Unexplored Ocean Depths Bustling with Life, Despite Extreme Conditions

Schmidt Ocean Institute’s new underwater vehicle SuBastian completes its first expedition discovering new hydrothermal vent sites and possible new species in the Mariana Back-Arc, an extreme deep-ocean environment.


APRA HARBOR, GUAM – A team of leading geologists, chemists, and biologists aboard research vessel Falkor have just finished surveying the largely unexplored Mariana Back-Arc for life at depths greater than 13,000 feet. Dr. David Butterfield, JISAO, University of Washington, and Dr. William Chadwick, NOAA-PMEL and Oregon State University, led the group to the Back-Arc; returning for the second phase of a two-part exploration of the region. In 2015, the team of scientists located new hydrothermal vents in the Back-Arc region, including evidence of recent lava flows.

This year, the team returned to these vent systems with the new remotely operated vehicle (ROV), SuBastian, to characterize their water chemistry and biodiversity. The new results fill a gap in knowledge about the biogeography of these unique deep-sea ecosystems and has implications for how tectonic setting influences the composition of chemosynthetic animal communities worldwide. The new vent sites have spectacular chimneys made of sulfide minerals, some up to 30 meters (100 feet) tall. The chimneys were belching smoky vent fluid at temperatures up to 365°C (690°F) and were covered with vent animals including “hairy snails”, shrimp, crabs, mussels, limpets, squat lobsters, anemones, and polychaete worms.

Scientists on board Falkor suspect that some new species have been discovered at the new sites, but confirmation will have to await further study back on shore. The new observations show that the newly discovered vent sites have an ecosystem that is characteristic of the Mariana Back-Arc, with some animal species found nowhere else on Earth. This, despite the fact that each vent site is relatively small and isolated, being separated from the others by up to 100 miles.

The new observations suggest that the Back-Arc vent sites are relatively long-lived and that each site has biological “connectivity” with the others despite the long distances. The study also confirmed that the Back-Arc ecosystems are distinct and different from the nearby Volcanic Arc hydrothermal ecosystems, supporting the idea that geological and chemical environment play a key role in selecting animal community composition at hydrothermal vents. This is the first series of scientific dives for ROV SuBastian.

Equipped with numerous cameras, including a high-definition 4K video camera, the dives were live streamed onto YouTube and watched by millions. The multidisciplinary team will continue to analyze the data and samples collected during this expedition to advance research on how life thrives on these extreme deep-sea hydrothermal vents. This research was supported by the NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research Program, the NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Office, and the Schmidt Ocean Institute.


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December 21, 2016 12:14 am

This is science!

December 21, 2016 12:16 am

Any idea how much CO2 these vents are releasing each year?

Jimmy Haigh
Reply to  Richard111
December 21, 2016 12:53 am

Lots. And lots of superheated water.

Reply to  Jimmy Haigh
December 21, 2016 2:18 am

Not superheated water, supercritical fluid. Solubility of water and diffusion capability of a gas. No surface tension. Very different from water. Probably emitting much more SO2 than CO2.

Reply to  Jimmy Haigh
December 21, 2016 8:53 am

Not that it’s terribly important, but water at those temperatures and pressures is below the critical point.

Reply to  Richard111
December 21, 2016 9:56 am

Probably about the same amount that has been released for many thousands of years (plus / minus) as part of the natural CO2 cycle

December 21, 2016 12:19 am

With any luck none of that will taste like Alaskan King Crab and so will not become exotic Asian culinary delicacies.

Reply to  dp
December 21, 2016 2:19 am

I got hungry just looking at all those crabs and shrimp.

Alan Robertson
Reply to  Donald Kasper
December 21, 2016 8:38 am

What, the snails get a pass?

Reply to  dp
December 21, 2016 3:35 am

These critters live in a toxic environment. My WAG (wild ass guess) is that the critters are toxic to us. link

December 21, 2016 12:24 am

Given a choice of places to colonize, I think I’d pick the one pictured in this article over Mars.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Bartleby
December 21, 2016 1:13 am

Mars is for Liberals and Loons.
The oceans are for realists who understand the unique beauty of this blue ball.

