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Hydrothermal Vent Communities: Anthropogenic Utility & Environmental Concerns

Updated on March 28, 2011
Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vent
Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vent | Source

Hydrothermal Vents: Anthropogenic Utility & Environmental Concerns

As with most ecosystems on Earth, hydrothermal vents have been assessed for exploitable resources and anthropogenic value. The commercial value of genetic resources available at hydrothermal sites is estimated at over three billion dollars per year. Mineral resources are thought to be worth even more. However, the non-market value of hydrothermal vents to global biodiversity and the scientific community is incalculable (Thiel & Koslow 2001). Human activities that pose a potential threat to hydrothermal ecosystems include seabed mining for polymetallic sulfide deposits, submarine-based ecotourism and marine scientific research. Changes in distribution and vent fluid flows due to anthropogenic activity have been documented at hydrothermal sites along the East Pacific Rise and Mid-Atlantic Ridge (Glowka 2003).

Mining companies have investigated harvesting the metal sulfide deposits that form at hydrothermal vents. The Nautilus Mineral Corporation currently has a license from Papau New Guinea to explore vent sites in the East Manus Basin and Neptune Resources obtained permission from New Zealand to explore the Harve Trough. The risks associated with mining in hydrothermal ecosystems are great. Extracting ore will unavoidably result in the removal or destruction of substratum habitat. Some organisms will be killed immediately by the mining machinery and others will smother in the plumes of debris created. It is theorized that digging out certain deposits could produce plumes large enough to smother entire vent communities. Those that survive will have to adapt to drastic changes in their habitat. The hard substrata will be replaced with soft particulates that settle from the mining plume. This particulate matter could also clog hydrothermal conduits and block the flow of essential vent fluids. The subsurface hydrology of vent sites would be altered, which could also potentially block or slow fluid flow. Long-lived vent fields tend to have the largest mineral deposits and these sites are likely to be the most stable hydrothermal ecosystems with high biodiversity. (Theil & Koslow 2001).

Marine scientific research currently poses the greatest threat to hydrothermal ecosystems since plans for mining and ecotourism are both still being developed. As scientists learn more about these fragile habitats the goals of research are shifting from observational monitoring of activities to harvesting and studying biological and geological samples, which ultimately alters the environment and affects the ecological community (Glowka 2003). Mitigation is necessary to prevent habitat loss and the oversampling of populations (Thiel & Koslow 2001). Some argue that vent sites within the jurisdiction of any nation should be designated as national parks or sanctuaries. Unfortunately the majority of known hydrothermal sites are located in international waters and would remain unprotected (Devey et el 2007). A report by the Independent World Commission on the Oceans recommended that sites beyond any national jurisdiction be placed under a public trust for the benefit of all humanity. Developing an international professional code of conduct for hydrothermal vent research has also been suggested (Thiel & Koslow 2001).

InterRidge, an international, non-profit group of researchers, has published brief, general guidelines for responsible science at hydrothermal vents. It is generally advised that any activities resulting in long-lasting or significant changes to vent sites be avoided. Any practice that would result in the visual degradation of the ecosystem is discouraged as well. Focus should be on maintaining populations rather than individuals, and any pursuit that could affect population stability is strongly depreciated. Scientists should avoid collecting samples that are not imperative to their research. Samples that are collected should be used to their greatest utility. It is important to avoid transplanting any material (organic or inorganic) between sites. The unique genetic identities of individual populations help to protect them from diseases and invasive species. Lastly, InterRidge encourages the international scientific community to maintain open communication about all hydrothermal vent research (Devey et el 2007).

These guidelines are useful for forming a very basic understanding of sustainable science at hydrothermal vents, but are somewhat vague. More specific suggestions as to how best manage vent communities have also been proposed. Physical access to hydrothermal sites could be limited by requiring scientists to submit a research proposal that is either accepted or rejected by an established agency or group of accredited scientists familiar with vent ecosystems. Voluntary “self-policing” by researchers should also be encouraged. To minimize biological sampling, an international specimen exchange program should be implemented, allowing samples to be shared. Information about the samples would also be available on an international web database (Thiel & Koslow 2001). Hydrothermal vent management is in its infancy in both the scientific and non-scientific communities, and there is much room for improvement. Before vents are used commercially their full ecological value should be thoroughly assessed by qualified scientists. It is important to understand both the ecological and biological relationships of the native biota before disturbing the habitat in any manner.

Thanks for Reading! Literature Consulted:

Devey, C., C. Fisher and S. Scott. “Responsible Science at Hydrothermal Vents.” Oceanography . 20.1 (2007): 162-171.

Glowka, L. “Putting Marine Scientific Research on a Sustainable Footing at Hydrothermal Vents.” Marine Policy . 27.4 (2003): 303-312.

Thiel, H. and A. Koslow, eds. Managing Risks to Biodiversity and the Environment on the High Sea, Including Tools Such as Marine Protected Areas- Scientific Requirements and Legal Aspects . 27 Feb 2001, Isle of Vilm, Germany. German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, 2001. Print.

Should hydrothermal vent ecosystems be mined for ore?

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    • WryLilt profile image

      Susannah Birch 

      7 years ago from Toowoomba, Australia

      Welcome to hubpages! Interesting and well researched hub - especially the part about research into these natural habitats actually harming them.

      However I'm a little fuzzy about what Hydrothermal Vents actually are - can you explain more about what they are and what live in them?

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