Feature Stories

October 2008

Time Critical Studies

What do scientists do when earthquakes start happening on the seafloor?

LEFT: Locations of the earthquakes as circles, and the black line shows the track that the ship traveled during the response cruise. Stars mark where the scientists took measurements of salinity, temperature and depth. Elevated temperatures, or a higher-than-normal amount of particles in the water could indicate that an eruption has taken place recently on the seafloor.
Image credit: NOAA Vents Program


January 2008

Toasty Tubeworms

Tubeworms living at deep-sea hydrothermal vents seek out scorching temperatures

Tubeworms living at deep-sea hydrothermal vents seek out scorching temperatures


October 2007

Rumbles From the Deep

The deep-sea digital acoustic recording device

If a hydrothermal vent in the deep ocean makes a sound, does anyone hear it?


Gala in the Galápagos

Photo courtesy of the ChEss program

Scientists recently met in the Galápagos Islands to celebrate the anniversary of the discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. How long ago did scientists first discover volcanic hot vents on the seafloor? Hint: It was eight years after the United States landed astronauts on the moon!

Read more about this event »


Deep-sea lava gives up its secrets

Jason recovers OBS

Photo courtesy of the National Deep Submergence Facility, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the National Science Foundation.

Scientists have won a tug-o-war for two instruments that had been trapped in lava on the seafloor 1.6 miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

Using the remotely operated vehicle Jason, the scientists managed to free the ocean bottom seismometers, which had been partially covered and stuck in hardened lava during a large volcanic eruption in late 2005/early 2006.

The hope is that data collected by the seismometers will help to pinpoint exactly when the large eruption occurred, and allow more accurate predictions of future undersea volcanic eruptions.

From space station to seafloor

Tim Shank holding two mussels.

January 26, 2007 saw the first ever conversation between an astronaut in space and and a scientist in a submersible deep in the ocean.

Biologist Tim Shank (pictured), diving in the Alvin submersible, talked with astronaut Suni Williams on the International Space Station. This was a world (and space) first.

You can listen in to a recording of the call. For more details, see the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution website.

You can also read updates from the deep-sea expedition on the SEAS website.

A sound idea for mapping plumes

Diagram showing a plume rising from a vent at a mid-ocean ridge.

Like smoke billowing out of a factory chimney, hot fluid gushing from a deep-sea hydrothermal vent forms a buoyant plume that rises upwards into the overlying ocean. This plume takes with it chemicals, minerals, even some forms of life.

So scientists want to map plumes and study how they move. Now a group of researchers have done just that — not by looking at a plume, but by bouncing sound waves off it. Intriguingly, they discovered that the plume's movement can be affected by tides, despite its great depth below the sea's surface. » More about this discovery

Listen out: eruption about

An ocean bottom seismometer partially covered in lava. Image courtesy of WHOI, NSF and Ridge 2000.

For most scientists, losing several key instruments would pose a big problem.

But when a group of deep-sea researchers recently learned that several ocean-bottom seismometers were trapped more than 8,000 feet (2500 meters) below the waves of the Pacific Ocean, it turned out to be a good thing.

Why? Because the scientists had been predicting that an a volcanic eruption would occur, based on data from the seismometers, which "listen" for seismic waves from earthquakes. And it turned out that the "lost" instruments had been buried by lava from a new eruption — as this photo dramatically shows (you can just see the yellow top of an instrument and the flag protruding from it; glossy black lava has flowed around much of the rest of it).

So the scientists' predictions turned out to be correct, and the method they used to generate the predictions can now be applied elsewhere.

» See maps and visualizations of the eruption site

» More about using seismometers to listen for earthquakes

» More: Press releases about the discovery of the eruption, from the National Science Foundation, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Detecting deep-sea eruptions

Dan Fornari and Ken Rubin discuss sampling strategies. Image courtesy of M.Perfit.

Where do most volcanic eruptions on Earth occur?

Not on land, but deep in the oceans, along mid-ocean ridges.

If a volcano erupts hundreds of miles from land and several miles below the sea's surface, will anyone ever know about it?

Actually, yes.

Just as detectives assemble evidence on a case, scientists collect a variety of information to pinpoint deep-sea eruptions, as this new photostory shows.

Important but elusive microbes grown in lab for first time

Black and white electron micrograph of microbe, showing two protruberances like devil's horns. Image courtesy of Terry Beveridge

Deep-sea hydrothermal vents often jet out super-hot, oxygen-poor, acidic fluid.

Despite these challenging conditions, many kinds of microbes thrive around vents. But up to now, it has proven impossible to grow most of these tiny creatures in the lab. So we don't know what they look like, how they cope with their environment, or how they interact with other species.

Now a team of researchers led by Anna Louise Reysenbach of Portland State University (OR) has managed to culture a type of heat-loving, acid-loving microbe collected at deep-sea hydrothermal vents. » More: a longer synopsis of this discovery

Back to top