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Ocean Exploration Institute

Chimney-like structures called black smokers emit superheated water full of minerals from the seafloor. First discovered in 1979 in the eastern Pacific, they have since been found around the world, some with temperatures of more than 400°C (752°F). (Image from DSV Alvin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)


Covering nearly 70 percent of Earth’s surface, the ocean has presented a formidable barrier to exploration. It remains a vast, deep frontier, with denizens large and small adapted to living in extreme environments that are not yet well understood. The ocean obscures the most geologically active features on our planet, where heat and molten rock emanating from deep within Earth’s interior help drive tectonic forces that have shaped the face of the planet, including the continents, the mid-ocean ridge—a nearly 40,000-mile-long chain of undersea volcanic mountains—and deep ocean trenches, where ocean crust is recycled back into Earth’s mantle. These tectonic forces generate volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. They also catalyze interactions between ocean crust and seawater that produce chemicals that nourish lush oases of life. These chemosynthetic communities, first discovered in the late 1970s, fundamentally altered our conception of how and where life could exist on this planet and beyond.

The Ocean Exploration Institute (OEI) fosters collaborative research among geologists, chemists, biologists, and engineers to investigate biogeochemical processes occurring within the ocean and the planet’s interior. The OEI also contributes to the development and application of innovative undersea vehicles, ocean observatories, and sensor technologies required to gain access to and study the oceanic realm—from the sea surface to ocean trenches 36,000 feet deep, a region of our planet we know almost nothing about. OEI scientists advance our fundamental understanding of how our planet works, how life evolved on Earth, and where it might exist elsewhere in the universe. Their research provides knowledge to understand the mechanisms involved in generating earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis; offers potential for biochemical discoveries with medical applications and geological discoveries that shed light on oil, gas, and mineral deposits; and develops pioneering technologies to explore the ocean and Earth’s interior. The OEI is committed to communicating its discoveries to policymakers, industry, and the general public and to training new generations of scientists to explore Earth’s inner space.

Featured Multimedia

Underwater Volcanoes

Hydrothermal Vents

What they are and why they are important.

creating a new ocean crust

Creating New Ocean Crust

Different volcanic and geological processes form different types of seafloor crust.