Collaborative Research: Hydrothermal Estuaries: What Sets the Hydrothermal Flux of Fe and Mn to the Oceans?
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Like volcanoes on land, the mid-ocean ridges that cross the ocean floor are not continuously erupting; however, the magmatic heat present just beneath the surface can continue to drive hot springs, just like the ones found within the crater of the "super volcano" at Yellowstone. In our recent work, we have shown that the chemicals released into the oceans from seafloor hot-springs can be dispersed all across the oceans. Now our interest has focused in on one element in particular, iron. This is one of the most abundant elements in every planetary body in the Universe yet it is vanishingly rare in Earth's oceans today. Set against that, it is essential to just about every form of life on Earth from the simplest and most ancient strains of microbes to the most complex animals including humans. In Earth's oceans, the lack of this "essential micro-nutrient" has been found to limit how much life can flourish near both the south and north poles in the Pacific Ocean in the sunlit surface ocean even though the supply of sunlight and other major nutrients (phosphorous, nitrogen) should be more than adequate. Our newest research suggests that iron released from hydrothermal plumes (where the concentrations coming from vents are more than 1 million times higher than normal ocean water) could play a major role. Despite undergoing massive dilution as hydrothermal solutions leave the vents and traverse thousands of kilometers through the oceans, we believe that at least some of the iron released from deep sea hot springs can survive this journey and make a significant impact on how much live exists in Earth's polar oceans and how much CO2 it draws down from the atmosphere. To investigate that idea, this project will study the fate of iron released from a hydrothermal vent over a length scale that hasn't been studied before - from the first 1km through the ocean out to 100km away from the vent-site. This will fill a gap in our knowledge between what happens right at a vent-site (as studied by research submarines) and what happens to ocean chemistry all across Earth's entire ocean basins (as studied by a huge international research project called GEOTRACES). Our work will use a 3D computational model to predict where the plume of material from a vent in the Northeast Pacific Ocean should escape to after it is erupted from some vents at a volcanic system called the Juan de Fuca Ridge. We will then use an advanced autonomous free-swimming robot to search out in the predicted plume area, first to test the accuracy of our predicted model and, second, to collect samples from the hydrothermal plume from where it first forms to as far out as we can follow it. The samples we collect will include both filtered seawater and the particulate material (whether mineralogical or microbiological) that we can extract from the filters..........