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Peter delves deeper to answer more questions
09/15/2010 | Peter Girguis, Harvard University (Ocean Systems)
Tags: ROLE Model webinar, hydrothermal vents, scientist post, 08.10.10 webinar

Thanks to all the educators who participated in the ROLE Model Webinar. I really enjoyed interacting in “virtual space” with all of you, and discussing my most recent research cruise during the month of July 2010 to the Juan de Fuca hydrothermal vent field off the coast of Oregon state. It is really refreshing for me as a scientist to talk to people who are so excited about deep sea topics – it truly helps reinvigorate my own passions and ideas for my work, as well as learn more about how you and your students could best utilize this information in educational settings. Thanks for sending in such though-provoking questions on the pre-webinar survey as well. I tried to answer some of them below, and have provided reference links at the end of this post to reputable scientist-vetted sites for others.

How close can remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) get to hydrothermal vents and how close can a human in a submersible get?
Deep Submergence Vehicle Alvin in its hangar on board the "mother-ship" Research Vessel Atlantis.

In general, scientists (and especially the pilots and crew!) are more conservative when we are diving in human-occupied submersibles like the Deep Submergence Vehicle Alvin. Basically, the water temperatures could melt the thick plastic windows if we came too close to an active hydrothermal vent. So, when we dive in submersibles, we tend to keep the Alvin pretty far from the vents. When we dive with robot submarines (called ROVs), we are quite careful since the hot vent fluid could easily melt a hydraulic hose or even the wire that connects the ROV to the ship. If that happened, there’s a good chance we would never see the ROV again. In either case, we do have to get close enough to collect our samples, so it’s always a tricky situation when we dive around vents!

What is it like on the ship?
Life on board an ocean-going research ship is very different from life on land. On the ship, you are generally confined to “living” in a very small area. Your cabins are often the size of your closets at home, and you usually share a cabin with another cruise member as well. On board ship, we do our own laundry, make our own beds, and clean our the head. One bonus is that the ships’ stewards prepare three main meals per day so you don’t have to cook. Meals are served at very regular intervals, so you better not miss them if you’re hungry! The biggest difference is the isolation one might experience on board ship. You don’t get “snail mail” at sea, nor do you typically get phone calls, but now we do have intermittent email service (1-2 connection periods per day at times). Ten years ago, you didn’t really have e-mail on board ship so you didn’t get to stay in touch with most of your family and friends. That’s challenging for some people. However, others really like it since you get to concentrate on your work without interruption. This year in particular I really struggled with the lack of communication with my family because I had an 11-month old son at home who just learned to say “Da-Da” before I left for sea! Someday we may have full video communications at sea, but for now, deep sea cruises and land-life are still somewhat separate.

How does one design a research project without knowing the field site well?
peter tinkers
Peter modifies a piece of equipment for studying hydrothermal vents while on board Atlantis.

That’s a great question. In general, we design our research projects based on our expectations. These expectations are usually based off studies at similar sites. However, these expectations are not always correct. Sometimes we design an experiment and it’s entirely inappropriate. For example, after discovering tubeworms at the hydrothermal vents in the Pacific, scientists expected to find tubeworms at the vents in the Atlantic. They built all sorts of sampling gear to collect them, but when they arrived, they did not find any tubeworms to speak of! So, we often develop more than one research plan to anticipate most surprises. For work in the deep sea, that’s they only way to really mitigate risk.

peter and colleague
Peter and a colleague investigate some of the unique animals collected from the hydrothermal vents. 
How common are vents in the ocean - are they rare or everywhere we just haven't discovered them yet? Vents are likely very common in the deep sea. We can say this because vents seem to occur along all the mid-ocean ridges. These mid-ocean ridges are the longest mountain chains on Earth, stretching 44,000 miles in length (much longer than the Andes, which are the longest mountain range on land). However, we have explored less than 1% of the seafloor, so we really have no idea how many vents there are. Is there anyone out there “with deep pockets” who would like to go exploring?

Are these vents being looked at as an economic source for a company or government?
As of late, due to the rising cost of rare earth metals, several companies have taken an interest in mining the metals out of hydrothermal vents. Since vents produce giant metal deposits containing gold, tungsten, molybdenum, and all sorts of exotic elements, companies want to grab these off the seafloor and smelt them on land to recover these metals. Many companies claim that, since vents are likely ubiquitous, the animal communities that depend on them for their existence are not in danger. Some scientists agree with this assessment, while others strongly dispute the claim. To date, however, no mining company had found a cost-effective way to explore, collect and transport these metal deposits from the seafloor. However, in anticipation of new technologies, many such companies are leasing blocks of the seafloor from sovereign nations so they can start mining as soon as it becomes cost-effective.

Additional resources recommended:

"Dive and Discover" website (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and NSF) Hydrothermal Vent page has lots of great information about hydrothermal vents, including answers to a few fun questions:

Encyclopedia of Life: Podcast on Hydrothermal Vent Tube Worms
Host Ari Daniel Shapiro dives deep to discover a white worm as tall as your refrigerator that breathes through bright red feathery “lips.” This isn’t a creature from outer space. Meet Riftia, a tube worm that lives in deep-sea vents, and learn the surprising lessons this denizen of the abyss is teaching scientists about life on Earth.

FLEXE: From Local to EXtreme Environments
From Local to EXtreme Environments (FLEXE) is an innovative R2K education outreach project that engages middle and high school students in analyses and comparisons of environmental data. Through FLEXE, students collect and analyze data from various sources, including the multi-year GLOBE database, deep-sea scientific research projects, and direct measurements of the local environment collected by students using GLOBE sampling protocols.

Visions 05: Expedition to the Underwater Volcanoes of the Northeast Pacific (Sept-Oct 2005)
Virtually join a team of scientists, educators and crew on an expedition aboard the Research Vessel Thomas G. Thompson to the underwater volcanoes of the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the northeast Pacific Ocean. Using the remotely operated vehicles ABE and Jason II and a high-definition underwater video camera, they explored, sampled, and mapped one of the most extreme environments on Earth. During this voyage, they documented and shared via online resources  deep-sea imagery, daily updates from the ship, new discoveries, and even poetry!

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