“Riot of Life” at 8000 Feet Below Sea Level

A Washington Post article reports that the water spewing out of deep-ocean thermal vents reaches 800 degrees farenheit. Where the scalding water meets the much colder ocean water–bringing chemicals and minerals along with the intense flow–scientists have  found biological life occurs. Reporter Mark Schrope describes the early days of this surprising science:

“Geologists discovered the first hydrothermal vents in the Pacific in 1977, near the Galapagos Islands. So unprepared were they to find life in such a hostile place that their team included no biologists, and they packed few biological supplies. But there were huge worms living in tubes, some as tall as a person, dominating the vents, alongside plots of massive clams. The geologists pickled samples of the strange animals as best they could, in some cases using Russian vodka they happened to have on hand.”

What’s startling news in today’s story is that a recent expedition has found thermal vents in a heretofore unimagined place:

“Oceanographers exploring some of the most remote deep-sea hot springs ever found have discovered what they say is a ‘riot of life’ in a distinct biological zone that no one knew existed. They said the exploration, which occurred more than a mile down in the ocean just north of Antarctica, uncovered the most strikingly unique assemblage of life-forms found in decades, including thousands upon thousands of a species of crab never seen before, as well as new barnacle, anemone, snail and starfish species.”

The depths to which these expeditions have sent video and photographic equipment with cameras is remarkable, 8,000 feet in one instance mentioned here. I urge you to read the whole article.

Learning about all these newly discovered species, my mind turns quickly to thoughts of extraterrestrial life. After all, we know that conditions in space would be extreme, even more extreme than 800 degrees and all the pressure that must be exerted on life at 8000 feet below sea level. Still, if life forms can flourish here, maybe there are some kinds of organisms, beyond our current imaginings, that would also thrive in deep space.

I’ve been fascinated by these vents for years. In 2005 I edited and published a really good adventure novel, really a speculative fiction, that imagined a sea creature living at these tremendous depths in the cold waters near the Faroe Islands near Scandinavia. It was called Warrener’s Beastie, by William R. Trotter.

Schrope was interviewed on the PBS NewsHour last night, video of his appearance is just below (sorry, link found to be broken in 2017; however, this link may work for you).

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