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. David


    I am starting to be of the same opinion as yourself. While Al Gore has identified a trend in changing temperatures, I think the conclusions on what is causing it are not on target. Given what we know about Geology and the shifting plates, coupled with size of the earthquakes and their locations, it is very possible that the magma is shifting and that is causing ocean currents to change their temperatures deep in the ocean which is leading to the polar caps melting. But given Science is an activity that is observational and behind the curve, these events are already occurring and happening. We just have not understood them yet. At least Al Gore brought attention to the matter and hopefully science will look at the issue more systemically and not view Geology as a "black box" with so much focus on the atmosphere.

    April 12, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Abbie

    What a beautiful, poetic way to describe something that's been there always but we are now seeing it for the first time. Such a positive, inspiring discovery.

    Note: they did say how deep – 3.1 miles. And it's weird how a scientific discovery, according to one commenter, makes a leap into a "divine bigger picture." Sorry, doesn't work that way – it has scientific observation and analysis to back it up. As regards global warming, mankind's "progress" contributes more toward global warming than any naturally-occurring phenomena. Again, scientific fact. Sorry, not enough PROOF to show anything divine influences global warming, or that these vents are part of a bigger (divine) picture. Or whatever that commenter was trying to say.

    April 12, 2010 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  3. juan bobo

    @ r.y.s: "...found 3.1 miles undersea." (That would be 16,517 feet)

    @ James and Dave: Global Warming? Really? This would be tantamount to pouring a cup of hot water into a swimming pool: it would have no effect on the overall temperature. Further, are you suggesting that volcanic vents 16k feet below the ocean's surface is affecting the atmospheric temperature?

    April 12, 2010 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Kevin

    Plugged vents never work. They're called a vent for a reason, right?

    April 12, 2010 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  5. steve

    I'm seriously hoping the guy talking about the hot water maybe melting the glaciers is joking. But I doubt it. Wow.

    April 12, 2010 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Windel Poons

    r.y.s-read the article again...3 miles...James, these vents only occur at extreme depths where the ocean floor is close enough to be effected by molten rock in the Earths crust...i.e underwater Volcano. The water may be 750 degrees 3 miles down however the heat doesn't make it all the way to the top to melt Polar Ice. A bigger porblem to our Oceans would be desalinization because of huge chunks of glacial ice (fresh water) breaking off and melting into the oceans affecting currents.

    April 12, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Chris R

    Undersea hot water vents have been around for billions of years. They are *not* causing the ocean temperatures to rise by any statistically significant amount. Sure, the water is *really* hot right around these vents but the oceans are *huge* and contain vast amounts of water. So much water that this source of heat doesn't impact the temperature of the ocean. Think of it this way – take a swimming pool and fill it with ice water. Now, drop in a thimbleful of hot water. What do you have in the swimming pool? A lot of ice water. One small localized heat source isn't going to be warming up the trillions upon trillions of gallons of water in the ocean.

    As for the idea of using them to generate power – this is a good idea but the problem is that it's incredibly expensive to harvest heat energy this far out in the ocean. People *are* digging extremely deep wells to tap into the geothermal energy of the earth but all of these are located on land.

    April 12, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  8. scenarionow

    I never in my life heard anyone say we own the world, except the online post of people already trying to make a profit off it.

    My guess is that its located 3.1 miles under sea.

    April 12, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. DSV # 59

    As a former Deep Submergence Vehicle Pilot, I've spent hours within meters of these types of vents. While they can get very hot, the ocean is near freezing at these depths. If you approach these Vents from the side, you don't even get a temperature fluctuation until you are within inches of them. Above them is a different story, but the ocean is so vast, this energy output has NOTHING to do with global warming. The heat that people give off contributes more, not to mention the heat generated by servers that run computer networks. Yes there are rare minerals and metals in the superheated water but these vents are small and scattered all around the oceans and the technology to access them is expensive. Mining and energy production are better suited to more accessible places.
    Call it scientific or Divine, these vents are absolutely amazing!

    April 12, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ndginla

    For the reading impared... it was 3.1 miles under.

    There are a lot of vents like this. This one happens to be the deepest one they found. There is no reason to believe there are not deeper vents, it is just that it is difficult to explore that deep.

    As far as commercializtion goes... 3.1 miles is really deep... but I like Dave's idea... plug them all to stop warming the ocean. Maybe they can use a giant cork. 🙂

    April 12, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. mythuliedog

    For the person (r.y.s) asking how deep the vents were.

    3.1 X 5,280=16,368 ft

    April 12, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  12. TomL

    I agree with Dave that we should plug all the undersea vents. That's a brilliant comment. Then we should also knock down the Rocky Mountains because they're getting way too high and blocking the wind. If the wind was free to blow faster across the earth, that would alleviate global warming for sure. Nothing like a nice fresh breeze, I say. James, you're right, let's pass this on to Al Gore. Doesn't he know life started six thousand years ago and the dinosaurs are part of the divine picture meant to confuse us?

    April 12, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jerry

    The mouths of Liberal politicians should be plugged to prevent global warming.......

    April 12, 2010 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Davis

    I'm not sure you can plug what is essentially a volcano. BTW, these black smokers have been around for a good portion of the earth's life...

    April 12, 2010 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jake

    Wouldn't the material that's plugging dissolve anyway from the hot water?

    April 12, 2010 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
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