UW News

July 18, 1998

First time ever retrieval of “black smokers” from ocean floor reveals one of Earth’s strangest and most enigmatic ecosystems

News and Information

The University of Washington in Seattle and the American Museum of Natural History in New York announced today that actively forming sulfide chimneys — informally known as “black smokers” — complete with extraordinary microbial communities that live in their interiors have been raised for the first time from the depths of the ocean. Sulfide chimneys are fascinating because they harbor exotic life forms, far below the reach of sunlight, in the most extreme environments in which living things can exist.

Sulfide chimneys are remarkable tower-like structures that grow where hot water flows from the sea floor in areas where new oceanic crust is being created by the forces of plate tectonics. These regions, known as mid-ocean ridges, are in effect a 50,000-mile-long chain of volcanoes on the ocean floor, which act as a gigantic heat engine that drives the circulation of water through the ocean crust. That water dissolves minerals in the crust and deposits them when it reemerges into the cold ocean water, eventually forming the sulfide chimneys.

“The inventions of science fiction hold nothing over the mysteries of real science and natural phenomena,” said museum President Ellen V. Futter. “How extraordinary that raising these structures from the depths of the oceans may shed light not only on the origins of life on Earth, but also on the possibility of life elsewhere in the cosmos. This successful project — a testament to the power of human curiosity, ingenuity, and sheer hard work — shows us how much we can achieve, and how much there is yet to learn.”

“We are delighted with the success of this expedition and the successful partnership with the American Museum of Natural History,” said Richard L. McCormick, president of the University of Washington. “We commend the team of inventive scientists and engineers who are responsible for this achievement.”

The black smokers were retrieved by the expedition team from a depth of more than one mile beneath the surface of the ocean, from the Juan De Fuca Ridge, approximately 180 miles off the coast of Washington and British Columbia. While small sulfide structures have been recovered in the past, no one had ever before attempted to raise a large, actively growing structure. On this expedition, scientists were able to raise four 5-foot chimneys, ranging in weight from 1,200 to more than 4,000 pounds. The team even retrieved one structure that was still boiling hot when it arrived at the surface, and one yielded several unprecedented samples of still-growing bacterial cultures from its interior.

Windows onto life on earth and possibly on other planets

Black smokers are part of one of the world’s strangest and most enigmatic ecosystems, filled with creatures that, unlike virtually all other life forms on Earth, thrive in the complete absence of sunlight, thereby challenging widely-held assumptions about the conditions under which life can exist. Unique crabs, bizarre tube worms, exotic shrimp, and giant clams live on and around the chimneys; their interiors harbor a diverse and little-known community of microbes, some of which are “heat-loving,” or thermophilic, and are among the most primitive living things known to science.

The presence of life at the hydrothermal vents also has tantalizing implications for the possibility of life on other planetary bodies, according to John Delaney, University of Washington professor of oceanography. Delaney, who has been conducting research at the Juan de Fuca Ridge for 28 years, was co-leader of the expedition with Ed Mathez, chairman of the museum’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Creatures could be thriving today at deep-sea vents that may occur on the ocean floor of Europa, beneath the frozen ice pack of this moon of Jupiter. By bringing these black smokers up from the depths, the research team hopes to learn how the ecosystems of these extreme environments reveal the parameters within which life can exist here on Earth and beyond.

Extensive research on the sulfide chimneys will continue at both the university and museum.

The black smoker expedition

This extremely challenging mission heralds a new approach to the study of this unique environment by bringing an entire habitat from the deep ocean to the surface for detailed analysis, according to co-expedition leader Mathez. It represents the culmination of three years of careful planning, as well as on-going cooperation with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It was preceded by a voyage in September 1997 to explore and document this area of the Juan de Fuca Ridge, a segment of the global mid-ocean ridge system. The first cruise returned with photography and sonar imagery that revealed the area in greater detail than ever before.

This year the team returned to the same site with two ships and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). The University of Washington Research ship the Thomas G. Thompson, a new class of research vessel, departed from Seattle on June 26 with chief scientist John Delaney, carrying not only scientists and engineers, but also eight middle- and high school teachers. The second vessel was a Canadian Coast Guard Research vessel, the John P. Tully, with Assistant Professor Deborah S. Kelley of the University of Washington’s Department of Oceanography as chief scientist. The ROV, known by the acronym ROPOS (Remotely Operated Platform for Oceanographic Science), was run by Keith Sheppard of the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility; it was deployed on the Thompson to conduct the underwater operations, and a portion of one of the chimneys will also be on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The Tully, which departed on June 30, was fitted with a large deep-sea winch system that was used to raise the sulfide chimneys; the recovery effort was designed and engineered by LeRoy Olson, an ocean engineer from the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

A NOVA television crew documented the expedition for WGBH TV in Boston; tentatively titled “Into the Abyss,” it is scheduled to air next spring. The public can learn more about the expedition through logs and photographs on Web sites of the American Museum of Natural History (http://www.amnh.org), the University of Washington (http://www.ocean.washington.edu/outreach/revel), and PBS television (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/abyss).

Exhibition and education

At the American Museum of Natural History: As part of its ongoing efforts to bring cutting-edge science to the public, several of the smokers will be on view at the museum in its soon-to-open (spring 1999) Hall of Planet Earth. These, along with many other real specimens, will play an iconic role in telling the story of the Earth. Millions of visitors to the museum — both on-site and off — will be able to learn from these exceptional structures. In addition, visitors will be able to view the images captured on the first reconnaissance voyage in three dimensions, and virtually “drive” around the expedition site and the structures.

Four of the teachers who joined the expedition with Myles Gordon, director of the museum’s Department of Education, are from New York City. The museum’s newly launched National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology — funded by a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — will collaborate with expedition scientists and the teachers who participated in the Thompson’s voyage to develop science-rich materials in a variety of formats that can be used in schools, community centers, and other locations across the country.

At the University of Washington: For the University of Washington, the voyage blended the institution’s research enterprise with its educational and public service components. Alongside the scientists carrying out this research were public school teachers from Washington state and elsewhere. Just as UW faculty members use the experiences and data from these expeditions to help educate college students, these school teachers will use what they learned to spark excitement about science in their classrooms.

Originated at the University three years ago, the REVEL (Research and Education: Volcanoes, Exploration and Life) project is receiving support this year from the National Science Foundation.


The sponsoring institutions of the expedition are the American Museum of Natural History and the University of Washington. An international, interdisciplinary team of researchers is collaborating on the project, with the help of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and its Canadian Coast Guard. The teachers’ participation is supported under a cooperative agreement between the American Museum of Natural History and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and by the University of Washington and the National Science Foundation.