Hydrothermal Vents

The idea that life could be sustained by inorganic compounds, rather than through photosynthesis, was a 90-year-old theory until researchers discovered unique life at the bottom of the ocean.

The plate tectonics revolution that culminated in the late 1960s fundamentally rearranged the understanding of Earth processes. It launched new ways of thinking about Earth’s history and opened new lines of inquiry—including the idea of seafloor hot springs. The search for hydrothermal vents at the seafloor mobilized scientists, engineers, crews, ships, and equipment from many institutions worldwide.

A venting black smoker, part of the Endeavour hydrothermal vent field.The discovery of hydrothermal vents in the 1970s also revealed an entirely new form of terrestrial life that is capable of sustaining itself entirely through chemical processes—chemosynthesis.
(Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA])

In 1977, scientists made a stunning discovery on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean near the Galapagos Islands that changed the understanding of planet Earth and life on it. Robert D. Ballard, a long-time principal investigator for the Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) ocean sciences department, was aboard the ONR research vessel Knorr, and a key participant at the time of this discovery. Also supporting the scientific expedition was the ONR deep submergence vessel Alvin.

The science team aboard Knorr found and photographed seafloor vents gushing shimmering, warm, mineral-rich fluids into the cold, dark depths. To their surprise, they found that the vents were brimming with extraordinary, unexpected life. This life is sustained by chemosynthesis—using inorganic compounds as energy sources, rather than the sun.

Within a few years additional expeditions involving ONR research facilities and Ballard would return to the Galapagos Rift to study the geology and biology of these vents. Funding from federal agencies would continue to support further discoveries of hydrothermal venting in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

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