Deep Ocean Exploration Institute
Vast areas of Earth’s seafloor have yet to be explored, from
dynamic areas near subduction zones where tectonic plates slide under other
plates, in back-arc basins (behind subduction zones,) and along the mid-ocean
ridge system, to more quiescent areas dominated by deep sediments that have
accumulated over millions of years. The Deep Ocean Exploration Institute (DOEI)
fosters multi-disciplinary study of physical, chemical, geological, and
biological processes in all these areas and in the planet’s interior, and
development of the technology needed to access environments at and below the
DOEI provided funding to researcher Sheri White to develop a laser Raman spectrometer for use in the deep
sea to analyze the chemical composition and structure of materials.
Many materials exist only under the unusual conditions of the deep sea
and cannot be brought to the surface to study.
(Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
In 2008, DOEI funded twelve new research projects, many with
co-investigators from different departments, to explore questions related to
the Institute’s three thematic areas: seafloor observatory science and
instrumentation, Earth’s deep biosphere (organisms living deep below the
Earth’s surface), and fluid flow in geologic systems. Highlights of some of
these are below.
Other projects span a range of environments and topics,
including the impact of hydrothermal plumes on the deep ocean, volcanism away
from the central mid ocean ridge axis, the heterogeneity of the mantle, sulfur
cycling (moving of sulfur-containing compounds) through subduction zones,
sources of hydrothermal CO2 in the Lau Basin in Tonga’s waters, and
the biology and geology of deep-sea brine areas of the Red Sea.
- Rob Reves-Sohn (G&G, the Geology and
Geophysics Department) and Andy Solow (the Marine Policy Center) are applying
statistical modeling techniques to existing data to identify and quantify the
relationships between seismic (earthquake) activity and temperatures of heated
fluids exiting hydrothermal vents at the TAG hydrothermal mound.
- Mark Behn and Brian Tucholke (both in G&G)
study a very different type of fluid flow—magma. They use numerical modeling
(mathematical representations of processes with equations and variables) to
investigate factors affecting magma flow and its interactions with tectonic
plates at mid-ocean ridges.
- Virginia Edgcomb (G&G) and Rebecca Gast
(Biology Department) are considering another distinct environment,
investigating whether single celled eukaryotic organisms (protists) are present
and active in deep-sea sediments by analyzing material from four existing deep
subsurface sediment cores. Their project includes developing RNA extraction
protocols to help identify genetic signatures of these organisms.
- Greg Ventura and Chris Reddy (both in MC&G,
the Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department) are also searching for
evidence of organisms in sediments, specifically the molecular lipid remains of
organisms, but in young, shallow sediments from another hydrothermal area, the
Guaymas Basin off Mexico’s coast, that are subject to rapid changes in
- And Ray Schmitt (in the Physical Oceanography
Department) and Robert Petitt (in the Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering
Department) are developing new instruments for use in the unusual hot brine
pools deep in the Red Sea. Their high-range CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth
recorder), designed to work in these very warm and salty waters, allows
documentation of the detailed thermal and physical structure of these layered
regions and provides estimates of heat and salt exchanges with adjacent water.
supported three Fellows in
2008: Jeff McGuire (G&G) uses recordings of seismic waves and ground
deformation to investigate rupture processes and faulting, and is working to
develop a real-time earthquake early warning system for the Pacific Northwest.
Tim Shank (Biology Department) combines multiple genetic approaches to examine
ecological and evolutionary factors that affect populations of deep-sea
species, incuding deep-sea corals and hydrothermal vent fauna. Maurice Tivey
(G&G) uses magnetic imaging to learn about the subsurface structure of
As part of his 2008 Fellowship activities, Maurice Tivey planned
the MORSS Colloquium on “Precious Metals from Deep-Sea Vents,” with keynote
speakers from the Rule of the Law Committee for the Oceans, the International
Seabed Authority, Colorado School of Mines, and WHOI. A one and a half day workshop preceded the April
2009 colloquium; 98 people from 20
nations participated, including students from Papua New Guinea, Mauritius and
Djibouti. The aim of the colloquium and workshop was to discuss issues related
to deep-sea mining of seafloor massive sulfide deposits, a topic connected to
society, the global economy, and the conservation of unique marine ecosystems.
Media representatives attended, and the Associated Press bulletin was broadcast
on more than three thousand web pages around the globe.
In addition to these research and fellow activities, an
important new endeavor was launched in 2008 – the Ocean Ridge Initiative. Its
purpose is to explore the largest continuous geologic feature on Earth – the
mid-ocean ridge system. The Initiative acknowledges the value of the many
unanticipated discoveries that have been made in the past along this system,
such as the presence of unusual chemosynthesis-based biological communities at
areas of hydrothermal venting.
A major focus of the Initiative will be development of new
technologies for efficient surveying, sensing, and sampling of areas along and
beneath the ridge, and for information exchange. A workshop held to identify
the overarching vision of this initiative, needed technological advances, and
specific projects to be carried out, drew thirty-six scientists and engineers
from all of the five WHOI departments, as well as eight participants from
communications and development.
As in years past, DOEI continuedto promote
WHOI educational and outreach opportunities. In 2008, DOEI provided support for
two post-doctoral scholars, two graduate students, and the annual
—Margaret K. Tivey, Institute Director
Last updated: August 26, 2009