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Hydrothermal Vents

Life that lives off the Earth's energy

Life that lives off the Earth's energy

  • Exhibition Text

    • An unusual environment for life exists deep in the oceans.  Where hot springs emerge on the ocean floor, a microbial community flourishes, living off the hydrogen sulfide and other compounds carried by the venting fluids.  Some of these microbes represent the most ancient life known, and they form the base of a food chain for a group of organisms that never see the light of the Sun.  Life may have begun around these deep hydrothermal vents.  If similar environments exist elsewhere in the solar system, they too may support life.

      Sulfide chimneys from the Juan de Fuca Ridge
      At the Juan de Fuca Ridge and elsewhere along the global system of mid-ocean ridges, the heat from intrusions of magma, or molten rock, causes seawater to circulate through the cracks in the rocks.  Sulfide chimneys build up around vents where the hot water returns to the ocean.  The underwater hydrothermal systems influence chemical composition of the ocean, and the venting hot waters and structures that build up around the vents illustrate how certain ore deposits formed. 

      The Juan de Fuca Ridge
      Two kilometers under the Pacific Ocean, where the Pacific and Juan de Fuca plates meet, lies a strange landscape with clusters of towering sulfide chimneys forming around vents of hot, mineraladen water.  The rocks harbor a little-known microbial community that thrives on chemicals in the hot water.  In 1997 and 1998, the American Museum of Natural History and the University of Washington sent an expedition to the Juan de Fuca Ridge.  Its goals were to bring back several active chimneys, to study how they grow, and to determine the nature and distribution of life inside them. 

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  • For Educators

    • Topic: Earth Science

      Subtopic: Life in Extreme Environments

      Keywords: Deep seas, Extreme environments, Hydrothermal vent ecology, Juan de Fuca Ridge, Life (Biology), Microorganisms, Ocean bottom, Oceanography, Pacific Ocean

      Audience: General

In This Section

Godzilla

Godzilla

The largest sulfide chimeny ever found was from the Juan de Fuca Ridge.

Chimney Roane

The Chimney Roane

Roane contains a complex series of interconnected channels and isolated voids. 

Chimney Gwenen

The Chimney Gwenen

These are two halves of the top of Gwenen, a five story-high spire that was venting water at 179 degrees Centigrade.

Deep Sea Hot Springs

Deep-sea hot springs

Driven by heat from molten rock, the entire ocean circulates every one to ten million years through the crust along the mid-ocean ridges.

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