Deep sea hydrothermal vents discovered in Gulf of California

From the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute something not unexpected, given the San Andreas Fault goes through the Gulf of California, but interesting nonetheless. Images follow.

MBARI discovers new deep-sea hydrothermal vents using sonar-mapping robot

map of Alarcon Rise

These maps show the location of the Alarcón Rise, a 50-kilometer-long (31-mile-long) spreading center at the mouth of the Gulf of California. Along ocean spreading ridges like the Alarcón Rise, the seafloor is splitting apart as lava wells up from underneath. Image: © MBARI 2012

“As the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) descended into the blue depths above the Alarcón Rise, the control room was abuzz with anticipation,” wrote MBARI geologist Julie Martin in her April 22nd cruise log. “Today we [are] planning to dive on one of the strangest environments in the deep sea: a hydrothermal vent field.” Adding to the team’s excitement was the fact that this hydrothermal vent field had never been explored before. In fact, it had only just been discovered… by a robot.

In February 2012, MBARI researchers embarked on a three-month-long expedition to the Gulf of California, the long, narrow body of water between Baja California and mainland Mexico. During the final leg of this expedition, marine geologists studied the Alarcón Rise, an active volcanic region near the mouth of the gulf. Volcanic “spreading centers” such as the Alarcón Rise are hotbeds of volcanic activity, where underwater volcanoes spread lava across the seafloor and hydrothermal vents spout water heated by magma beneath the seafloor to over 550 degrees Fahrenheit.

Given the geological characteristics of Alarcón Rise, chief scientist David Clague and his submarine volcanism research group had a pretty strong suspicion that they might find hydrothermal vents in the area. However, after narrowing the search area to 200 square miles of seafloor, searching for vents would be like looking for a proverbial needle in a haystack. Using an ROV to search vast swaths of the seafloor and entire seamount ridges for vents would be “virtually impossible and incredibly time consuming,” according to Martin.

In 2003, Clague and his colleague Robert Vrijenhoek spent two dives unsuccessfully searching for vents within just a few kilometers of the newly discovered site. At that time, Clague and Vrijenhoek chose their dive sites based on only low-resolution maps of the seafloor and the presence of abnormally warm water in the area.

This time, however, Clague’s team knew exactly where to look. Two weeks earlier, MBARI’s autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), the D. Allan B. had completed a survey of Alarcón Rise using sound (sonar) to create detailed maps of the seafloor. Shortly into the first ROV dive on this unexplored area, researchers were awed by tall chimney structures nearly identical to those revealed on the AUV’s high resolution seafloor maps.

As expedition leader, David Clague named the first of the newly discovered vent fields the “Meyibó” vent field. In the language of the Kiliwa, the indigenous people of northern Baja California, Meyibó means “time of favorable sun.” According to Miguel Tellez, a professor of geology in the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Baja California (UABC), Meyibó “implies happiness, the celebration of a good harvest, and a time for new learning.”

The second vent field and the individual active chimneys in both fields have yet to be named. The chimneys will be named for groups indigenous to Baja California and Sonora, Mexico. The suggestion to use indigenous languages and names of native peoples came from Rigoberto Guardado, a marine science professor at University of Baja California who was one of three Mexican collaborators on this leg of MBARI’s Gulf of California expedition.

auv map

The high-resolution seafloor map above was compiled using data from MBARI’s mapping AUV. The black lines running diagonally across the image illustrate the AUV’s navigation tracks. The yellow square frames a chimney in the Meyibó hydrothermal vent site. The image below shows this feature from a different angle.

Images: © MBARI 2012

MBARI’s mapping AUV is a specialized robotic submersible that flies over the seafloor using three different types of sonar to map features as little as 15 centimeters (five inches) tall. The AUV’s proximity to the seafloor enables its onboard sonars to distinguish fine-scale details that would be invisible to traditional ship-based sonar systems.

Over the past couple of years, the mapping AUV has generated several new discoveries, including documenting a recent underwater lava flow and assessing the risk of oil leaking from a sunken ship off California’s coast. Since 2006, the mapping AUV has discoverd unknown chimneys at three locations along the Juan de Fuca Ridge system off the Washington-Oregon coast.

The successful identification of hydrothermal chimneys using sonar has exciting implications. These spectacular features are of interest to geologists, chemists, and biologists alike. Hydrothermal vents are regions where cool seawater seeps down through cracks in the seafloor where it is heated by the hot magma below the earth’s crust. As the water is heated, it becomes buoyant, rising back towards the surface and spewing out of the seafloor like a geyser.

