Three Miles Down in the Carribean, the Deepest Volcanic Vents Ever Seen

By Andrew Moseman | April 12, 2010 9:25 am

VentsThe bottom of the sea is a strange and marvelous frontier, as we were reminded last week by the discovery of the first known animals to live without oxygen. Today a team of British researchers say their undersea robotic explorers have found something new down in the depths of the Caribbean Sea: the deepest hydrothermal vents ever seen.

The black smokers, named for how they spew out an iron sulfide compound that’s black, sit 3.1 miles deep in the Cayman Trough in the Caribbean [FoxNews]. They beat out the previous record holders, which were located 2.6 miles below the surface in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As the National Oceanography Centre team sailed across the sea in its research vessel, the James Cook, the scientists deployed their robot explorers down to the inhospitable depths. One, called Autosub6000, mapped the seafloor while another, HyBIS, carried high-resolution cameras to capture these images.

Marine biologist Dr Jon Copley said: “Seeing the world’s deepest black-smoker vents looming out of the darkness was awe-inspiring.” He added: “Super-heated water was gushing out of their two-storey-high mineral spires, more than three miles beneath the waves” [BBC News]. The heat record held by the vents in the mid-Atlantic is a scorching 867 degrees Fahrenheit, but Copley and the other researchers say they don’t know yet whether this one is hotter. Geologist Bramley Murton reports mats of microbes covering the vents, but the team is conferring with other scientists before they announce exactly what they found. Whatever lives down there, it’s certainly got grit. The pressure at the bottom of the trough, which is 500 times normal atmospheric pressure, would be the equivalent to the weight of a large family car pushing down on every square inch of the creatures that live there, the researchers say [FoxNews].

You can keep up with the voyage of the James Cook on the team’s Web site. They’ll be cruising the Cayman Trough until the 20th of this month.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Funky Life at an Underwater Hydrothermal Vent (gallery)
DISCOVER: Water at Ocean Vents Isn’t Water—It’s a Gas-Liquid Hybrid
DISCOVER: For Microbes, Hell Isn’t So Bad
DISCOVER: Sweeping the Ocean Floor
80beats: For This Deep-Sea Animal, Oxygen-Free Is the Way To Be

80beats: NASA’s New Underwater Robot Chugs Along Indefinitely on Ocean Power

Image: National Oceanography Centre

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • Chris

    It still amazes me how much we still don’t know about our OWN planet while we search out other worlds. The stackers are incredible!!! 2 Stories high 3.1 miles down in the ocean? All I can say is WOW.

  • Georg

    “Super-heated water was gushing..”
    Who tells those know-nothings that there is no “super-heated”
    water in those vents?
    Super-heated means that the water is hotter than boiling
    point, which would lead the water to form bubbles when
    coming out of the vent.
    (Dont tell me that the water is abobe 100 C, that is not
    the criterion for beeing superheated!)
    Georg

  • Juiceman

    Did you not read that the pressure this deep “is 500 times normal atmospheric pressure”, Georg? Water won’t boil at such an immense pressure.

  • Jo

    Georg:

    a) the water is i) superheated and ii) liquid not gas, because of the pressure of water at that depth. The boiling point of water is 100 degrees celsius at atmospheric pressure at sea level. On Everest, where atmospheric pressure is less, water ‘boils’ – which is simply the word for its change of physical state from liquid to gas, and has very little to do with its temperature – at less than 100 degrees celsius. At higher atmospheric pressure – in the depth of the ocean – it ‘boils’ at higher than 100 degrees celsius. At very high atmospheric pressure it is unable to effect the physical change of state at all.

    b) go to the website thesearethevoyages.net and check out an instrument called the CTD which measures temperature at that depth. It has measured the water at that temperature at that depth. Are you saying the machine can be tricked?

    And before you call people who have spent a large proportion of their adult lives researching these things ‘know nothings’ consider, in your ignorant arrogance, that a little research into elementary physics and chemistry on your part would have made YOU appear less of a ‘know-nothing’.

  • Richard

    Actually Georg is mostly right.

    The term ‘superheated’ in physics means hotter than the boiling point, and yet not boiling ( because of lack of nucleation sites.) It is metastable. See wikipedia.org/wiki/Superheating The vent is most certainly not superheated in this sense.