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
December 21, 2016 1:48 am

I’m a little conflicted. I spent the first 5 years of my adulthood working in the stratosphere and I very much wanted to go into space. I actually made it onto the “long list” for the shuttle. I have one of those royal blue suits with all the patches on it.
But later (about ten years later) I discovered the ocean and fell in love. For twenty years I spent all the time I could underwater. From a PADI rec diver all the way through technical closed circuit mixed gas (I’m trained on a BioMarine MK-16).
But if I had to make a choice, I think I’d pick the ocean. It makes a lot more sense than Mars. It took me almost a lifetime to figure that out.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
December 21, 2016 1:54 am

In our oceans you will find the clues and secrets to all original life on this blue ball.
On Mars all you would discover is death by radiation while suffocating from arid sand, and more fine sand, and then finer red sand, until your lungs seized up vomiting blood in your space suit helmet.

Leo Smith
Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
December 21, 2016 5:59 am

Dint hold back, tell it like it is..

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
December 21, 2016 9:58 am

Astronauts that spend extended time in space come back to earth with weakened bones, spinal fluid problems, eye problems and muscle weakness. We would have to learn how to produce artificial gravity and shielding to protect them from free radicals. Even if we could get someone to Mars, chances are they would be too weakened to do anything but die pitifully. I too would pick the Oceans for exploration and colonization first. As for space, lets start out with figuring out how to live in space close to Earth until we can work out the basics.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
December 21, 2016 11:45 am

And those are the effects of zero g in low Earth orbit where they still receive substantial geomagnetic shielding from solar and galactic-origin high energy protons.
Extended GCR exposure on any manned inter-planetary voyage makes it a death sentence by ionizing radiation. Weak bones would be your least of worries.

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
December 28, 2016 1:17 pm

IMO, colonizing oceanic depths won’t be necessary. Billions of people could live on the surface of oceans and seas.

Don K
Reply to  Bartleby
December 21, 2016 5:54 am

Colonizing the sea floor is probably much cheaper than Mars. I can’t see that anyone has offered up remotely credible cost estimates for a Mars colony. Given that the more or less pointless ISS has sponged up 150B so far, I’m thinking trillions of USD for a small Mars colony. There’s no breathable air either place and the sea floor is warmer than Mars and a much shorter journey. I’m thinking that a few small research stations on Mars might be feasible in 50-200 years, but for now robots, look a lot more practical. Lots to be learned from well planned rovers costing a couple of Billion USD each.

Reply to  Don K
December 21, 2016 7:09 am

I’ve never understood the idea of colonizing the sea floor, except to do scientific research, or to show it could be done. Who would want to live surrounded by a dark cold environment, under terrific pressure?

Janice the American Elder
Reply to  Don K
December 21, 2016 9:54 am

Ronald: “to live surrounded by a dark cold environment, under terrific pressure . . .”
That is precisely the reason that I divorced my first husband . . .

Reply to  Don K
December 21, 2016 9:59 am

Well, in this area I have some expertise in that I have designed and built both spacecraft and submarines.
I can tell you without a blink that a submarine is far more difficult to design, build and maintain than any spacecraft. Spacecraft can be costly to initially build for because weight is king and much effort is made to extract the maximum effort out of flimsy structures that cannot even support their own weight on earth. Weight is less an issue for watercraft and so not much cost is associated with maximizing weight performance. The biggest differences stem from the fact that the ocean is a highly corrosive environment, and water is pretty massive so it can create huge hydrostatic pressures. Space is pretty benign with corrosion, radiation ablation is about all it can muster as it fades the paint, and the largest pressure differential (other than tanks or thrusters) is 14.7 psi, 1 measly atmosphere. Add on top of these the huge forces and stresses required to maneuver through viscous fluid versus…vacuum. Thermal stresses can be a huge factor on spacecraft as the temperature extremes are about as extreme as possible (can’t get much colder than absolute zero) but they can be readily managed.
What makes spacecraft so very expensive is the initial cost that must have its entire lifecycle of maintenance factored in up front with reliability testing and material certifications that MUST be designed in as nobody is going out to fix these things once they get launched. There is no shake-down cruise for spacecraft..

