Hydrothermal Vents, the Improbable Life Therein, and the Birth of Deep Sea Mining

by Owen James Burke


(Photo: WHOI via California Sundays)

Hydrothermal vents are cracks in the seafloor where water seeps into the earth’s crust and reacts with magma before the intense heat sends it back up through the ocean floor and into the water column, only then it’s full of chemicals and minerals. And where there are minerals, you can bet there’s a business willing to mine for them, even if they’re in the deepest, darkest places, and apart from a few resilient and mysterious species like tube worms, eye-less shrimp and mussels, the most inhospitable to life.


(Photo: Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University)

Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover, Director of the Marine Laboratory at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, has decades of research vested in hydrothermal vents of the deep. Deep-sea drilling could threaten her research, and as far as we know, human life itself.

Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover was the first woman to dive in Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s deep-diving submersible, Alvin, and in 1982, she joined the first biological expedition to study hydrothermal vents. Since then, she has made over 50 dives with Alvin, and commandeered over 50 expeditions herself.

Dr. Dover, along with nearly every sensible researcher interested in hydrothermal vents, wonders what this deep-sea drilling might bring. If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that we have no idea, as Brooke Jarvis writes for The California Sunday Magazine:

Today, the deep sea remains a world of mystery and fantasy, less mapped — and perhaps less present in our collective thoughts — than the surface of Mars. By volume, the dark regions of the ocean comprise more than 98 percent of the planet’s habitat, yet we know exceptionally little about them: not the contours of their mountains and trenches, not the full life cycle of a single deep-sea species.

So far, only 6 permits have been issued by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the governing body of deep-sea drilling, and only one nation, Papua New Guinea, has issued a commercial deep-sea drilling permit, but India, China, Japan and South Korea are all not far behind.

Read more at The California Sunday Magazine — OB

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