Oceanographers drilling on the sea floor 240 kilometers off Vancouver Island have serendipitously set off a submarine hot spring. The unplanned eruption will give scientists their first chance to observe how bacteria--as well as some of the most exotic animals on the planet--colonize the hot, mineral-laden vents that lie along Earth's 60,000 kilometers of midocean ridges.
Scientists on board the international Ocean Drilling Program's ship JOIDES Resolution drilled holes on the Juan de Fuca ridge to retrieve sediments and crustal rock that waters of dormant vents had turned into minerals long ago. But they created a live one. "It was incredible," says co-chief scientist Yves Fouquet of IFREMER, an oceanographic institution in Brest, France. "We couldn't even see the seabed because hot water was rushing out of the hole so fast," creating a 30-meter plume of debris.
According to marine biologist Verena Tunnicliffe of the University of Victoria, British Columbia, the 350°C water was carrying so much "white junk"--probably the byproducts of microbial activity--that it appears abundant life exists beneath the vents. Scientists have suspected that midocean ridges harbor a wealth of microbes because whole mats of them have swiftly colonized the sea floor after volcanic ridge eruptions open up new vents. Now researchers should be able to catch subsurface bacteria in the act.
Biologists will also be looking for the first arrival of larger creatures, such as giant tube worms, from other vents. How animals that live off the dissolved minerals and bacteria surrounding vents manage to move from one short-lived vent to another is still a mystery. The Resolution's vents should help unravel their travel habits.