Only discovered 40 years ago, the hydrothermic vents found in the vast depths of the oceans were once thought to be geologic and biological oddities. Spewing super-heated water in perpetual darkness, it wasn’t long until marine biologists found that they form the basis of a hugely rich and diverse ecological community in perhaps the most unlikely of places.
But now researchers are understanding their importance in the grander scheme of things, and have found that they play a vital role not just in maintaining ocean ecosystems, but also in sustaining a healthy planet as a whole. “We’ve learned that these vents and seeps are much more than just some weird fauna, unique biology and strange little ecosystems,” explains Andrew Thurber, co-author of the new report, in a statement. “Rather than being an anomaly, they are prevalent around the world, both in the deep ocean and shallower areas.”
The report, published in Frontiers in Marine Science, has reviewed the status of hydrothermal vents found across all oceans, information which was collected over the four decades since their discovery. They found that an impressive 13 percent of all energy entering the deep sea originated from the vents, and that the nutrients and minerals they spew – including methane, sulfide, hydrogen and iron – are essential for the growth of plankton in the upper layers of the oceans, cementing the vents’ importance in not only the local ecosystem, but in the health of entire oceans.
The ecosystem surrounding the vents are more diverse than the surrounding seabed. NOAA Photo Library/Flickr CC BY 2.0
But it doesn’t stop there. The life that surrounds the vents was found to consume up to 90 percent of all the methane that is released from them, preventing it from reaching the surface and entering the atmosphere. “We had no idea at first how important this ecological process was to global climate,” says Thurber. “Through methane consumption, these life forms are literally saving the planet. There is more methane on the ocean floor than there are other forms of fossil fuels left in the oceans, and if it were all released it would be a doomsday climatic event.”
And yet it is the same nutrients and minerals that make the vents such biologically productive systems that could be threatening their destruction, and with it, their ability to sequester all this methane. The vents, and the landscapes that surround them, are rich in copper, cobalt, and gold – all metals that are highly valued and in great demand in the world above the waves. There have already been countless plans and proposals made to send robots down to the deep and start tearing up the sea floor. As deep-sea ecologist Andrew David Thaler puts it: “We’re going to have to make a choice between disposable technology and ecosystems we’ll never see.”