On October 16, 2012, University of Delaware researcher George Luther and other scientists will set sail from the Azores on an expedition to explore one of the most demanding habitats on Earth—deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic Ocean.
Super-heated water laden with toxic chemicals rockets out of these cracks in Earth’s crust, where exotic shrimp, giant tubeworms, ghost-white crabs, pinkish eel-like fish, and other mysterious organisms live, including the tiny bacteria that hold together this unusual web of life.
The research team, which includes scientists and graduate students from the University of Delaware, will live aboard the 279-foot R/V Knorr and dive to the depths in the famed submersible Jason.
Going for Gold
The scientists are searching for gold…well, fool’s gold. Also known as pyrite, the compound contains iron, which is an important nutrient for ocean organisms. Scientists believe that hydrothermal vents spew large amounts of pyrite and other iron-rich compounds into the ocean.
“As pyrite travels from the vents to the ocean interior and toward the surface ocean, it oxidizes gradually to release iron, which becomes available in areas where iron is depleted so that organisms can assimilate it, and then grow,” says Dr. Luther. “It’s an ongoing iron supplement for the ocean much as multivitamins are for humans.”
The amount of iron available is a key factor in the growth of bacteria and tiny plants, known as phytoplankton. These ocean organisms strongly influence atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
The scientists will study three locations at the bottom of the deep Atlantic Ocean through November 8.