Many evolutionary biologists believe that life on this planet may have stemmed from hydrothermal vents in the cavernous depths of our oceans. Black Smokers persist today, providing an interface where cold ocean water and hot underlying magma interact, sending plumes of smoke, leached minerals and hot sea currents skyward. These intriguing structures are not only sites of beguiling ecological diversity, but also play host to unusual and valuable minerals formed under these unique conditions.
While these vents have been studied extensively, our understanding of the path taken by water between hot rocks, and the depth to which it can circulate, has remained patchy. Scientists at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research have recently built a computer model to address these problems. This complex model – which can account for factors such as the physical properties of rocks and seawater – has provided unprecedented insights into the cooling processes that occur in underwater volcanoes and overhauled our understanding of the re-crystallization of valuable minerals on the ocean floor.
The scientists simulated a segment of a ridge on the ocean floor and investigated the different paths taken by water between super-heated rocks. They observed that water either seeped directly in and out of vents, or took a more convoluted route over a longer timescale. This provided novel insights into the means by which mineral deposits might form upon the ocean bed, and could engender future studies designed to assess the viability of deep-sea mining.