Friday, January 20, 2012


It has been said that one of the biggest threats to hydrothermal vent ecosystems are the scientists who research them. After all, we do collect wildlife samples, break off pieces of vent chimneys and scoop up rocks, which are all technically habitats down there. But is it so bad if all this is done in the name of science? Well, yes and no, but there are ways to be responsible about advancing the sphere of knowledge without being overly destructive.

To help guide research on and around hydrothermal systems, an international non-profit organization called InterRidge provides a set of guidelines and policies outlining responsible research practices designed to minimize destruction and maximize scientific output from studies of hydrothermal vent environments. InterRidge, which has nearly 2,600 members from more than 60 countries, exists to promote interdisciplinary, international studies of oceanic spreading centers by creating a global research community where technology and scientific information can be exchanged. These guidelines instruct us and anyone who might be carrying out such studies to do the following:

1) Avoid, in the conduct of scientific research, activities that will have deleterious impacts on the sustainability of populations of hydrothermal vent organisms.
2) Avoid, in the conduct of scientific research, activities that lead to long lasting and significant alteration and/or visual degradation of vent sites.
3) Avoid collections that are not essential to the conduct of scientific research.
4) Avoid, in the conduct of scientific research, transplanting biota or geological material between sites.
5) Familiarize yourself with the status of current and planned research in an area and avoid activities that will compromise experiments or observations of other researchers. Assure that your own research activities and plans are known to the rest of the international research community through InterRidge and other public domain databases
6) Facilitate the fullest possible use of all biological, chemical and geological samples collected through collaborations and cooperation amongst the global community of scientists.

This means that everything we collect on this cruise must be taken for a scientific purpose and be used to generate as much new knowledge as possible. Atlantis and her science team are proudly adhering to InterRidge's responsible research practices guidelines, and it is inspiring to watch those ideals in action in a progressive and scientifically responsible environment.

InterRidge's activities are increasingly important, as the precious metals found at hydrothermal vents have been catching the attention of the mining industry. Because these hydrothermal vent sites are pristine and fragile ecosystems, they need to be protected from excessive exploitation. As Cindy Van Dover puts it, “Most vents are found in international waters, where there is little environmental oversight of deep-sea habitats, or in the territorial seas of countries with nascent or non-existent conservation policies that apply to deep-sea hydrothermal vents.” You can read Cindy's recent article about the importance of conservation at hydrothermal sea vents here (pdf).

Eoghan Reeves
InterRidge also provides a number of student and postdoctoral fellowships that enable international researchers to collaborate and take advantage of seagoing expeditions. Eoghan Reeves, a postdoctoral fellow at the MARUM Center for Marine Environmental Sciences at the University of Bremen, Germany, was able to join this expedition because of InterRidge. “Thanks to InterRidge I have a chance to do some exploratory research with the hydrothermal plume sampling team [Chip, Brandy, Sarah and Greg], to examine if sulfur from the vent environment becomes incorporated into organic material in rising plumes,” he said.

The process Eoghan is studying could affect the delivery of metal nutrients from the vents to the ocean. Also, through his collaborations with the hydrothermal fluid sampling team (Jeff, Jill and Sean), he is able to continue his previous research on vent fluids containing methanethiol, a sulfur-containing molecule that may have had a big role in the emergence of life on Earth. Methanethiol, or methyl mercaptan, is similar to the smelly substance added to household gas for safety and Eoghan has previously found it in moderate-temperature black smokers at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and East Pacific Rise. Researchers studying early Earth biochemistry are very interested in the compound, as it may have been crucial to the formation of the first amino acids and proteins in primordial hot springs. At Piccard and Von Damm, he now has a chance to look for it in much hotter vent fluids.

Eoghan’s measurements will help understand how methanethiol forms and what its presence means to a hydrothermal origin of life billions of years ago. “Without InterRidge, this great opportunity to work be part of the expedition would simply not have been possible,” said Eoghan.

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