Reply to  Don K
December 21, 2016 3:15 pm

Don K
Much of what you say is technically correct but misleading. Yes, Mars is colder but the heat transfer rate of Martian atmosphere is far less than icy seawater so therefore less heat is lost in the same amount of time. You’ll need a good heat generator.
True, the bottom of the sea is a shorter journey and far easier to reach. We have been sending ships there since…. we’ve had ships.
One major difference you seem to have overlooked are the extreme pressures involved and their effects on human physiology. In space we can reduce the atmospheric pressure in the spacecraft and still maintain comfort without needing to alter the gas mixtures all that much. If you plan on staying a mere 100 ft below the sea surface for more than 2 hours you had better have specialized gas mixtures or you will suffer extreme issues including death. And, that short distance back to the surface, while enticingly close, will kill you just a sure as if it were across the cosmos. Without significant lengthy (days long) procedures for decompression at specific rates you might as well be on Mars.
Humans have evolved to fit a particular niche and environmental conditions. It is only through our ability to alter our immediate surroundings with technology that we have expanded our limited capabilities. Absent even good clothes many humans would surely perish.

Reply to  Don K
December 22, 2016 9:52 am

Whaaaa…? Just why must you equalize pressure in a submerged habitat? I’m pretty sure submarine sailors routinely undergo excursions of several hundred meters with no ill effects.

Jimmy Haigh
December 21, 2016 12:55 am

And no doubt it’s all at risk from “climate change”.

Reply to  Jimmy Haigh
December 21, 2016 2:21 am

When the vents blow at high velocity, the ocean warms locally, and amazing blobs of warm water appear. it is all a big mystery how supercritical fluid can warm the ocean at 4 C. Supercritical at 374 C. Erupting basalt at 1250 C.

Reply to  Donald Kasper
December 21, 2016 6:30 am

Which T would not be a mystery?

Get Real
Reply to  Jimmy Haigh
December 21, 2016 3:47 am

Or it could be the cause of climate changes.

Mickey Reno
Reply to  Get Real
December 21, 2016 10:50 am

I believe most if not all CMIP General Circulation Models (GCM) with combined ocean, land and atmospheric linkages, ignore geothermal energy completely, treating it as zero. Am I correct in that assumption?

Jimmy Haigh
December 21, 2016 12:57 am

My old Geology Professor at Strathclyde, a brilliant bloke called Mike Russell, with a coworker, discovered a fossilised black smoker system in in Ireland in the Navan lead/zinc deposit there. There were even fossilised worms. He postulates that life actually evolved in these systems.

Joel O’Bryan
December 21, 2016 12:58 am

The NASA alarmists at GISS need to be defunded and their money given to real science research like these studying deep oceans biology to understand possible exobiology extremes.
Gavin Schmidt and his co-conspirators in the bread line would be a step toward science truth.

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
December 21, 2016 2:48 am

“Gavin Schmidt and his co-conspirators in the bread line ”
Do you really think they are in-bred ?

Get Real
Reply to  AndyG55
December 21, 2016 3:46 am

No, but they would say anything for a crust.

Patrick MJD
Reply to  AndyG55
December 21, 2016 4:23 am

An ocean crust?

Reply to  AndyG55
December 21, 2016 11:00 am

As long as it contains dough….

December 21, 2016 1:05 am

Interesting that climate sites like skepticalscience.com never report events like this.

Leo Smith
Reply to  MRW
December 21, 2016 6:00 am

What on earth gave you the impression that skepticalscience.com was a climate site?

Reply to  Leo Smith
December 21, 2016 6:40 am

indeed, the name says it all. they are skeptical of science. they are interested in belief and denial, which are matters of faith.
i’m always amazed with the TV Press these days. The news stories are endlessly concerned with what people believe, rather than what people know. Every day we hear about “unnamed sources”, and then the story goes on to applaud or criticize, based on whether of not you believe the “unnamed sources”.
And yet, nowhere in the story is presented any concrete evidence, and heaven forbid is there any discussion of how “unnamed sources” might actually be “unreliable sources”.