When hot vent water meets the near-freezing water on the deep seafloor, the dissolved chemicals in the hot water form into mineral particles and precipitate around the vent to form a chimney. These chimneys can grow more than a meter over a period of just a few days. However, they can also become clogged with mineral precipitates, causing the vent to become inactive. Thus, vent fields like those discovered at Alarcón Rise often have numerous “dead” chimneys scattered about.

Hydrothermal vents transport heat and chemicals into the ocean, providing an energy source that supports a robust community of deep-sea organisms, many of which are not found in any other ocean ecosystem. Knowing where and with what frequency hydrothermal vents occur is valuable information for scientists seeking to deepen our understanding of the biology, chemistry, and geology of the seafloor. MBARI’s seafloor-mapping AUV is helping oceanographers spend less time looking for, and more time looking at, these fascinating deep-sea phenomena.

Left: 3-D visualization of the AUV’s individual sonar soundings of Alarcón Rise. Each dot indicates a single pulse of sound reflected from the seafloor. Right: The top of a large, inactive chimney in the newly discovered vent field which rises more than 20 meters (65 feet) from the seafloor. The shape of the chimney in the photo is very similar to the image of the chimney in the 3D visualization. This demonstrates the effectiveness of AUV mapping for discovering and imaging hydrothermal chimneys. Images: © MBARI 2012

Hot (550°F), mineral-rich water spews from the seafloor in the hydrothermal vent field discovered on April 28, 2012. The mineral-rich water from this “black smoker” looks like smoke because of the mineral particles that form the hot vent fluid contacts cold seawater. A white bacterial mat is seen on the surface of the chimney below the black smoker. Bacteria use the chemicals in the water as a source of energy. Image: © MBARI 2012

These photos show a diverse community of organisms that inhabit the newly discovered hydrothermal vent fields. These communities do not depend upon sunlight, or photosynthesis. Instead, bacteria use the chemical-rich vent water as a source of energy, a process known as chemosynthesis. These chemosynthetic bacteria then support dense populations of worms, snails, crabs, clams, and fish. Images: © MBARI 2012

Article by Dana Lacono

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40 thoughts on “Deep sea hydrothermal vents discovered in Gulf of California

  1. Thanks for posting this. These “black smokers” and the associated marine life and mineral deposits are absolutely fascinating to geologists like me. Even my so as in my professional youth I spent a huge amount of time and energy exploring for strata bound sulfide deposits Cu, Pb, Zn, Au, in the Archean of Northern Quebec and Ontario. The discovery of these hydrothermal vents not only confirmed what many of us interpreted from the ancient rocks but shed a lot of light on how they probably worked.

  2. Just shows how little we know about the earth.When the “EXPERTS”think they have it sussed,there is always something to bite them on the arse.Where have I seen that before?

  3. So these are “new” vents or as I understand from the article they are newly discovered, not newly formed?

  4. I worked on the production of the first generation MBARI ROV in the 1980s, while working at International Submarine Engineering. http://www.ise.bc.ca/
    I mostly drew the electrical schematics. David Packard visited our facilities in Port Moody B.C. but I didn’t get the chance to meet him.
    http://www.mbari.org/about/packard.html
    The specific ROV that I worked on was this one (I think. Its been a while):
    http://www.mbari.org/dmo/vessels_vehicles/ventana/ventana.html
    I seem to recall Sony donating a million dollars worth of video equipment. Electronics and computers where still very expensive back then.
    Prior to working for ISE, I worked for RMS Industrial Controls (later bought by Glenayre) which designed and built circuit boards for industrial applications. For 4 years I drew mostly circuit board schematics and board layout diagrams. A CAD system at that time would have cost $100,000 (about $200,000 in todays dollars), so it was paper and pencil on a drafting table.
    Creating circuit boards involved laying down tape on clear plastic sheets, usually 2 sheets per circuit board, top and bottom sides, at twice actual size, then using photographic techniques to create a actual size image used for the final etching of the circuit board (this also reduced errors in half 🙂 ). An engineer would spend a week or so taping out a circuit board, and several hours with a helper checking out the final design against the schematic. Today, computers do all that work in a matter of seconds, I imagine.
    Forgive me for my slight diversion here. I didn’t get a chance to comment when Anthony posted about his electronics past, and I take my opportunity now on a post related to something I was actually involved with.

