Researchers Study Arctic Hydrothermal Vents

Author:  Doshi Ojus

Date:  June 2007

Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) will embark on a forty day voyage to the Arctic Ocean next week in an attempt to study a mid-ocean ridge recently discovered to have hydrothermal vents. Using newly-designed, underwater, unmanned vehicles, they hope to be the first scientists to find signs of life in the seemingly uninhabited Gakkel Ridge, close to the geographic North Pole. If successful, their research could provide another dimension to the biodiversity that exists on Earth.

"This is an exciting opportunity to explore and study a portion of Earth's surface that has been largely inaccessible to science," said Robert Reves-Sohn, a WHOI geophysicist and chief scientist on the study. "Any biological habitats at hydrothermal vent fields along the Gakkel Ridge have likely evolved in isolation for tens of millions of years. We may have the opportunity to lay eyes on completely new life forms that have been living in the abyss beneath the Arctic ice pack."

The researchers plan to use three autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs, which were specially designed for exploring the frigid waters of the Arctic. Hanumant Singh, a WHOI engineer whose team created the AUVs from scratch, had to deal with several challenges in the design of the vehicles, mainly designing them such that they could withstand the Arctic ice.

"Anyone can deploy an AUV in the Arctic; the trick is getting it back," said Singh. "In order to have a good day with autonomous vehicles, the number of recoveries must equal the number of launches."

Each vehicle will spend between 10 and 24 hours in the water. The Puma, which will determine where certain chemical and temperature signals are coming from, will be deployed first. The Jaguar will follow it, capturing sonar images of the ocean floor. Finally, the CAMPER will collect samples for analysis and later study.

Gakkel Ridge marks the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, where sea-floor spreading occurs when hot magma from Earth's mantle rises to create new crust. Most mid-ocean ridges possess various hydrothermal vents of hot gas that are inhabited by unusual organisms which feed on the released chemicals.

Since Gakkel Ridge has recently been found to be volcanically active, scientists believe that life-forms with completely new adaptations may exist, further defining the extent of the Earth's biosphere and providing more clues about ocean environments early in Earth's development.

Written by Ojus Doshi