    The term ‘superheated’ in other contexts tends to mean above 100 C but not boiling because of the high pressure. See wikipedia.org/wiki/Superheated_water. That is the sense that the article was using the term.

    But in fact it is more complicated than that: This vent’s temperature is probably above the critical point for water. See wikipedia.org/wiki/Superheated_water. In that case the water from this vent isn’t superheated even in the latter sense of the word.

    I wish people would be more polite here; there is no need for insults.

  • Jo

    This is a direct quote from the scientist who is actually doing the research:

    “Marine biologist Dr Jon Copley said: “Seeing the world’s deepest black-smoker vents looming out of the darkness was awe-inspiring.”

    He added: “Super-heated water was gushing out of their two-storey-high mineral spires, more than three miles beneath the waves.” ”

    He’s there, actually on the ship, doing the research. I guess he knows what he is a) seeing and b) talking about. ‘Superheated’ is the term all the scientists doing the research have used to describe water coming from hydrothermal vents. It is the term the scientists used to describe that water to non-scientists: presumably they have a reason for doing so – so we can access the concept without having the detailed scientific knowledge. It’s called ‘communication’.

    Georg displayed a complete lack of manners by describing the scientists as ‘know-nothings’ when they are professionals who are working on the site and have been doing this work for many years. He came across as an arrogant ‘know-nothing’ himself.

    Do you have a qualification in vent geology/chemistry/physics/biology, Georg? Do you Richard? Do you, Richard, know what actually happens in a hydrothermal vent other than the information you find available on Wikipedia, which is not recognised as an acceptably verified information source by anyone engaged in scientific research.

    No, I think not. And you know, I don’t, either. But if the scientists working on the ground want to describe that water as ‘superheated’ as an easily comprehensible terminology for us ignorant lay people. then I guess they can do so. They’re the ones risking their lives doing the science: they don’t just work in the sunny Caribbean you know, but all over the world including in Antarctica. Look at the weblog for the RRS James Cook, for Cruise 42, which was working on vents near South Georgia. This is serious, cutting edge science: a little respect for the people working at it would be good here.

    I’m perfectly happy to be polite, but why should I let someone get away with that level of ignorant discourtesy?

  • Georg

    “Do you have a qualification in vent geology/chemistry/physics/biology, Georg? ”

    Hello Jo,
    I hold a PhD Degree in Chemistry.
    And I stick to my lack of manners, because the main reason for
    such nonsense is the misuse of anything “super” when writing
    to the lay public. This is disgusting.

  • Fay Lovecraft

    i don’t think anyone is sure what happens in hydrothermal vents. not me, not you, not georg, not even the scientists. we’ve never been in one, have we? it’s like a black hole in that respect.

  • Adam

    I have to agree with Fay. I also find it sad that only Fay had a reasonable and respectful response in this thread, besides the first responder. If I get the name correctly she is the only woman responding to this thread. What does this say about us men, myself included with this response? Think about it!

  • Georg

    <>

    This is total nonsense, one hast to stick some thermometer in the vent
    and read the pressure at the depth, that is all.
    If You happen to know the phase diagram of water, You know everything.
    Of course this was done often or always when visiting such vents.
    The hardcore problem remains : “biologists”, science writers and so on
    without knowledge of water phase diagram or the real meaning of
    the term “superheated”, irrespective that is undergraduate stuff
    for all scientists!
    Superman, Superhero, Superheated, Superfluous
    Georg

  • Jordan

    This conversation is hotter than a ‘Super-Heated Vent!’

  • Jo

    @Georg

    Sounds to me like the grapes are sour . . . :)

    There are people with PhDs in Chemistry, Physics, Geology as well as Biology on that ship. There are also people who do ‘science communication’ to lay people as a profession – internationally. So sorry that none of them seem to know as much as you . . .

    Why don’t you go have a look at their website? just Google ‘thesearethevoyages.net’ or ‘RRS james Cook Voyage 44′. There’s an open comment section where you can email them and get a reply: I am sure they would be happy to talk to you and receive any correction you choose to offer them.

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