  5. Oh, Robbie —
    “How many species of humans are there? Is it natural that one species lives all over the globe?”
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/06/04/species-extinction-is-nothing-new/#comment-1002782
    “Please name another [in addition to H. sapiens] species which has done the same naturally without the help of humans. Just name one?”
    See the pics above? Tube worms and limpets — worldwide distribution. That’s *two*, and you only asked for one.
    You’re welcome.

  6. Wow, life at unimaginable temperatures & pressures… underwater no less! Too bad these worms & chemosynthetic creatures couldn’t explain to us how we could survive 500 ppm of CO2 & an increase of 0.5C increase… 88 years from now! We’re so often lead to believe that adaptation is impossible, that our only recourse is elimination of all fossil fuel energy sources.
    Amazing what you find when you actually look! Did I miss a thermal contribution to Anthroprogenic Global Warming, or did the worms do it?

  7. garymount says:
    June 9, 2012 at 11:21 pm
    Forgive me for my slight diversion here. I didn’t get a chance to comment when Anthony posted about his electronics past, and I take my opportunity now on a post related to something I was actually involved with.

    No forgiveness necessary — on the contrary, we’re all indebted to you and the pioneering work you did that made discoveries like this possible. Thank you, Gary.

  8. GogogoStopSTOP says:
    June 9, 2012 at 11:58 pm
    Wow, life at unimaginable temperatures & pressures… underwater no less! Too bad these worms & chemosynthetic creatures couldn’t explain to us how we could survive 500 ppm of CO2 & an increase of 0.5C increase… 88 years from now! We’re so often lead to believe that adaptation is impossible
    An example of adaption!
    I was on a train travelling to Scotland enjoying the hot British summer. There were a couple opposite me from Florida saying how cold it was. They were shivering and I was comfortably warm..
    When I got to the Shetland Isles the locals were flaked out and couldn’t stand the 71°F. It was a record temperature there.

  9. GogogoStopSTOP says:
    June 9, 2012 at 11:58 pm
    Amazing what you find when you actually look! Did I miss a thermal contribution to Anthroprogenic Global Warming, or did the worms do it?

    Rimicaris exoculata (vent shrimp) did it — it’s Arthropogenic Global Warming!

  10. Interesting. I think you will find that 15cm is nearer 6 inches than 5.
    The waters round hot smokers has a pH of around 4-4.5 which is very acidic and those animals, some of which are molluscs, live there in comfort. So ocean acidification due to atmospheric CO2 seems to be a small to nonexistant problem.

  11. Those poor tube worms, no doubt threatened by the global warming and ocean acidification… Our children may never see a tube worm… /sarc

  12. John Marshall says:
    June 10, 2012 at 2:37 am
    > I think you will find that 15cm is nearer 6 inches than 5.
    There’s no need to be pedantic about that. The context was “MBARI’s mapping AUV is a specialized robotic submersible that flies over the seafloor using three different types of sonar to map features as little as 15 centimeters (five inches) tall.” I’m confident that the sonar could see some items 14.9 cm tall and miss some that are 15.1 cm tall. I wouldn’t be surprised if it could find some items that are 12.7 cm tall. Given a number like 15 and given the context, it suggests to me they merely rounded to the nearest 5, and 5 inches is close enough to put in the article.
    I’ll grant you that better description would have been to say “15 centimeters (half a foot) tall,” feel free to suggest that to MBARI.

  13. I am curious about the temps in the immediate vicinity of the vents, making robots capable of withstanding 550 F for an extended period of time would require some fancy footwork design wise,
    If the temps are not that high, then one might conclude that overall effects of vents on ocean temps are minimal

  14. Will this discovery lead to a California gold rush? It seems those tube worms might be golden.
    goldfever.com/gold_sea.htm

  15. tedsunday says: June 10, 2012 at 6:04 am
    That article was written by a PHD chemist, who should know better –
    The scientific career of Raymond N. Johnson, Ph.D., spanned 30 years in research and development as an organic/analytical chemist;
    The part that alarmists always leave out is …. the buffer reactions with ocean minerals, such as Calcium and Magnesium have a nearly unlimited ability to maintain the current ocean pH. If you think about that article, where did the Calcium go in the ‘mouse’ story? I am betting it formed Calcium Carbonates (CaCO3) or bicarbonates, similar to what happens in the ocean.
    Apparently his PH D no longer includes pH.

