Science & Technology

See the Otherworldly Scenery Scientists Found at the Bottom of the Ocean

Hydrothermal vents are some of the strangest, most wondrous structures in the deep sea. They're produced when ice-cold seawater seeps through cracks in the ocean crust to meet red-hot magma, then bubbles back out as a boiling cloud, taking gases and minerals along for the ride. But despite their searing heat and noxious chemical composition, hydrothermal vents are often teeming with life. And in February, scientists discovered a hydrothermal wonderland deep in the Gulf of California that the lead researcher called "... one of the most magnificent things I've ever seen in the natural world."

Well, That Wasn't There Before ...

Dr. Mandy Joye, a marine biologist at the University of Georgia, often makes treks to the ocean floor, and her team's expedition in November 2018 was no different. But this time when they surveyed the area 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) down in the Gulf of California, they found strange, mountain-like formations that other scientists hadn't seen when they checked out the spot 10 years ago. (That's likely because of the strange reactions that take place near these vents: When cold seawater meets hot magma, dissolved sulfides in the water turn into rock-hard solids.)

Curious, they returned last February to explore the region properly, and what they found was amazing. Towers reaching up to 32 feet (10 meters) wide and 75 feet (23 meters) high — as tall as a telephone pole — huffed and puffed with sulfide-rich water superheated to nearly 700 degrees Fahrenheit (366 degrees Celsius). Volcanic flanges called "pagodas," thanks to their resemblance to traditional Asian architecture, jutted from the towers, providing a surface where the superheated water clung to create an otherworldly mirroring effect.

Using advanced equipment, including 4K deep-sea underwater cameras, radiation tracking devices, and sediment and fluid samplers aboard a remotely operated vehicle called ROV SuBastian, the team set out to study the unique chemistry and deep-sea life around these hydrothermal vents. The water was teeming with methane and hydrogen sulfide, along with metals like manganese, iron, mercury, arsenic, and selenium that imparted a cotton-candy hue to the vents.

See What the Team Saw

Among the organisms they found were octopuses and Riftia tube worms, a common resident of hydrothermal vents that harbor sulfur-eating bacteria. But there were also new discoveries, like colorful mats of microbes in yellow, orange, pink, and purple. The team is still analyzing the samples they've collected to better understand how life thrives near these volcanic fissures.

"Those are the kinds of places that select for microorganisms that are really the superheroes of the ecosystem, the metabolic warriors that can tolerate extremes and do amazing things under challenging conditions," Joye explained in a video about the expedition. "Those kinds of organisms are the ones who have the most to teach us about novel modes of life; how to survive under precarious conditions."

Beauty and Ugliness

Unfortunately, alongside their novel discoveries, they also found something even more familiar: trash. Lots of it. "Unfortunately, even in these remote and beautiful environments we saw copious amounts of trash including fishing nets, deflated Mylar balloons, and even a discarded Christmas trees," Joye said in a press release. "This provided a stark juxtaposition next to the spectacular mineral structures and biodiversity."

"Witnessing these remarkable oceanscapes, we are reminded that although they are out of our everyday sight, they are hardly immune from human impact," she continued. "Our hope is to inspire people to learn more and care more about our ocean."

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Hear how hydrothermal vents may have played a role in the first complex life in "The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life" by Nick Lane. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer April 26, 2019

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