Scientists have discovered a vast plume of iron and other micronutrients more than 1,000 km long billowing from hydrothermal vents in the South Atlantic Ocean. The finding, soon to be published in the journal Nature Geoscience, calls past estimates of iron abundances into question, and may challenge researchers’ assumptions about iron sources in the world’s seas.
“This study and other studies like it are going to force the scientific community to reevaluate how much iron is really being contributed by hydrothermal vents and to increase those estimates, and that has implications for not only iron geochemistry but a number of other disciplines as well,” says Mak Saito, a WHOI associate scientist and lead author of the study.
Saito and his team of collaborators—which includes WHOI researchers and a colleague affiliated with the University of Liverpool (U.K.)—didn’t set out to find iron plumes in the South Atlantic. They set sail aboard the R/V Knorr in 2007 as part of the Cobalt, Iron and Micro-organisms from the Upwelling zone to the Gyre (or CoFeMUG, pronounced “coffee mug”) expedition, which intended to map chemical composition and microbial life along the ship’s route between Brazil and Namibia. As the scientists traveled the route, they sampled the seawater at frequent intervals and multiple depths along the way, and then stored the samples for in-depth analysis back on land.
Their route passed over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a band of mountains and valleys running along the Atlantic Ocean floor from the Arctic to the Antarctic where several of the Earth’s major tectonic plates are slowly spreading apart. Hydrothermal vents, or fissures in the Earth’s crust, are found along the ridge, but they haven’t been extensively studied because slow-spreading ridges are thought to be less active than fast-spreading ones. Past studies using helium, which is released from the Earth’s mantle through hydrothermal vents and is routinely used as an indicator of vent activity, have found little coming from mid-Atlantic vents, and researchers have assumed that means the vents spew little iron as well.
So Saito and his colleagues were surprised by what their samples revealed when later studied in the lab. Once filtered and analyzed, some of the seawater showed unexpectedly high levels of iron and manganese. When Abigail Noble, then a WHOI graduate student, and Saito plotted the sites where the iron-rich samples were taken, they realized the samples formed a distinct plume—a cloud of nutrients ranging in depth from 1,500 to 3,500 meters that spanned more than 1,000 km of the South Atlantic Ocean.
“We had never seen anything like it,” Saito says. “We were sort of shocked—there’s this huge bull’s-eye right in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. We didn’t quite know what to do with it, because it went contrary to a lot of our expectations.”
The plume’s ratio of iron to helium was 80-fold higher than ratios reported for faster-spreading ridges in the southeastern Pacific Ocean.
The serendipitous discovery casts doubt on the assumption that slow-spreading ridges are iron-poor, and it raises questions about the use of helium as an indicator for iron flux in hydrothermal vents, Saito says.
“We’ve assumed that low helium means low iron, and our study finds that that’s not true,” Saito says. “There’s actually quite a lot of iron coming out of these slow-spreading regions in the Atlantic, where people thought there would be little to none.”
And that has profound implications, because iron is a critical element for ocean life. Iron is known to spur the growth of phytoplankton in many marine habitats, especially those important in the ocean’s carbon cycle, which, in turn, impacts atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and Earth’s climate. Because more than half the world’s seafloor ridges are slow-spreading, the team’s discovery suggests there may be far more iron from these locations than previously estimated.
“We need to understand where iron is in the ocean and where it’s coming from to understand the role of iron in the marine carbon cycle with any confidence,” Saito says.Saito and his colleagues hope future studies will reveal the exact shape and extent of the plume, and just how much of its iron and other micronutrients persist and rise to the surface. Answering these lingering questions will help researchers truly understand how hydrothermal vents affect the ocean as a whole, Saito says.
The research was supported by the U.S. NSF-Chemical Oceanography program and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (grant GBMF2724).
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu.
Originally published: August 18, 2013
Media Relations Office | EurekAlert!
GPM sees deadly tornadic storms moving through US Southeast
01.12.2016 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Cyclic change within magma reservoirs significantly affects the explosivity of volcanic eruptions
30.11.2016 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water
In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...
The efficiency of power electronic systems is not solely dependent on electrical efficiency but also on weight, for example, in mobile systems. When the weight of relevant components and devices in airplanes, for instance, is reduced, fuel savings can be achieved and correspondingly greenhouse gas emissions decreased. New materials and components based on gallium nitride (GaN) can help to reduce weight and increase the efficiency. With these new materials, power electronic switches can be operated at higher switching frequency, resulting in higher power density and lower material costs.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE together with partners have investigated how these materials can be used to make power...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
02.12.2016 | Medical Engineering
02.12.2016 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
02.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy