Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Hydrothermal Sea Vents Different than Theorized

A new study of the mid-ocean ridge system running throughout the Earth's oceans has given the researchers studying them a bit of a surprise. The study, the first of its kind, shows these deep ocean hydrothermal sea vents are much different than was expected.

"The hypothetical image of a hydrothermal-vent system shows water forced down by overlying pressure through large faults along ridge flanks. The water is heated by shallow volcanism, then rises toward the ridges' middles, where vents (often called "black smokers," for the cloud of chemicals they exude) tend to cluster. The new images, from a 4-kilometer-square area show a very different arrangement.

The water appears to descend instead through a sort of buried 200-meter-wide chimney atop the ridge, run below the ridge along its axis through a tunnel-like zone just above a magma chamber, and then bubble back up through a series of vents further along the ridge."

The interest in these vents comes from the fact they have an important contribution to both the study of planetary geology (they bring to the surface many interesting and valuable minerals from the Earth's interior, such as gold, as well as drive the Earth's plate tectonics system) and these vents also create areas of superheated water which have unique life forms generally classified as extremophiles, which have given us new insights into the possible areas in which life might exist on other planets.

This particular Pacific system appears to show the seawater entering into the system from a series of small cracks rather than a large fissure and that it processes much more water than believed - as much as a billion of gallons of water a year. It may also contribute insight on ocean currents, whether or not the life forms found around the vents relocate or not and how they might transport themselves, as well as how heat and chemicals are cycled throughout the deep ocean and mineral deposits form in these areas.

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