April 12th, 2010
02:07 PM ET

Scientists find world's deepest known undersea volcanic vent

Smokey water billows out of metal ore at a volcanic vent located in the Cayman Trough.

A group of scientists exploring the Cayman Trough in the Caribbean said they have found the deepest known undersea volcanic vent. The waters near the vent are so hot they could yield clues to how life started on Earth and could contain never-seen-before marine life, scientists say.

"A tremendous roar went up in the main lab as a beautiful cluster of black smokers came into camera view," the crew of the RRS James Cook wrote in their online diary of the exploration found 3.1 miles undersea. "It was an amazing feeling to know that in a world with more than six billion people, we were seeing part of our planet that no-one had ever seen before."

YouTube: Watch the underwater vehicle film the discovery

The "Black Smokers," known as superheated volcanic vents often lead to "lush colonies of deep-sea creatures"  because of the scalding water and drastically different climate, according to the National Oceanographic Centre. Volcanic vents are cracks in the earth's crust that allow magma, gas, smoke and other material to escape the surface. Temperatures in these areas can reach 750 degrees Fahrenheit and heat the sea water to extreme temperatures before spewing it back into the ocean where it creates what appear to be smoke eruptions.

"The pressure three miles deep at the bottom of the Trough - 500 times normal atmospheric pressure - is equivalent to the weight of a large family car pushing down on every square inch of the creatures that live there," the NOC said.

The discovery of similar vents "has forced scientists to rewrite the rules of biology" in the past, the NOC said, and with the these superheated vents found at even larger depths, there could likely be more discoveries to come - especially since the Cayman Trough is the world's deepest undersea volcanic rift.

The crew of the RRS James hopes to explore further to identify any new sea creatures because those that can survive in extreme, unlikely places, could give clues to the beginning of life. They could also provide insight into whether other organisms, marine life, or other creatures may exist in similar climates - both on the Earth and other planets.

Follow the crew's journey through their diary

Scientists are fascinated by deep-sea vents because the scalding water that gushes from them nourishes lush colonies of deep-sea creatures, which has forced scientists to rewrite the rules of biology.

"We hope our discovery will yield new insights into biogeochemically important elements in one of the most extreme naturally occurring environments on our planet," says geochemist Doug Connelly of the NOC, who is the Principal Scientist of the expedition.

The discovery echoes the sentiment of NASA scientists, who weeks ago, found a shrimp-like creature 600 feet below Arctic Ice. Scientists said they had hoped the discovery of the create in extremely cold conditions could hold keys to life on some of the frozen moons in outer space.

The same hope now follows this discovery - which if nothing else was a magical moment for the scientists and crew.

"It was like wandering across the surface of another world," Geologist Bramley Murton of the National Oceanographic Centre, who piloted the HyBIS underwater vehicle, said. "The rainbow hues of the mineral spires and the fluorescent blues of the microbial mats covering them were like nothing I had ever seen before."

For a full story exploring what the discovery means check CNN.com on Tuesday.

soundoff (155 Responses)
  1. Ric

    I don't think it's that simple to just "plug" vents. We don't even know the ramifications it can cause to "plug" these vents.

    April 12, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Heartland Mark

    To r.y.s – the articel states 3.1 miles deep.
    To the others about these things warming the oceans – it is a volume issue, the volume of very hot water coming out of these vents is infinitessimally small compared to the volume of the ocean.
    To desert voice – you want to build 3+ miles of insulated piping to harvest this heat? Why not use active volcanoes or hot spots on the surface – so much easier.

    April 12, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Michelle

    Really? Water from volcanic vents in the Carribean being the cause of polar ice melting? Hey, the weather is warm in the Carribean too – it's the equator! Just as the poles are icy and the equator is hot on the surface, ocean currents don't carry superheated volcanic vent water to the ice caps to melt them.
    Those that think hot water from these vents are somehow connected to climate change are a perfect example of how little the general public knows about the natural world around them. This is a fascinating discovery and I hope CNN follows this team's research!

    April 12, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Cuddlen

    Are these vents warming up the Atlantic sea-currents? If so, why don't we tap into the hot-vents and ccnvert some of that polluted-smoke into 'free-energy'. The hot-springs are always a favorite of mine here in Glenwood Springs, CO

    April 12, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  5. I like turtles!

    3.1 mile = 16 368 feet, that is how deep it is...

    April 12, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Max Headroom

    This is a lie. Our world is only 6000 yrs old and we cannot have creatures here older than this Earth. Its a lie. I am sure Sarah Palin shares my view.

    April 12, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Steve

    I am always amaze to hear that we know more about our universe than our oceans. I wish we spend more money on sea exploration.

    April 12, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
  8. geochem

    The "smoke" referred to in the article is not like the smoke released from a fire on the surface of the earth. Surface fire smoke is composed of partially combusted organic (carbon) materials among other substances. "Black Smoker" plumes are also not like the plumes of gas seen exiting the surface vents (rock fractures) around volcanoes "at the earth's surface" (Example: see current pictures of Mount St Helens in the USA) where the pressure is low compared to the bottom of deep ocean trenches. At the extreme pressures under the oceans near these undersea volcanic vents there would not be any "gas" in the form of a "bubble" like we see in a swimming pool. Any elements or molecules (several elements bonded [connected] together) that could appear in a gaseous form if released at the surface of the earth, would (at the bottom of the ocean) be incorporated into the solid particles of metals (gold, copper, silver, lead, manganese, iron, etc) and "regular rock" minerals and fragments that form the "smoke" seen coming out ot the undersea volcanic vents.

    The unique environments formed around these undersea vents are not "climates." Climate refers to weather at the earth's surface. These environments are a unique "habitat" where plants and animals live that have evolved to survive and thrive under conditions of extreme heat, pressure, water chemistry and the lack of sunlight.

    April 12, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Paul

    I amazed, but should not be, by the lack of knowledge, read stupid, of those two who link global warming with deep sea vents. Why do you do research of something you apparently know nothing about, before you give such stupid opinions.

    April 12, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Lulu

    These vents should be plugged to prevent global warming.

    HAHA you must be joking! I am just a ordinary person but wouldn't this create more pressure build up and lead to catastrophe? these vents have been here long before anyone of us were ever thought of! There is a reason they are there, vents are used to vent pressure etc.

    April 12, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Andrew

    Dave, if you plug it, where will the pressure go?

    April 12, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Edwin

    James, you suggested that "this could be causing ocean warming."

    Unfortunately, global warming has been going on for only a few hundred years, but these craters have been spewing for thousands, if not millions of years. So, no, they are not a really good explanation for global warming.

    If there has been dramatic shift in the number of such locations, it could have an impact, but the article does not imply there has been, and I have never heard of such a change in my studies of ocean geology.

    Certainly, we must keep an open mind, but I doubt this is a significant cause.

    April 12, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Patrick

    Ah.. and just what would you plug them up with ... molten rock, means we have nothing on earth to PUT in it to stop it .. dah!

    April 12, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  14. sarah sadowski

    Without this venting and outgassing our planet would die. These vents are vital to life on earth.

    April 12, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bart

    Ha Ha they said we came from apes...then they said we came from organisms...Now they think maybe they can find we came from heated waters... ROFLOL They don't know how we got here. They don't want to believe in God. When will they learn. They don't have a clue...only guesses that change with every new discovery. Gimme a break!

    April 12, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
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