Term Paper: Hydrothermal Vents: A New Way to Monitor

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Hydrothermal Vents: A New Way to Monitor the Earth's Core

Deep sea-thermal vents are an important part of life on our planet. These unique areas of the ocean provide an oasis for life on the sea floor that are supported by thermal and chemical processes situated deep in the earth's interior. It is thought that life on earth may have begun in one of these life giving deposits of biological activity. The following will explore hydrothermal vents and their contribution to the many biological beings that make these extreme conditions their home. It will support the thesis that by examining their reactions to continuously changing conditions in their environment we can gain clues as to changes that are occurring in the Earth's core.

What Are Hydrothermal Vents?

Hydrothermal vents are found in some of the deepest places in the ocean, far beyond the reach of normal submarines or divers. The closest analogy is to geysers on land. A hydrothermal vent is nothing more than a geyser that occurs on the ocean floor. It occurs when two oceanic plates pull apart and the erupting lava spews out onto the sea floor, creating a volcano-like structure. As hot fluid Flows into the very cold water it cools down quickly. The cold minerals settle around the vent opening and create chimney formation. Some of these chimneys can be quite tall, as high as 6 kilometers in some places (ONR 2006).

For the most part, the ocean floor is a sparsely inhabited area of the planet. However, hydrothermal vents are teeming with life. Hydrothermal vents are home to some extremely fascinating creatures to such as tube worms, giant clams, eyeless shrimp and spider crabs (ONR 2006). Cold seeps are other areas that are similar to hydrothermal vents, but the waters in them are closer to the temperature of the surrounding waters. Cold seeps support a similar array of life. Life around these geothermal fountains is dependent upon the chemicals in the surrounding water. The most common chemicals in the water include hydrogen sulfide, methane, iron, manganese, and silica (ONR 2006). This creates an extremely harsh environment to support life.

Hydrothermal vents are typically only active for one or two years. However, during their brief lifespan they support an abundance of life. There are nearly 300 species that live around these fleeting habitats (ONR 2006). These creatures live in a world of darkness as sunlight cannot penetrate to these depths. Plants at these depths do not depend on photosynthesis as the basis of the food chain. Chemosynthesis is the basis of life around vent areas. This food chain is similar to terrestrial food chains where larger animals prey on smaller ones. The most simplistic life form, and consequently the bottom of the food chain, is chemosynthetic bacteria. Larger animals eat the bacteria and the bacteria continue to live inside of their body. Some animals, such as tube worms, do not have a mouth or a digestive tract. They depend on the bacteria that live inside their bodies to provide nutrients directly to the organism's tissues (ONR 2006).

What Can Life in the Vents Tell Us?

Water spewing from hydrothermal vents can reach 750 " F. In some areas (ONR 2006). The water does not boil because pressures on the ocean floor are too great to prevent it. Rising pressure increases the boiling point of water. Deep ocean water is often only a few degrees above freezing. This makes for an environment of many contrasts and extremes. Life in this area of the world is a life of extremes and microhabitats. Vents are classified into black smokers, and white smokers. Black smokers are the hottest of the hydrothermal vents. They spew iron and sulfide, which combine to form iron monosulfide (ONR 2006). This compound is what gives a black smoker its black color. White smokers are much cooler and often contain barium, calcium, and silicon, which account for the white color. The Pacific Ocean tends to house more black smokers. The Atlantic is often associated with steep-sided white smoker chimneys (Kelley, Karson, and Blackman 2001).

Understanding the mechanisms that drives hydrothermal vents can give us many clues, not only about the creatures that live there, but about the geologic processes that drive them. Hydrothermal vents occur as hot, acidic hydrothermal fluids mix with cold; Alkaline oxygenated seawater (Reysenbach 2006). This basic oxidation-reduction action causes a number of minerals to precipitate and form porous sulphide/sulphate deposits. The fluid PH around actively vending sulfide structures is generally below 4.5 (Reysenbach 2006). Some vents may be more acidic than others.

It has been found that the chemical conditions around the vent not only depend on geologic process, but that the chemosynthetic creatures that surround them may also play an important role in the environment that exists. It has been discovered that a thermoacidophilic creature plays an important role iron and sulphur cycling around the vent (Reysenbach 2006). Each event represents a unique biologic system. This research changes the way we think about the interaction between the environment and creatures. It appears that this relationship is much more interdependent than we first thought. We typically think of biology as being entirely at the mercy of the environment, but this research demonstrates that the environment may be dependent on biology as well.

Studying the return of life to hydrothermal vents of the Galapagos rift allowed scientists to study firsthand re-speciation of the vents. Using Atlantis II they were able to witness and record the ecological succession at a vent that had experienced a cataclysmic destruction of life (Lutz, Shank, and Evans 2001). Life at vents is often anaerobic (Kelley, Karson, and Blackman 2001). These first life forms were not dependent upon solar energy for their survival. Being able to observe the beginnings of life gives scientists a better perspective on how life may have begun on the planet.

Primary species found near the vents are tube worms, muscles, and shrimp. Mercury levels in species taken from different vents show various levels (Martins, et al., 2001). Studying levels of certain chemicals found in the bodies of these creatures can give us important clues as to the processes that drive each vent field. Muscles from around hydrothermal vents areas show higher concentrations of total mercury when compared to species from adjacent unpolluted coastal sites. However, shrimp from the same areas show lower levels of mercury. Species for the study were collected from vents near Asia and from nearby coastal areas (Martins, et al., 2001). This indicates that chemical concentrations in the animal's are not only a factor of how much is in their environment, but is also reflective of processes that the animals have to process out these chemicals. The ability to process certain chemicals around the vents could have a dramatic effect on the environment around the vent.

Life in an Alien World

Life at the vents is dynamic and constantly changing. From one small area to the next conditions can change dramatically. Yet, a number of simple creatures have learned to carve out their existence in the microhabitats around vents. The diversity of life around the vents is surprising, with nearly 300 species identified thus far (Herring 2006). The number and types of species found around hydrothermal vents give us clues as to the chemical constituents and processes that take place in and around them. One process that has allowed creatures to survive in what would be inhospitable to other creatures is the development of symbiotic relationships. These relationships help fill the gaps where one species could not survive because it lacked something that it needed to live in that particular area. Many times, if the creature cannot produce the chemicals or the processes that it needs, it will enlist the help of another sea creature to provide what it is missing. Both animals get something that they need to survive. One of the more common symbioses to develop is between invertebrates such as tube worms and chemosynthetic bacteria (Dechaine and Cavanaugh 2006). The development of symbiotic creatures is known as co-speciation. This means that in order for these creatures to develop both of them had to evolve simultaneously.

A considerable amount of academic energy has been spent classifying the flora and fauna of hydrothermal vents communities. A majority of academic research found in journals has to do with the classification of various hydrothermal vent communities. Classifying species from this unique environment can be complicated because the lines between plant and animal are not as clearly distinguishable as with terrestrial species. Tarasov and associates (2005) divided hydrothermal vents into deep and shallow water environments. They found that plant species change drastically when one approaches 200 meters in depth. Deep-sea valley communities are different than surface communities. They can be distinguished by their lack of diatoms and algae mats (Tarasov et al. 2005). Algae require light to form. There is also a significant decrease in the phytoplankton population. At this break in depth one begins to see large sulfide structures that are… [END OF PREVIEW]

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