Reply to  MRW
December 21, 2016 11:45 am

why? The report has nothing to do with climate? It is extremely interesting science but it has nothing
to do with weather or climate.

Reply to  Geronimo
December 21, 2016 8:35 pm

As you explain so well Geronimo, skeptical science has noting to do with science.
It is all about climate, pseudo science and politics

December 21, 2016 1:34 am

Over fishing is the greatest threat to our oceans not climate change, the EU is much more worried about the latter

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Owen Martin
December 21, 2016 1:48 am

Over fishing doesn’t allow the Socialists the path to wrapping their fingers around the neck of capitalism.
But the Climate hustle does.

Reply to  Owen Martin
December 21, 2016 12:42 pm

Owen, no. It’s one of the key reasons why Iceland has stayed away from the EU.

Tom Halla
December 21, 2016 4:04 am

Deep enough to be running off sulfur metabolism rather than photosynthesis. i do wonder what those crabs taste like, though.

Reply to  Tom Halla
December 21, 2016 4:56 am

I’d guess poisonous – full of sulphur and heavy metals.

Reply to  JP
December 21, 2016 8:38 pm

Crab blood systems are based on copper.
Heavy metals is a possibility, any sulphur would have to be benign as other critters of the deep sea happily ingest them.
But, you first.

Non Nomen
December 21, 2016 4:22 am

Adaptation works everywhere. Jolly good!

December 21, 2016 6:38 am

‘Unexplored Ocean Depths Bustling with Life, Despite Extreme Conditions’
Nicheism. Just coined the word. The environment is not extreme to the creatures who live there, only to us. Each of our environments would surely be fatal to the creatures of the other. I.e., our environment is just as extreme.

Reply to  Gamecock
December 21, 2016 1:29 pm

Indeed, if they were capable, they would probably look at the extreme conditions at which humans exist and marvel at how such creatures can exist and thrive in such a hostile environment. The high altitude existence above the ocean’s surface is far too cold and prone to environmental variability, low humidity, low pressures radiation, scarcity of food supply……..

Smart Rock
December 21, 2016 7:40 am

Fascinating stuff. Those crabs and shrimps live in an environment that would be instantly fatal to the crabs and shrimps that we see in the littoral zone, but they look as if they are fairly close relatives. Natural selection never ceases to amaze us with the diversity it leads to, and with the short times it takes to evolve radically new variants.

December 21, 2016 7:58 am

The fact is that all life evolves in crap. Think about it, the vegetation that we eat gains nutrients from crap.
Ever stick your hand into an uncured compost heap? Wait a few months, stick your hand into that same slimy heap, and the stuff is now brittle, sweet-smelling, and perfect for fertilizing your veggies. Oh, and don’t forget that crappy CO2 went into your veggies too. We humans are carbon-pollution-based life forms.

Reply to  Robert Kernodle
December 21, 2016 8:42 am

Man’s continuous struggle to keep nature away.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Robert Kernodle
December 21, 2016 9:05 am

From dust we came. To dust we shall return.

Rhoda R
December 21, 2016 8:12 am

I’ve read theories (sorry, long ago and no links) that life started out in a CO2 type environment and that O2 was the toxic by product and that development of cell walls, etc., was an adaptation to protect the organism from O2.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Rhoda R
December 21, 2016 8:35 am

Lipid bilayers naturally form micelles.
Closed compartments are necessarry to concentrate reactants and catalysts to produce biochemical products, i.e. Life.
Physical Cell size must remain microscopic in order for diffussion processes to work while allowing for rapid molecular kinetics of substrate to product turn-over.

Don K
Reply to  Rhoda R
December 21, 2016 10:17 am

“I’ve read theories (sorry, long ago and no links) that life started out in a CO2 type environment and that O2 was the toxic by product and that development of cell walls, etc., was an adaptation to protect the organism from O2.”
When last I looked, it was quite unclear when life evolved and how. But the O2 part is probably correct. Oxygen is the byproduct of photosynthesis. It appears that for many hundreds of millions of years, marine plants produced Oxygen and it reacted more or less immediately with iron in the oceans to form insoluble iron oxides. Finally, the oceans ran out of dissolved iron and the oceans and atmosphere became oxygenated whereupon modern lifeforms started to evolve. (And yes, it’s really more complicated than that if you want to get into details).

