A whole new ecosystem reliant on the processes of plate tectonics was discovered on the deep seafloor of the Galapagos Rift in 1977. The deep sea submersible Alvin was exploring in 2500 m of water when it encountered unusually warm water. Following the temperature gradient, Alvin eventually discovered jets of superheated water coming from out of the seafloor at temperatures up to 350o C (the normal temperature for water at this depth would be 2-4o C). The water poured out of cracks in the crust, as well as through tall chimneys up to 20 m high and 1 m wide, and as it emerged it took on the appearance of thick black smoke, These fissures were named hydrothermal vents, and the chimneys “black smokers”.
To create these vents, water percolates into the crust where there are plumes of magma close to the surface. The water gets superheated by the magma, then moves back to the surface through convection and is released through the vents. The hot water dissolves minerals from the surrounding rock, and as the water emerges and cools, the dissolved minerals and inorganic sulfides precipitate out as small particles and turn the water black, leading to the black “smoke” coming from the vents. Precipitation of these minerals also create the tall chimneys characteristic of many hydrothermal vents.
Since their original discovery in the Galapagos Rift, hydrothermal vents have been located across the globe along oceanic ridges where there is shallow crust and a lot of tectonic activity (Figure 4.11.2).
As unexpected as it was to discover these vent systems, even more surprising was the fact that they were teeming with life. The vents are surrounded by a diverse range of previously unknown organisms, including giant tube worms over 2 m long, crabs, shrimp, giant mussels, and mats of bacteria. How is it that such a diverse community can exist in the ocean depths, far removed from the sunlight that supports photosynthesis and primary production in most other ecosystems? The answer is that the water exiting the vents is rich in hydrogen sulfide (H2S), oxygen and CO2. The bacteria surrounding the vents use energy from the oxidation of sulfur compounds like H2S to form carbohydrates from CO2 and water. This is the process of chemosynthesis, and the bacteria are very productive as these reactions occur faster at high temperatures. The bacteria then represent the base of the food web, as other organisms eat the bacteria, or derive their energy from bacteria living symbiotically within their tissues. Watch the video below for more about hydrothermal vents.