The Importance of Hydrothermal Vents

Hydrothermal vents act as natural plumbing systems that transport heat and chemicals from the interior of the Earth and that help regulate global ocean chemistry. In the process, they accumulate vast amounts of potentially valuable minerals on the seafloor.

The mammoth copper mines of Cyprus, for example, were formed by hydrothermal activity millions of years ago before those rocks were uplifted from the seafloor to become dry land. Commercially valuable mineral deposits are believed to exist on the seafloor near hydrothermal vents, and a few companies have had plans in development for years to exploit some of these. The difficulty of mining in deep water near fragile ecosystems and the relatively small size of ocean bottom deposits compared to those on land have so far prevented seafloor mining from becoming commercially viable.

Vents also support complex ecosystems of exotic organisms that have developed unique biochemical adaptations to high temperatures and environmental conditions we would consider toxic. Learning about these organisms can teach us about the evolution of life on Earth and the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system and the universe. Many previously unknown metabolic processes and compounds found in vent organisms could also have commercial uses one day.