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Major Cruise to Galapagos Rift Marks 25th Anniversary of Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vent Discovery

May 8, 2002

Note to Reporters/Editors:

Video and still images are available upon request through the WHOI Media Relations Office, 508-289-3340 or Background information, images and audio interviews regarding hydrothermal vents are available on our web site at: Reporters and editors can also obtain an anniversary CD from the Media Relations Office at 508-289 3340.

WHOI is distributing a free 25th anniversary CD that retells-in words, images, photos, videos, and audio interviews -the dramatic story of how hydrothermal vents were discovered in 1977 and how they revolutionized scientific thinking. To receive a free copy of the CD, contact. Stephanie Murphy, or call 508-289-2271.

In 1977, scientists made a stunning discovery on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that forever changed our understanding of our planet and life on it. They discovered the first deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and—to their complete surprise—a lush community of exotic life thriving around them.

Marking the 25th anniversary year of this revolutionary discovery, scientists will return to the site where the first hydrothermal vents were found, some 250 miles northeast of the Galápagos Islands. On an twelve-day research expedition beginning May 24 aboard the Research Vessel Atlantis, operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), scientists will study how animal communities at the original Galápagos vents have changed over 25 years, and search for new vent life and black-smoker chimneys along still-unexplored areas of the Galápagos Spreading Center. The human-occupied submersible Alvin and an autonomous underwater vehicle called ABE (Autonomous Benthic Explorer) will be the principal vehicle systems used in the explorations.

Scientists on the 25th anniversary Galápagos cruise will revisit the original vent sites, which were named when they were first found in 1977: Clambake, Mussel Bed and the Garden of Eden. The vent sites lie at depths of about 2,500 meters (8,000 feet) and were last visited in 1990. Some of the vent communities first seen in 1977 have not been seen since, and scientists are not sure how the vents sites may have changed in the interim. Researchers plan to map the seafloor using the latest in sonar and autonomous vehicle technology, collect samples, and conduct a variety of biological, chemical and geological studies. They will then explore shallower areas of the Galápagos Spreading Center further to the west—an area that has not been mapped in detail or explored before.

Scientists, engineers and students on board R/V Atlantis will share their findings with students and the general public via daily dispatches on two Web sites: Dive and Discover and Ocean Explorer. The 25th anniversary Galápagos expedition is funded primarily by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration, with additional support from WHOI and the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF supported the original discovery cruise in 1977, as well as numerous oceanographic expeditions that led up to the discovery and subsequent cruises that have explored hydrothermal vents around the world.

In many ways, the search to find hydrothermal vents on the seafloor resembled the mission to land on the moon. Earth scientists, engineers, crews, ships, and equipment from many institutions were mobilized to overcome a formidable barrier. With persistence and ingenuity, they accomplished a technical feat, but instead of ascending to the moon, they descended miles down into the dark depths of the ocean. Hidden beneath the ocean was a fundamental, but previously unknown, process that explained how the Earth ventilates heat from its center, how vents regulate ocean chemistry, and how some of Earth’s great mineral deposits formed. For the first time, scientists found that not all life depends on light energy from the sun, or photosynthesis. At the seafloor, very diverse communities of large, fast-growing animals thrive because of heat and chemical energy from the interior of the planet itself.

Rather than photosynthetic plants, the base of the hydrothermal vent food chain starts with chemosynthetic microorganisms that use sulfur and methane (both of which are poisonous to oxygen-breathing animals) to convert carbon dioxide into organic material. Among these microorganisms are hyperthermophilic (super heat-loving) Archaea, which thrive at temperatures as high as 113? C (235? F). Archaea have now been recognized as a completely separate kingdom of life—as genetically different from bacteria as bacteria are from trees. Archaea means “ancient ones,” and scientists suspect they developed early in the history of the Earth.

The chemosynthetic microorganisms at deep sea vents support a remarkable variety of previously unknown animals including mussels, anemones, crabs, foot-long white clams with blood-red flesh, and a delicate, orange creature called a siphonophore that looks like a dandelion but turns out to be a cousin of the Portuguese man-of-war. Among the most breathtaking discoveries were lush fields of 8-foot tall, white-stalked, red-plumed tubeworms. Over the years, more than 500 new species of animals have been found at deep-sea hydrothermal vent sites around the globe.

“The discovery of hydrothermal vent life completely rearranged our thinking about where and how life could exist on Earth– and possibly on other planetary bodies,” said biologist Timothy Shank of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “Some scientific discoveries are profound because they make pieces fall into place and solve long-standing puzzles. Others are profound because they shatter old notions and launch entirely new lines of inquiry. The discovery of the Galápagos vents in 1977 did both.”

Shank and geologist Steve Hammond of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) in Newport, Oregon, are co-chief scientists of the May-June 2002 cruise. The scientific party on board represents investigators and students from several US institutions, universities and NOAA laboratories. They will return to port in the Galápagos Islands on June 4.

“Discovery of the hydrothermal vent communities is one of the most exciting developments in oceanography in the past 50 years,” adds JimYoder, director of NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences. “The upcoming cruise is a great opportunity to see how these fascinating communities may have changed over the years.”

The 274-foot Research Vessel Atlantis and the three-person submersible Alvin are deep-sea vehicles of U.S. National Deep Submergence Facility (NDSF), part of the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS). NDSF is operated by WHOI and supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research.