SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 14, July 2016 - Page 46

Kwasnitschka, of GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Germany. Tom and his team are working to produce a series of 1­cm resolution 3D models of vent groups, which will then be used to create layered environment maps that will help to define the nature of venting, fluid temperature/chemistry, and animal clusters in these perplexing environments.

The team hopes to produce the first open­access, virtual model of an entire vent field, not just individual chimneys. Innovative approaches and new strategies of deep ocean floor research can be used for multiple purposes, including creating immersive tools for public engagement and allowing scientists to do research without any of the physical limitations of deep sea expeditions. “Thanks to computer graphics technology developed in the gaming industry, the data can be explored on a laptop much in the same way as through high­end virtual reality simulators used at universities. Museums equipped with similar science visualization theaters are able to immerse their visitors in a deep sea world based on actual data,” says Dr. Kwasnitschka.

Vent Life

Mapping continued on the Vent Life Expedition, but with more emphasis on the animals that live in these habitats. Experiments took place on Falkor in a mobile lab that replicated pressure at depths, so animals could be observed in conditions as close to their natural habitat as possible. The scientists are particularly interested in the dependent relationships that some of the animals, like giant snails and miniature tube worms, have with microbes that live within their tissues. These dependent relationships make life possible in the harsh vent conditions through a process called chemosynthesis. Specialized metabolisms in the microbes generate energy from chemicals originating in the earth that are carried into the ocean via hydrothermal fluid. One of the reasons scientists are interested in this process is that it could be how life started on Earth, shedding light onto how life could exist on other planets.

Mining at depth

Seafloor hydrothermal vent complexes like the ones studied on these two expeditions, allow chemicals and material from the interior of the Earth into the sea, playing a big part in ocean chemistry. The sites’ create an accumulation of valuable metals and minerals that are of interest to mining businesses.

Until recently, the costs of undersea mining was so high that it was impractical and not profitable. However, developments in technology have now allowed companies to potentially move forward with plans for undersea mining. When this mining commences, the environment will be changed, and without pre­ and post­ mining records, the effects of extraction will be unknown. There is a great need for quantifiable and high­resolution monitoring of these remote environments. The Virtual Vents and Vent Life research cruises have not only advanced the knowledge of these remote hydrothermal environments, but shared a glimpse of this unique underwater world with the public.

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