Hydrothermal activity and deep-ocean biology of the Mid-Cayman Rise

Lead Research Organisation: National Oceanography Centre
Department Name: Science and Technology

Abstract

We propose to investigate the world's deepest undersea volcanic ridge for the first time to obtain a vital piece in a global jigsaw puzzle of deep-sea life, advancing our understanding of patterns of biodiversity in our planet's largest ecosystem. Our proposal targets the Mid-Cayman Rise (MCR), an undersea volcanic ridge where ocean crust is being created in the Caribbean Sea. In common with all such ridges examined so far, we expect to find hydrothermal vents on the MCR: hot springs that support rich communities of deep-sea life. Investigations of hydrothermal vents over past 30 years have found hundreds of new animal species and shown that vents are more common than originally realised. Understanding how species survive in these unlikely havens has revolutionised ideas about how ecosystems can be supplied with energy and even provided clues to the origins of life. But we have yet to understand what controls the global distribution of species in these island-like extreme environments. East Pacific vents, for example, are home to metre-long tubeworms, but those animals are not known at Mid-Atlantic vents. The MCR presents a unique opportunity to determine the factors responsible for such patterns. The MCR has a deep-water connection with the Atlantic, so its vents may be inhabited by species related to those of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. But before the Isthmus of Panama closed ~3 million years ago, there was also a deep-water connection with the eastern Pacific. The MCR may therefore harbour species related to those of the eastern Pacific, constituting a 'missing link' between the two oceans. Alternatively, the MCR may also host species unlike any found elsewhere, as a consequence of its depth and isolation from other volcanic ridges. Characterising its vent communities should therefore reveal the roles of ocean currents, geological history, depth and isolation in determining global distributions of vent species. As much of what we know about the dispersal of deep-sea species in general comes from studying these systems, this will advance understanding of patterns of deep-sea biodiversity. Because of this potential, the international Census of Marine Life has identified the MCR as a priority for investigation. From analogies with other ridges, we also expect a variety of types of hydrothermal vent on the MCR. These include high-temperature systems associated with an undersea mountain where rocks from the Earth's mantle may be pushed through the overlying crust. We also anticipate cooler alkaline vents on the ridge, created by reactions between seawater and exposed mantle rocks. And vents towards the ~6000 m maximum MCR depth are expected to have record high temperatures and unusual geochemistry, as a result of pressure-driven differences in the reactions in the crust that create them. Such vents have a high potential for new animal species and novel microbes adapted to them. We therefore propose to study the geology and hydrography of the world's deepest seafloor spreading centre, using established techniques to locate all hydrothermal vents along its ~110 km length. This will include using NERC's new Autosub 6000 autonomous underwater vehicle to pinpoint vents on the seafloor. We will then visit those vents with the UK's deep-diving robotic vehicle Isis to sample their geology, geochemistry and biology. Analysing these samples will confirm the geochemical processes driving the vents and reveal the evolutionary and genetic relationships of their inhabitants to vents elsewhere. We will also collect samples for international programmes in marine microbiology and biotechnology and share our discoveries with the wider public through an outreach programme. By using cutting-edge technology to investigate this part of our planet for the first time and answer a key question in deep-sea science, this proposal addresses NERC's goal of delivering world-class environmental research at the frontiers of knowledge.
 
Description Our research has discovered that mid-ocan ridges undergo a complex and semi-continuous history of volcanic and magmatic activity. This has led to a greater understanding of the mineral and energy resource potential at mid-ocean ridge systems. In particular, we have discovered a new class of hydrothermal system (reported in Nature Comms. 2015) and the role of super critical fluids in depositing minerals on the seafloor.
Exploitation Route This work has led to further research in to the formation and preservation of seafloor massive sulphides.
Sectors Chemicals,Energy

 
Description It has stimulated modelling and further research in to the processes of mineral formation by super-critical hydrothermal fluids in and on top of the Earth's crust. In particular, it has led to further research in seafloor massive sulphides funded both academically (NERC) and by the EC (multi-million euro FP7 project -'Blue Mining' involving industry partners.
Sector Chemicals,Energy,Environment
Impact Types Economic

 
Description UN IRP invited contribution o deep-sea mineral resources
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact Recommendations for informed basis for policy approach to weighing risks/rewards regarding sea-bed mineral resources.
URL https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/8729/-UNEPs_environmental,_social_and_economic...
 
Description Blue Mining: Breakthrough Solutions for the Sustainable Exploration and Extraction of Deep Sea Mineral Resources.
Amount € 15,000,000 (EUR)
Funding ID project, n° 604500. 
Organisation European Union 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 02/2014 
End 01/2018
 
Description National Development Plan
Amount € 800,000 (EUR)
Organisation Marine Institute 
Sector Public
Country Ireland
Start 07/2011 
End 08/2011
 
Description National Geographic Society
Amount £120,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NatGeoSoc-2011-NOC-BJM-1 
Organisation National Geographic 
Sector Private
Country United States
Start 04/2011 
End 03/2012
 
Description Tectonic Ocean Spreading at the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone (TOSCA)
Amount € 800,000 (EUR)
Organisation Marine Institute 
Sector Public
Country Ireland
Start 05/2018 
End 04/2019
 
