weaker bladders!! I shall dig out Husband’s DVD of High plains drifter and watch it again. Thanks for giving me my task for the day 😀 😀

  8. @ Newbie……… I understand your dislike of worms… This fear of wriggly things goes back many a year, possibly it is inherent in our Neanderthal genes.
    The Lampton Worm is a very ancient myth from the North East of England. This fear of something large , squirming and deadly is utilised also by the makers of Graboids 😀 :D…..
    Notice the sheep also joining in with this comment. What fascinates me is that in many a myth is some truth…… I wonder what animal started off this Myth.?

  9. Prof Brian Cox’s Wonders of Life series started on BBC last night. He filmed a section at a caldera in the Philippines, with an island in the middle and an acidic lake within that island. All very interesting but I’ve forgotten the name of the volcano/caldera. He was using it to illustrate the idea of proton gradients and how they may have provided the conditions for early life.

  10. OT… a takeoff on Diana Barnes’ hardwired neanderthal thought.

    Hominids are, on occasion, grazers. Go out berry picking sometime with some freinds and you get my meaning.

    One thing that anyone who has been to a party where someone gets sick and vomits will have noticed, is sympathetic vomiting. This seems to be a natural reaction. One line of thought is that it developed as a way for the group to more quickly get a bad collection of berries/food out of their system. If one member of the group had a bad reaction, odds are good that someone else ate the same. Best to get it out and move on.

    • Haha, I used to get sympathetic vomiting when the kids were sick and I tried to clean up after them, in the end hubby had to clear up the mess or I was sure to add to it!
      Ugh, better delay breakfast for a little longer, some recollections aren’t good. :mrgreen:

  11. Haraldur Sigurdsson writes in the Introduction to his “Encyclopedia of volcanoes” that the hydrothermal circulation process is so forceful at the midocean ridges that the entire mass of the world´s oceans is recycled once in 5 million years. It is an important source for e.g. calcium, potassium, manganese and lithium and is a major sink for magnesium and sulfate. Like earth´s gills…

    • You know I don’t like it when things just quit doing whatever they were doing.
      St. Helens quieted suddenly a few days before may 18th.Then started ringing like
      a bell seismologically . Hope it doesn’t mean something’s plugged…
      might be a good thing to check the crater floor..

      • Never mind

        The primary source of water filling the lake is condensing steam and gas from fumaroles now beneath the lake and runoff from the surrounding crater walls.

        The establishment of a semi-permanent Crater Lake at White Island has changed the range and likely impacts of the hazards to visitors on the island

        A friend of mine had questioned the source of water. The bad side of the rumination would be that it was sea water seepage, which would sort of indicate that the integrity of the islands structure (or lack of it) might influence the nature of a future eruption.

        My take on it is that in order for an event to allow flooding of a chamber, the timing of the chamber wall collapse would dictate whether it returned to a surtseyan state or something worse than that. In order for that to happen, the timing would have to be spot on for it to do something catastrophically bad.

        In other words… very unlikely. Especially since the water for the mud pit mainly comes from condensation and not sea water seepage.

  12. mornin all
    painfully slow test comment 🙂
    im off to lanzarote on saturday
    arriving just in time to race to the nearest british bar for england vs scotland int six nations…
    my kindle paperwhite will be my interweb device…
    dont expect too many comments while im away…

    • Thanks for those Greg,
      I have to agree that the 15 minute lapse is not so good on the close up, I guess too much can change…
      It took me a while to figure out what the black blob crossing the sky ont White Island was… 😀

  13. @ Karenz and Cryphia and tother plotters,
    Just realised what my schoolboy error was, hadn’t found the text to columns button int data drop down,
    drunken edit diclaimer…

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