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What is a Hydrothermal Vent?

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Black Smoker Hydrothermal Vent

Black smoker hydrothermal vent, located on the monolith chimney at the northern cleft, which is on the Juan de Fuca Ridge off the coast of Washington.

NOAA PMEL Vents Program / www.pmel.noaa.gov

Hydrothermal Vents Description:

Hydrothermal vents, located in the deep sea, were discovered relatively recently. It was only about 30 years ago that scientists in the submersible Alvin were amazed to discover these undersea chimneys spewing hot water and minerals into the cold waters thousands of feet below the ocean surface.

What Are Hydrothermal Vents?:

Hydrothermal vents are essentially underwater geysers created by tectonic plates. These huge plates in the Earth’s crust move and create cracks in the ocean floor. Ocean water enters the cracks, is heated up by the Earth’s magma, and then released through the hydrothermal vents, along with minerals such as hydrogen sulfide, which end up forming volcano-like projections on the seafloor.

The water coming out of the vents can reach incredible temperatures of up to 750 degrees F.

Types of Hydrothermal Vents:

Two types of hydrothermal vents are the "black smokers" and "white smokers."

The hottest of the vents, the "black smokers," got their name because they spew a dark "smoke" composed mostly of iron and sulfide, which forms iron monosulfide and gives the smoke its black color. There are also "white smokers," which release a cooler, lighter material composed of compounds including barium, calcium and silicon.

Where Are Hydrothermal Vents Found?:

Hydrothermal vents are found at an average underwater depth of about 7,000 feet. They are found in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and concentrated near the Mid-Ocean Ridge, which winds its way along the seafloor around the globe.

What Lives in Hydrothermal Vents:

At a hydrothermal vent there is total darkness, toxic chemicals and extreme water pressure. But despite their intimidating description, hydrothermal vents support a wide variety of marine life. But there are bacteria-like organisms called archaea that use a process called chemosynthesis to turn chemicals from the vents into energy. By creating energy, these archaea drive the entire food chain for the hydrothermal vent habitat.

The archaea are used by other animals to generate energy. These animals include tubeworms, clams, mussels, crabs and shrimp. Hundreds of species of animals have been identified in the hydrothermal vent habitats around the world.

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