Description Blue Mining : EU FP7 Consortium R&D Programme 
Organisation 2H Offshore Engineering
PI Contribution EU funded 15M euro consortium R&D programme on seafloor mineralisation and resources as direct result of NERC standard grants on CayMin etc.
Collaborator Contribution I lead the work package on mineral resource assessment. Partners (GEOMAR, TNTU Norway, and Uni Lisbon) lead resource exploration, other partners (IHC mining, 2H offshore ltd., Acher Bilt A.S. and Uni Aarchen) lead on extraction technology and economics.
Impact reports on remote sensing of marine mineral deposit assessment using geoacoustics, seismics and controlled source electromagnetics. Numerous contributions given during international meetings.
Start Year 2014
 
Description Blue Mining : EU FP7 Consortium R&D Programme 
Organisation Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres
Department Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel
Country Germany 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution EU funded 15M euro consortium R&D programme on seafloor mineralisation and resources as direct result of NERC standard grants on CayMin etc.
Collaborator Contribution I lead the work package on mineral resource assessment. Partners (GEOMAR, TNTU Norway, and Uni Lisbon) lead resource exploration, other partners (IHC mining, 2H offshore ltd., Acher Bilt A.S. and Uni Aarchen) lead on extraction technology and economics.
Impact reports on remote sensing of marine mineral deposit assessment using geoacoustics, seismics and controlled source electromagnetics. Numerous contributions given during international meetings.
Start Year 2014
 
Description Blue Mining : EU FP7 Consortium R&D Programme 
Organisation Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)
Country Norway 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution EU funded 15M euro consortium R&D programme on seafloor mineralisation and resources as direct result of NERC standard grants on CayMin etc.
Collaborator Contribution I lead the work package on mineral resource assessment. Partners (GEOMAR, TNTU Norway, and Uni Lisbon) lead resource exploration, other partners (IHC mining, 2H offshore ltd., Acher Bilt A.S. and Uni Aarchen) lead on extraction technology and economics.
Impact reports on remote sensing of marine mineral deposit assessment using geoacoustics, seismics and controlled source electromagnetics. Numerous contributions given during international meetings.
Start Year 2014
 
Description Blue Mining : EU FP7 Consortium R&D Programme 
Organisation RWTH Aachen University
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution EU funded 15M euro consortium R&D programme on seafloor mineralisation and resources as direct result of NERC standard grants on CayMin etc.
Collaborator Contribution I lead the work package on mineral resource assessment. Partners (GEOMAR, TNTU Norway, and Uni Lisbon) lead resource exploration, other partners (IHC mining, 2H offshore ltd., Acher Bilt A.S. and Uni Aarchen) lead on extraction technology and economics.
Impact reports on remote sensing of marine mineral deposit assessment using geoacoustics, seismics and controlled source electromagnetics. Numerous contributions given during international meetings.
Start Year 2014
 
Description Blue Mining : EU FP7 Consortium R&D Programme 
Organisation University of Lisbon
Country Portugal 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution EU funded 15M euro consortium R&D programme on seafloor mineralisation and resources as direct result of NERC standard grants on CayMin etc.
Collaborator Contribution I lead the work package on mineral resource assessment. Partners (GEOMAR, TNTU Norway, and Uni Lisbon) lead resource exploration, other partners (IHC mining, 2H offshore ltd., Acher Bilt A.S. and Uni Aarchen) lead on extraction technology and economics.
Impact reports on remote sensing of marine mineral deposit assessment using geoacoustics, seismics and controlled source electromagnetics. Numerous contributions given during international meetings.
Start Year 2014
 
Description Blue Mining : EU FP7 Consortium R&D Programme 
Organisation University of Southampton
Department Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution EU funded 15M euro consortium R&D programme on seafloor mineralisation and resources as direct result of NERC standard grants on CayMin etc.
Collaborator Contribution I lead the work package on mineral resource assessment. Partners (GEOMAR, TNTU Norway, and Uni Lisbon) lead resource exploration, other partners (IHC mining, 2H offshore ltd., Acher Bilt A.S. and Uni Aarchen) lead on extraction technology and economics.
Impact reports on remote sensing of marine mineral deposit assessment using geoacoustics, seismics and controlled source electromagnetics. Numerous contributions given during international meetings.
Start Year 2014
 
Description CayMin: Study of water depth and basement influence on composition of hydrothermal mineralisation. 
Organisation University of Southampton
Department Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Direct result: new collaboration resulting in NERC standard grant award focused on mineralisation at the Cayman vents. I led the grant.
Collaborator Contribution Partners contributed by bringing a land-based perspective.
Impact see section for grant: CAymin
Start Year 2012
 
Description Tectonic Oceanic Spreading (TOSCA) 
Organisation University College Dublin
Country Ireland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have collaborated in conceiving the original concept of the proposal and provided interpretation of the initial data.
Collaborator Contribution Partners have acquired Irish research vessel time and access to their Irish research ROV over a 4 week-long cruise for May-June 2018.
Impact Geology and geophysics.No outcomes as yet
Start Year 2016
 
Description Deep-sea Mining Summit key-note seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Setting the UK agenda for engagement in deep-sea minerals research and UK Industrial Stategy
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://deepsea-mining-summit.com/
 
Description Key-note presentation to the International Seabed Authority meeting, Uganda 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited to speak at an ISA workshop, engaging developing countries in the technological and scientific challenges around deep-sea mineral resources.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.isa.org.jm/
 
Description invited contribution to UNEP International Resources Panel, Brusselles 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited key-note presentation to UNEP IRP re: deep-sea mineral resources, risks and rewards.
Influence decisions by EU commissioners who were present in the audience.
Reflected in the latest UN IRP report.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://web.unep.org/resourcepanel/
 
Description lecture series given to University of Sao Paulo students 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Series of lectures about deep-sea mineral resources and technology. Knowledge exchange and capacity building with our NEWTON fund partners.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015