  16. garymount says:
    June 9, 2012 at 11:21 pm “I worked on . . . ”
    I copy Bill Tuttle @ 12:37: Thank you, Gary.
    I always find the background stories interesting. Here is a link to even earlier under-sea explorations (1964) that also investigated smokers:
    http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/technology/subs/alvin/alvin.html
    In 1977, researchers using Alvin discovered the first hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of the Galapagos Islands.

  17. @ Mike Wryley
    The reason that the 550F is not effecting the ROV is because of something that is happening, unseen right before our eyes. The near constant stream of high-pressure, high-temperature vent gases ‘disappear’ just feet from the vent. This is because the multiple, individual gases are converted to liquid at the pressure/temperature depth of the vent. This phase change ‘absorbes’ some of the vent heat and the now entrained gases release that heat at higher depths. Converting back to gases occurs at all ocean depths. For more on this read “Earth’s Missing Goethermal Flux”.
    And yes, these are many new and yet to be discovered thermal vents as less than 3% of the deep ocean has been explored. For more on this read “Volcanic CO2” by Timothy Casey at http://geologist-1011.net The “vast pools of liquid CO2 on the ocean floor”, along with all of the other vent gases are ‘elemental’ Earth fission by-products.
    Find and share Truth.

  18. Kelvin Vaughan says:
    June 10, 2012 at 1:30 am
    When I got to the Shtland Isles the locals were flaked out and couldn’t stand the 71°F. It was a record temperature there.
    ==============================================================
    (Apologies in advance, but it was there and I couldn’t pass it up.)
    What isles were they?
    (Feel free to make fun of my typos. I make plenty.8-)
    [Fixed. I resisted temptation, and inserted an e. ~dbs, mod.]

  19. I wonder how Hansen incorperated these newly discovered vents and their potential effects on climate into his 100 year projection?

  20. They “chose their dive sites based on only low-resolution maps of the seafloor and the presence of abnormally warm water in the area” and they thought that could indicate the presence of thermal vents? Is that even possible? Isn’t this scientific heresy? Does any of that heat warm any air or land? Does Hansen know? /sarc off

  21. Dennis Nikols, P. Geo. says:
    June 9, 2012 at 10:21 pm
    “Thanks for posting this. These “black smokers” and the associated marine life and mineral deposits are absolutely fascinating to geologists like me. Even my so as in my professional youth I spent a huge amount of time and energy exploring for strata bound sulfide deposits Cu, Pb, Zn, Au, in the Archean of Northern Quebec and Ontario. The discovery of these hydrothermal vents not only confirmed what many of us interpreted from the ancient rocks but shed a lot of light on how they probably worked.”
    Dennis,
    Could we encourage you to provide a bit more detail on your professional interpretations of “strata bound sulfide deposits Cu, Pb, Zn, Au,…”? I’m a metallurgical engineer and very interested in learning how these ‘black smokers’ may relate to geologic metal-sulfide deposits that are the primary ore source for many metals.
    I’m reading a 1973 copy of “Copper – The Encompassing Story of Mankind’s First Metal” by Ira Joralemon. It provides the historical perspectives of copper ore source discoveries and refining techniques, from the earliest mining on Cyprus and use of seam copper in the Americas, to the large metal sulfide ‘lense’ deposits of Canada and elsewhere. Your professional perspectives would be greatly appreciated, I suspect, by many folks here at WUWT.
    MtK

  22. C.M. Carmichael says:
    June 10, 2012 at 5:56 am
    “Carbon based lifeforms! Is there anything they can’t adapt to?”
    It would not surprise me in the least if places like Jupiter were found to have living organisms. It has all the necessary ingredients: heat, lightning and chemicals, including amino acids. And it’s been cooking there a long time.

  23. The half-life of Uranium is 4 billion years. The Earth is ~4 billion years old leaving the reasonable assumption that we now have half the Uranium of origin [BTW the HL of Thorium is 14 billion years]. Earth’s variable fission decay of these higher order elements produces a range of lower order elements. At surface conditions, Uranium has a preference for Pb production [along with spare gases], but under extreme heat and pressure, output ratios could be different. The linear increase in temperature and pressure from surface to core allows precipitation of the fission by-product elements by their various melting points. Working like a ‘fractional distillation’ process, the Earth then isolates like atoms into pools and forces these up thru fault lines. That is why near pure nuggets of Cu, Ag and Au are found extruded into ‘veins’ in many mining operations. The lowest order fission by-product ‘elemental’ atoms are also forced into elemental molecules [H2, He2] or into elemental compounds [CO2, H20, CH4, SOx, et al]. The former “Inert Gases” [now labeled ‘Nobel’ Gases] provide some edidence of this process as Radon has a HL of 3.8 days and it is safe to assume that atmospheric Argon, along the other Period VIII gases, are elemental by-products as well. Beneath the surface, our planet is vastly different than is is ‘supposed’ to be.

