On February 17, 1977, pilot Jack Donnelly and geologists Jack Corliss and Jerry van Andel were surveying an area of the seafloor along the Galapagos Rift. The pilot and the two scientists were navigating aboard the deep-submergence vehicle Alvin at a depth of 2500 meters when they entered a bizarre, 20-meter-wide oasis of life populated by giant white clams clustered around shimmering, milky fluids escaping from cracks in the seafloor. Alvin’s heat sensor recorded 16°C in the cracks, a relative mild temperature compared to the frigid 2°C of the deep ocean. “Isn’t the deep ocean supposed to be a desert? Well, there’s all these animals down here…”, Jack Corliss announced over the acoustic telephone. While temperature anomalies had been recorded earlier along mid-oceanic ridges, and the existence of hydrothermal circulation at the bottom of the ocean had long been hypothesized, Alvin dive 713 went down in history as the official discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents.
Deep at the bottom of the ocean, geology, chemistry and biology boil together at hydrothermal vents. Magma near the surface makes new oceanic crust and also heats rock and seawater to create a chemical brew that alters the chemistry of the ocean. These hydrothermal fluids are laden in reduced chemical species that provide energy and carbon to chemosynthetic bacteria that support rich communities of invertebrates in the otherwise seemingly barren abyss. Giant tubeworms, shrimp with no eyes, hairy snails, and yeti crabs have found ways to farm, harvest and collaborate with these microbes. But these chemical and biological oases can be transient. The magma that starts the whole process can erupt and wipe the slate clean, or recede and starve the vent. Rutgers scientists integrate field and laboratory work to study the physiology, ecology and evolution of the unique microbial and animal communities at hydrothermal vents and to quantify the contribution of marine hydrothermal systems to global biogeochemical cycles. Rutgers researchers dive to the seafloor using deep-diving submersibles, remotely operated and autonomous vehicles to explore and sample hydrothermal vents around the world’s oceans.