June 26, 2007 A discovery that radically changed our understanding of the planet we live on celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. Scientists first discovered volcanic hot vents surrounded by bizarre animals thriving in total darkness at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in 1977 and at the end of June an international team of scientists, including many of the original explorers, will honor the landmark discovery at a special meeting and public event in the Galápagos Islands, located just south of the discovery site.
The discovery and subsequent exploration of these submarine hydrothermal vents, known as "black smokers", sparked a global quest to further explore one of Earth’s most extreme environments in search of answers to questions about crust formation, the origin of life and ocean chemistry.
“The discovery of hydrothermal vents—ecosystems driven by chemical energy from the seafloor rather than energy from the sun—led to a fundamental change in our understanding of life on Earth,” said Paul Tyler, co-chair of ChEss, the group holding the meeting. ChEss is one of the 14 field programs of the Census of Marine Life, a global collaboration to document the ocean’s life by 2010.
“It remains one of the most exciting discoveries in the past century,” Tyler said.
The vents were first discovered along the Galapagos Rift, a spur of the East Pacific Rise. The Galápagos Islands provide a fitting venue to hold this celebration, said Maria Baker, ChEss program coordinator. “The islands are very close to the actual discovery site. We are thrilled with the opportunity to showcase how far the research on these incredible ecosystems has come in this natural treasure of the world where Charles Darwin first formed his theory of evolution,” she said.
Roughly 50 scientists will attend the meeting, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which will include discussions about new—and controversial—issues facing vent science such as the onset of deep-sea mining and plans for conservation and management. An entire day will also be devoted to public outreach to foster a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, these remote environments.
Based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton in the United Kingdom, ChEss focuses on the diversity, abundance and distribution of the animals living in hydrothermal systems and other chemosynthetic—or chemically driven—environments and aims to produce a catalogue of these deep-sea species by 2010.