New Hydrothermal Vents Discovered
A team of twenty-seven U.S. marine scientists beginning an intensive program of exploration at the Lau Basin, in the South Pacific, has discovered a new cluster of hydrothermal vents along a volcanically active crack in the seafloor.
About a mile and a half down, the basin could hold answers to questions about the origin of life on Earth, say the scientists, whose plans for their "South Pacific Odyssey" include an unprecedented number of research expeditions to this geologically unique "back-arc basin" during the next two years. In a back-arc basin, spreading splits the ocean floor apart very close to a volcanic arc. The way the geology works in a back-arc basin is different from in a mid-ocean spreading center. In back-arc basins, which are widespread in the western Pacific Ocean, a spreading center is located right next to a subduction zone (in this case, the Tonga Trench) where one plate of Earth's crust dips beneath another one.
"This major undertaking will require the coordinated efforts of dozens of large research groups, numerous research expeditions, and the deployment of a wide array of specialized deep-sea research tools," said Penn State Professor of Biology Chuck Fisher, chair of the National Science Foundation-funded Ridge 2000 research initiative, which is behind this effort.
"Because of the unusual properties of the ocean crust in the Lau Basin, we can expect to discover new species there--species that perhaps will hold new and unique secrets to share with us," Fisher said. "The microbes at sites like these--thriving in super-hot temperatures--likely have their own remarkable biochemical pathways and capabilities that we are only beginning to appreciate."
Charlie Langmuir of Harvard University, a marine geologist who is the chief scientist of the current cruise and a veteran of over twenty deep- sea expeditions in the last two decades, said, "The Lau Basin is a candy store of scientific problems, and this is the first time there's been a regional-scale perspective of hydrothermal activity in an entire back- arc basin. If we're successful, it will also be the first time that a systematic exploration and discovery of hydrothermal vents over hundreds of kilometers has been achieved."
Continuous updates about this series of expeditions and its discoveries are being posted at www.southpacificodyssey.org, including reports by on-scene science writers and intriguing information about south Pacific life and culture.
A "window" into Earth's depths
The Lau Basin, a three-hundred-ninety-kilometer stretch of the ocean basement about the length of Taiwan, has captured the interest of scientists since the late 1960s. Lined with active deep-sea volcanoes and hydrothermal vents--along with massive sulfide deposits enriched in gold and other minerals--it is home to gigantic snails and other strange animals that live in total darkness off of the hot, acidic vent water. Many scientists have dubbed the basin "the perfect geologic experiment," an ideal place to study the processes that connect Earth's deep interior to ocean ridge volcanoes and the biological communities they support in the complete absence of sunlight.
The Lau Basin is flanked by two underwater mountain ridges that sit roughly between Fiji in the west and the Kingdom of Tonga in the east; the ridges run south toward New Zealand. …