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Chemical and Isotope Characterization of Aqueous Carbon Compounds in Hydrothermal Fluids from Back-Arc Spreading Centers

DOEI Project Funded: 2004

What are the primary questions you are trying to address with this research?
The primary goal of this research is to determine the abundance and composition of organic and inorganic carbon compounds in hydrothermal fluids that vent at the seafloor in back-arc spreading centers such as the Lau Basin. This information will be used to elucidate the geochemical processes responsible for the formation of carbon species during hydrothermal circulation in the oceanic crust.

What is the significance of this research for others working in this field of inquiry and for the broader scientific community?
The origin and stability of carbon compounds in submarine hydrothermal systems has significant implications for our understanding of carbon fluxes between the oceanic crust, water column, and ultimately the atmosphere.  In addition, aqueous organic species in hydrothermal vent fluids represent a source of carbon and energy for biological communities that inhabit vent environments. At a more basic level, formation of simple organic compounds is a prerequisite for the origin of life on early Earth, which may have occurred in hydrothermal systems located on the seafloor.

What is the significance of this research for society?
Society generally has a keen interest in understanding the origin of life. Moreover, hydrothermal processes control the chemistry of the oceans, which in turn influences our climate.

When and where will this investigation be conducted?
Field work for this project will be conducted during two research cruises to the western Pacific. The first cruise will be going to the Lau Basin in April, 2005. The second cruise in the Eastern Manus Basin is presently unscheduled, but will likely occur in early 2006.

What are the key tools or instruments needed to conduct this research?
We will utilize the ROV Jason II to collect hydrothermal fluids at the seafloor. Special gas-tight fluid samplers have been designed and constructed at WHOI that allow fluids to be maintained at seafloor pressures when they are brought to the surface. Maintaining samples at high pressure prevents loss of dissolved gases. Chemical and isotopic analyses will be conducted at WHOI using a variety of gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers.

What are the greatest challenges - physical or intellectual - to conducting this investigation?
The greatest challenge during this project will be developing analytical techniques that can detect organic species that are present at very low concentration in vent fluids. Being at sea for over a month also presents its own challenges.

Is this research part of a larger project or program?
The Lau Basin has been selected as an Integrated Study Site by the NSF sponsored  RIDGE2000 program. Coordinated research will be conducted at this location to fully characterize the geology, chemistry, and biology in this volcanically and hydrothermally active region of the oceanic crust.

If you have conducted previous/similar work on this subject, please suggest any web links or citations that might help others better understand the background to your line of research. If appropriate and readily available, please suggest or provide photographs, illustrations, tables, and charts, as well.

Funds for this project are being used to support Giora Proskurowski as a Postdoctoral Fellow at WHOI.

Giora’s Information
Originally from Eugene, Oregon, Giora made his first trip to Massachusetts in the fall of 1994 as a freshman at Amherst College.  Four years and a degree in chemistry later he decided that while studying the behavior of gases in a vacuum, in a lab, was interesting, studying gasses sampled by submarine or ROV at the bottom of the ocean was much more exciting.  At the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography Giora used isotope geochemistry to investigate the role of simple carbon gases in hydrothermal systems, gaining a Ph.D. in early 2005.  While not studying gasses in Seattle, winter-Giora enjoys big mountain freeriding on both local and international slopes, while summer-Giora continues to climb mountains even without the reward of a ski down and appreciates a high level game of Ultimate Frisbee with whomever Sockeye (www.seattlesockeye.org) are playing.

Originally published: January 1, 2004