Sunday, July 17, 2011

North Atlantic's Hydrothermal Vents: Irish expedition sets out to study the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

Marine scientists have examined some of the world's deep ocean thermal vents that harbor remarkable sealife found no where else on the planet. Living without sunlight, sometimes in temperatures that could bake bread, bacteria, worms, and crabs flourish at the site of these vents which often spew what looks like smoke but is actually a rich cocktail of minerals. The vents typically exist along fault lines that run deep in the ocean.

Running basically down the center of the Atlantic ocean is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and scientists from Ireland are preparing to study the northern portion of the ridge, in search of deep water corals and thermal vents. Using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), researchers from the University College, Cork and UK's National Oceanography Centre set out this past week to examine in greater detail the "45 degree North MAR hydrothermal vent field" which was first discovered in 2008. The ROV will be working at a depth of over 9,800 feet.

As reported in the Irish Weather Online, "'This expedition offers us the first opportunity to investigate mineral deposits and vent animals in this unexplored and important part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge,' said Dr. Bramley Murton of the National Oceanography Centre, who is now leading the mineralisation study on the expedition. 'Nothing is known about the hydrothermal vents, their mineral deposits or the life they support on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between the islands of the Azores to the south and Iceland to the north. Because this part of the ridge is trapped between these islands, vent animals may have evolved in isolation and be quite unique from elsewhere.'"

The expedition is being documented by National Geographic for an upcoming series on the ocean. Many of the research institutions involved are hoping that this research effort will help establish Ireland as a recognized deep sea science center. However, while a little nation pride can be a good thing, the focus of attention will be on the possible discovery of heretofore unknown animals. In addition, the economic potential of the types and quantity of minerals given off by the vents will be investigated.

It was always assumed that virtually nothing could survive in the deepest reaches of the ocean. But with the discovery of hydrothermal vents and deep water corals, scientists are having to re-write some of the rules as they continue to discover ecosystems based on entirely new biological principles.

Read about the expedition in the Irish Weather Online.

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