  24. [Fixed. I resisted temptation, and inserted an e. ~dbs, mod.]
    ==============================================================
    Isn’t fixing mistakes what science is supposed to be about?
    [Reply: I meant that I resisted putting in an i. ~dbs]

  25. Gunga Din says:
    June 10, 2012 at 11:37 am
    I wonder how Hansen incorperated these newly discovered vents and their potential effects on climate into his 100 year projection?

    Actually, they already have. What they have discovered is a leak in the Hadley Heat Hidey Hole where all the missing climate system heat has been going. This is nothing compared to the thermal venting that is going to be discovered in voting booths all across this land in November.

  26. Mack The Knife,
    Look up Ophiolites and Sulfide ores. In some mineral deposits the is a connection to black smokers.

  27. Faux Science Slayer,
    Could you please provide some references for your description of how the Cu, Ag and Au nuggets came to be in mineral veins.
    Thank You

  28. [Reply: I meant that I resisted putting in an i. ~dbs]
    =====================================================
    😎

  29. Mac the Knife says:
    June 10, 2012 at 12:12 pm
    Dennis Nikols, P. Geo. says:
    June 9, 2012 at 10:21 pm
    “Thanks for posting this. These “black smokers” and the associated marine life and mineral deposits are absolutely fascinating to geologists like me….
    Dennis,
    Could we encourage you to provide a bit more detail on your professional interpretations of “strata bound sulfide deposits Cu, Pb, Zn, Au,…”? …. Your professional perspectives would be greatly appreciated, I suspect, by many folks here at WUWT.
    MtK
    ________________________________
    I second that. Perhaps a separate post? I often regret not going for my PhD in Geochemistry when it was offered.

  30. “bacteria use the chemical-rich vent water as a source of energy, a process known as chemosynthesis.”
    Bacteria are very important in the process of mineral formation and are often overlooked in these volcanic exhalative vent studies because they do not have the same pictorial ‘in your face’ effect of the larger larger life forms.
    Some species reduce sulphate from the smokers to produce sulphide which settles and forms mineral deposits. Bacteria have been around for about 3.5 billion years, several billion years longer than algae and even longer than other life forms. Some species of bacteria and their cousins the Archea lived in more extreme conditions than these.
    The Cyprus copper deposits are located in ancient sea floor that has been Cu mineralised by similar processes and old mines like Mavravouni and Skouriotissa contained good examples of fossil smoker chimneys in a matrix of pillowed basalt flows.
    Dennis’s strata-bound sulphides will be much older than the Cyprus uplifted sea floor and I suspect relied on bacteria ‘fixing’ on their ancient environment.

  31. What I keep reading is how these sort of discoveries mean that climate change is going to be so much worse than previously thought. To any engineer this would mean that since these outputs were not in the equation the effect of man’s output was exaggerated by this missing amount. The discovery of these outputs also means it is almost certain that there are considerably more of these sources and far more effort should have gone into finding and quantifying them.
    As for funding I can assure all readers that this was suggested as a significant factor way back in 2002 and no funding was forthcoming as it was clear that it was not compatible with a man made climate change viewpoint and as a result even existing funding was removed from the researchers.

  32. The San Andreas Fault System actually ends in a triple junction on land, within the Salton Basin. The other two legs are the East Pacific Rise and the MesoAmerican Trench. The East Pacific Rise defines the operational center of the Gulf of California. The MesoAmerican Trench hugs the Mexican and MesoAmerican coastline.

  33. So interesting. Here we have a research site within a short distance of many oceanographic and other research institutions and they have only recently discovered these hydrothermal vents.
    New species have also been discovered in various areas around the globe and yet we hear the on-going (never-ending?) litany about the [purported] effects of CAGW. So much uncharted territory, so much left to discover. Consensus of scientists? Ha! Only till the next discovery calls the so-called consensus into question … again.

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