Ocean Vents

Ocean Vents

BY : Rhiannon Nevinczenko

The ocean is vast and full of mysteries. Despite its planetary proximity (being on Earth with us), we have explored less of our own oceans than we have the moon. It can be easy to imagine that the ocean is full of monsters, or that the depths are empty and lifeless. However, even under black waters, beyond the reach of sunlight, life still finds a way. This far down, you would not likely perceive the environment to be particularly lively. It is oppressively dark, crushed under the  weight of an unimaginable amount of water, and incredibly frigid. If, however, you trace along a mid-ocean ridge (underwater tectonic plate boundaries), where magma hides just below the Earth's crust, you might find a hydrothermal vent. Hydrothermal vents (pictured) are vibrant islands of life - hellishly hot oases in what would otherwise be a cold, desolate, mostly-lifeless oceanic desert. Ocean water seeps into the rocks below, where it is heated by the nearby magma. This incredibly hot water (700 degrees Fahrenheit) becomes richly mineral-laden, and escapes back into the ocean above. As a result, it is rich in nutrients, and a perfect chemical storm for a unique group of organisms - extremophile, chemosynthetic Archaea. These prokaryotes are, at first glance, similar to bacteria. However, they thrive in extreme conditions, such as the hostile environments found near and in hydrothermal vents. These organisms are able to create energy from chemical means, rather than using sunlight. As a result, they form the base of a unique ecosystem, bound to the vent by this phenomenon. Among the creatures those chemosynthetic Archaea support are tube worms, unique crustaceans, and pale fish.
Photograph credit: USGS; public domain.

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