Reply to  Rhoda R
December 21, 2016 1:08 pm

it’s called “The Great Oxygenation Event (GOE, also called the Oxygen Catastrophe, Oxygen Crisis, Oxygen Holocaust, Oxygen Revolution, or Great Oxidation” The Great Oxygenation Event happened about 2.3 Ga (2.3 billion years) ago and was the first and greatest extinction. Before that there was little or no free oxygen in the atmosphere which was dinitrogen, CO2 and methane. The loss of the greenhouse gas methane lead to the Huronian glaciation, the longest glaciation in the planets history.

Brett Keane
Reply to  Paul Jackson
December 22, 2016 4:13 pm

@ Paul Jackson
December 21, 2016 at 1:08 pm: Cannot see, in Physics, any reason for gas change eg CH4 loss/chemical alteration; to cause freezing. Except by massive reduction in air pressure….. ?

Reply to  Rhoda R
December 21, 2016 1:37 pm

The earth was initially pretty and free from O2. It wasn’t until evil cyanobacteria first began to synthesize O2 and pollute the pristine atmosphere. This enabled all sorts of critters to crawl out onto the land and begin further destroying the environment.

Reply to  rocketscientist
December 21, 2016 2:53 pm

You say sarc, but adding O2 to the anaerobic terrestrial world was catastophic.

December 21, 2016 8:59 am

Just did a little research. The key words in the report are chemosynthetic ecosystem. Deep sea ‘smoker’ vent systems are biologically fueled by hydrogen sulfide. The metals precipitate out to form the vent. Bacteria ‘eat’ the H2S and form the bottom of the vent food chain, which visibly rises through intermediates like polycheate worms to top predators like crabs. Many of these systems have completely different species despite a similar ecosystem. Lots of wonderful science to be done.

December 21, 2016 9:14 am

This proves that life can adapt to extremely harsh conditions. It does not prove life can begin in such conditions.

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  TA
December 21, 2016 9:56 am

“proof” is a pretty high standard for something that occurred ~4 gigayears ago.

Reply to  TA
December 28, 2016 1:15 pm

A similar environment is a leading candidate for the origin of life. Other possibilities exist.

Reply to  Chimp
December 28, 2016 1:23 pm

Testing one hypothesis for the origin of life at deep sea vents:
IMO, metabolism-first hypotheses are less convincing than replication-first scenarios for the origin of life.

December 21, 2016 9:32 am

No mention of the “plant” life which I would think must underlie that animal life . What is that like ?

Joel O’Bryan
Reply to  Bob Armstrong
December 21, 2016 9:58 am

plant photosynthesis not needed. What is a plant then? Definitions matter is that sense.

Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
December 22, 2016 5:59 am

To restate the question , what are the organisms at the bottom of the food chain ? Do the crabs eat the shrimp ? Is there some sort of algae for the shrimp to eat ?

Peter Morris
December 21, 2016 10:16 am

Fallon and SuBastion, huh?
Nice to see some love for The Neverending Story in the science world.

Peter Morris
Reply to  Peter Morris
December 21, 2016 10:16 am

DYAC! Falkor.

Caligula Jones
December 21, 2016 11:15 am

Ronald P Ginzler
December 21, 2016 at 7:09 am
“Who would want to live surrounded by a dark cold environment, under terrific pressure?”
Much like a conservative in a modern city?

Reply to  Caligula Jones
December 21, 2016 8:01 pm

Especially apt since this is the darkest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and it’s been really cold here in Michigan!

December 21, 2016 12:43 pm

Carbon pollution and ocean acidification in action./sarc

December 21, 2016 6:41 pm

It all looks disgusting. I’m glad it is hidden deep under the sea. The things we have on land are bad enough. The sooner we wipe them all out the better.

December 21, 2016 6:46 pm
Johann Wundersamer
December 22, 2016 5:26 am


January 2, 2017 6:28 pm


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