WHOI Hosts Public Event Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Discovery of Deep-Sea Hot Springs

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The discovery of lush communities of deep-sea life at thermal springs on the seafloor in 1977 forever changed our perception of where and how life could exist on Earth. Diving in the human-occupied submersible Alvin, a team of scientists, including famed ocean explorer Robert Ballard, was the first to explore the springs, also known as hydrothermal vents, in detail.

Ballard will be the keynote speaker at a free public forum, hosted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) as part of the Morss Colloquia series, recapitulating the discovery of hydrothermal vent life 40 years ago on the Galápagos Rift near Galápagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Evidence of vent life (dead clam shells) first came during the Pleiades Expedition in 1976. A year later, photographs obtained by the deep-towed camera system called ANGUS showed thriving communities of live clams and mussels on the deep seafloor. Hours later, scientists dove in Alvin.

The forum also includes a discussion afterward by a panel of scientists on current and future research on chemosynthetic life forms, which live on chemicals in the absence of sunlight—on Earth and possibly on other planetary bodies. The forum will be held 6 to 8 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017 in the Lillie Auditorium, 7 MBL Street, Woods Hole.

Vents occur at tectonically active regions at the seafloor such as mid-ocean ridges. In these places, cold bottom seawater flows through cracks in the seafloor. In the process, it is heated by underlying magma, reacting with rocks, and rises back to the surface through channels in the seafloor. The resulting hydrothermal fluid gushes out at temperatures as high as 400°C (750°F), often through chimney-like structures, filled with chemicals leached from rocks.

While no life exists at these very high temperatures, the chemicals support a range of specialized microbes and animals, including tubeworms, shrimp, and mussels at places where the vent fluids mix with seawater either below or above the seafloor. These exotic organisms have adapted to the harsh conditions that most life forms would find too toxic to survive.

“We look forward to reminiscing about the discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, but also to explore what these organisms can teach us about the evolution of life on Earth and the possibility of life elsewhere in our solar system and the universe,” said WHOI scientist and microbiologist Stefan Sievert, who studies the microbial ecology of hydrothermal vents. He also chairs the committee organizing the forum, as well as an international symposium the following week presenting the newest research on chemosynthetic-based ecosystems.

Space is limited and attendees are encouraged to go online to reserve their seats (http://www.whoi.edu/darklife). Those unable to attend can view the presentations live via webcast.

Keynote Speaker
Dr. Robert Ballard

Panelists
Dr. Robert Ballard
Ocean Exploration Trust

Dr. Mary Voytek
Science Mission Directorate, NASA

Dr. Frieder Klein
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Dr. Christopher Glein
Space Science and Engineering Division, Southwest Research Institute

Dr. Christopher German
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The panel will be moderated by Mindy Todd, host and producer of The Point on WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR station.

The program is part of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Morss Colloquia series, established with a generous gift by Elisabeth W. and Henry A. Morss, Jr.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean's role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu.

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