Variability In Environmental Characteristics Of Hydrothermal-Vent Ecosystems: What?s At Risk?

Dover, C. L. Van
Organization: Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration
Pages: 4
Publication Date: Jan 1, 2008
Organisms living at hydrothermal vents are adapted to catastrophic disturbances in their environment caused by processes such as tectonic activity and mineralization that shift the locus of fluid flux and volcanic eruptions that pave over active systems and reset the hydrothermal cycle. The scientific community appreciates this risk of natural, local loss of species, genetic, and habitat diversity. The risks of more profound loss of diversity and ecosystem function and health as a consequence of additive commercial activities in hydrothermal systems are unknown, and are not the same across all deep-sea hydrothermal systems. Vent communities differ from one ocean basin to another, as do the geological settings and geochemical dynamics of vent systems. Communities on the East Pacific Rise represent one end-member in the catalog of hydrothermal vent communities. In these systems, the life cycle of a hydrothermal field is on approximately the same time scale as the lifespan of the species that live there. From studies of the 1991 and subsequent eruptions at 9N on the East Pacific Rise, we understand the rapidity with which new vents are colonized when nearby brood stocks are available to repopulate the system. Almost instantaneously, microbial biofilms and mats form, followed quickly by invasion of mobile opportunistic organisms (especially crabs, copepods). In a matter of a few months, a predictable succession of sessile organisms recruits, grows, and reproduces. Within two to three years, the system returns to levels of species diversity that begin to match those of the pre-eruption condition. Vents on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) represent a different end-member, with catastrophic disturbance rare relative to the life span of the organisms that make up the bulk of the biomass. We have no experience with an eruptive event or other major transformation of venting activity on the MAR and thus have no knowledge or insight regarding the time it would take for the biological diversity to return to pre-cataclysmic levels.
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