UW Today

July 8, 2015

Seafloor hot springs a significant source of iron in the oceans

News and Information

At the bottom of the sea, volcanic and magmatic forces create hot springs that spew super-heated water into the deep ocean. Hot, acidic water scours metals from Earth’s crust, and the warm chemical-rich water from these remote geysers supports exotic deep-sea ecosystems.

seafloor topography with colored water aboveIt had been widely thought the story stopped there. Metals such as iron and manganese were thought to quickly react and form particles that would either clump together or stick to other things, causing them to sink to the seafloor close to the source. But new research proves that the metals remain dissolved and follow deep-sea currents to provide a major source of iron to the world’s oceans. The findings are published Thursday, July 9, on the cover of Nature.

“This proves that hydrothermal activity at the mid-ocean ridges impacts global ocean chemistry of important trace metals,” said lead author Joseph Resing, a senior research scientist at the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “On longer timescales, it also impacts the productivity of the oceans.”

Metals, especially iron, are crucial to the growth of phytoplankton in the oceans. In many parts of the ocean iron controls the growth of marine life even though it is only present at concentrations of parts per trillion.

Most of the iron in the ocean comes from dust blown off deserts, or from rivers that discharge into the sea. But recent research, some conducted by co-author Christopher German at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, hinted that iron might also be escaping from the volcanic ridge crest by exploiting some type of chemical trick to make the long-distance voyage.

graph of colored plumes

The top three panels show measured concentrations of dissolved iron, manganese and aluminum. The bottom panel shows concentration of a form of helium that marks the water as coming from a hydrothermal vent.J. Resing / Univ. of Washington

The new study, part of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s GEOTRACES program, locates the “smoking gun” — a plume of hydrothermal metals drawn westward by a slow-moving, deep-ocean current that carries these metals for decades.

A 57-day cruise in fall 2013 aboard the UW’s research vessel, the Thomas G. Thompson, tracked water venting from the East Pacific Rise, a chain of underwater volcanoes west of Ecuador that is one of the most volcanically active places on Earth. The oceanographers followed the trail for more than 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) west across the South Pacific to Tahiti, using extremely sensitive tools to make measurements of the metals from the ocean’s surface to the seafloor.

While the aluminum eventually petered out, every station west of the ridge crest revealed evidence of hydrothermal manganese and, surprisingly, of iron, at about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) depth.

“Every single day we were out there, we were surprised to see that the plume of dissolved iron was still present,” Resing said. “We have never before documented dissolved iron carried so far in the ocean currents.”

The finding is especially important for the Southern Ocean, circling Antarctica, where massive phytoplankton blooms are known to be limited by iron supplies, and where winds are less likely to carry iron-rich dust.

map of oceans with red at bottom

Model results show that the hydrothermal iron impacts the ocean’s ability to transfer carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to deep in the Southern Ocean, where there are few other sources of iron.J. Resing / Univ. of Washington

Co-author Alessandro Tagliabue at the University of Liverpool, England, placed the results within an ocean model and found that phytoplankton growth in the Southern Ocean is supported by iron from deep-sea vents. Iron from vent systems thus helps sustain a major ocean ecosystem that consumes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A significant amount of this carbon is exported from the ocean’s surface to the deep sea; in the Southern Ocean, 15 to 30 percent of this export is supported by hydrothermal iron.

“To properly model the uptake of carbon dioxide by the Southern Ocean and to understand how this uptake impacts climate, you must account for this iron,” Resing said.

Ongoing research by other collaborators will analyze additional water samples collected during the same cruise to figure out what allows the iron to be transported so far. Two leading theories are that it attaches to large organic molecules, similar to how iron clings to hemoglobin in our bloodstream, or that it separates into tiny nanoparticles that can remain suspended in the water for decades.

Other co-authors are Peter Sedwick and Bettina Sohst at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia; William Jenkins at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and James Moffett at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.


For more information, contact Resing at 206-526-6184 or resing@uw.edu. See also the accompanying commentary.