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Ocean Ridge Initiative

The global mid-ocean ridge provides a basis for understanding how Earth has evolved

Ask anyone to name Earth’s most prominent natural feature, and you’ll get some familiar answers: The Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, the Amazon. Ask an oceanographer, and you’ll get one answer: the Mid-Ocean Ridge.

Discovered and mapped only 60 years ago, this 50,000-mile-long chain of active volcanoes is the planet’s most dynamic and continuous natural feature.  Its recognition provided an explanation for the concept of continental drift and paved the way for developing the paradigm of plate tectonics.  Plate tectonics—one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century—provides a basis for understanding how Earth has evolved as well as how to optimize exploration for valuable ores, minerals and hydrocarbons, all of which are critically important to society.

The Ocean Ridge Initiative—created in 2008 by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Deep Ocean Exploration Institute— is a focused research program dedicated to gaining a holistic understanding of the global Mid-Ocean Ridge system and unraveling its geological, chemical and biological mysteries. 

Why Study the Mid-Ocean Ridge?

The Mid-Ocean Ridge is a frontier research environment for 21st century oceanography with numerous high-potential discoveries that can change our concepts of biological, biogeochemical and volcanic processes occurring in the deep ocean. Only 40 years ago, hydrothermal vents were discovered along a segment of the Mid-Ocean Ridge north of the Galápagos Islands.  That finding revolutionized the biological sciences by revealing the bizarre assemblages of animals and symbiotic and free-living microbes that thrive, not on sunlight, but on chemicals that are normally toxic to most life forms. Chemosynthesis in the deep ocean has lead to important new research, some of which has had significant implications for biomedical and industrial applications, as well as providing new insights into the origin of life on Earth. There is no doubt that the next 50 years of oceanographic research along the Mid-Ocean Ridge will yield new discoveries that have the potential to improve our understanding of fundamental Earth processes as well as how life has evolved on Earth and how we can use all of this knowledge to the benefit of society.

Why WHOI?

WHOI scientists and engineers have been leaders in developing new concepts and innovative technologies to explore, map and sample the oceans and Mid-Ocean Ridge. Advances in scientific knowledge are often catalyzed by leaps in technology. Because Mid-Ocean Ridge research involves closely coupled multi-disciplinary processes—biological, chemical, geological, and physical—that span distances from the micro-scale to ocean basin scale and time periods from minutes to decades, new technologies are needed to fully comprehend the scope and scale of integrated processes. WHOI engineers excel at these challenges.  The synergistic collaboration between them and WHOI scientists continues to yield new methods of measuring and sampling ocean processes including state-of-the-art vehicles and sensors. WHOI is one of the lead organizations involved in the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observing Infrastructure project, which seeks to transform ocean science through the long-term collection of data via moored or cabled observing stations on the seafloor or in the ocean. WHOI scientists and engineers are committed to developing new technologies that will result in new concepts and models of Mid-Ocean Ridge processes. Interdisciplinary Mid-Ocean Ridge research at WHOI will address these important topics:

  • The detailed physical, chemical and biological processes associated with seafloor volcanism throughout the world’s ocean basins (which accounts for approximately 75% of Earth’s annual volcanic output).
  •  Understanding the processes and conditions that lead to the formation of deep-sea massive mineral deposits.
  • Gaining access to deep-seated rocks that contain records of Earth’s mantle processes such as magma generation and migration, and understanding their roles as sources/sinks within the global carbon cycle.
  • Understanding the processes and feedbacks that sustain a unique and complex biosphere in a hydrogen-rich environment, with implications for understanding the possible conditions that made possible the origin of life on Earth, and the conditions for a subsurface biosphere throughout the world’s oceanic crust.
  • Developing new, novel sensors and vehicle technologies that will enable new types of Mid-Ocean Ridge research and access to remote segments of the ridge system.

Initiative Timeline

WHOI’s Ocean Ridge Initiative is a 10-year program dedicated to multidisciplinary exploration of the global Mid-Ocean Ridge system. These studies will initially be focused both in remote regions of the global ridge system using innovative deep-sea vehicle technologies, and will also involve integrated studies at diverse ridge crests taking advantage of recently collected geophysical, geochemical and biological data, as well as soon to be installed ocean observing technologies and sensors that will yield time-series data. ORI funding will sometimes be used to leverage existing federal funding agency grants but at other times may be used to fund targeted research programs with high potential for scientific return. Several examples of near-term field programs that require between $500,000-750,000 in annual funding are:

  • Detailed investigations of remote regions of the global Mid-Ocean Ridge including ultra-slow spreading polar ridges beneath ice caps, and deep ridge axes where novel microbes and other fauna can be found.
  • Comprehensive, integrated multidisciplinary studies of hydrothermal vent systems hosted in rocks where chemical reactions and biogeochemical processes represent modern analogs of “early life” environments
  • Exploration of processes responsible for detachment faulting and formation of oceanic core complexes. These sites contain unique exposure of tectonized lower crustal and mantle rocks at the seafloor, and as a consequence host hydrogen-rich, deep-sea hydrothermal systems and mineral deposits.  These sites are virtually unexplored but are expected to contain large diversity in deep-sea fauna and subsurface microbial populations in the biosphere.
  • Development of innovative vehicle and sensor technologies that will help facilitate collection of new types of data and help us better understand the importance of the interconnected processes occurring along the global Mid-Ocean Ridge.

Last updated: September 27, 2013