Treasures of the deep. Oceans support our dwindling resources

The deep sea is still relatively unexplored, but pioneering Southampton researchers have discovered deep-sea vents teeming with new life and valuable metals such as gold, platinum and copper.

As precious metal resources on land increasingly become a cause for concern, we could consider looking to the oceans to provide the means to support our technology-led society.

Two teams of scientists from the National Oceanography Centre Southampton have been the first to discover deep-sea vents and the marine life around them in the Caribbean and the Antarctic. In collaboration with the Natural Environment Research Council, a team led by marine geochemist Dr Doug Connelly and marine biologist Dr Jon Copley has found the world’s most extreme deepsea volcanic vents 5km down in a rift in the Caribbean sea floor, while a team led by Professor Paul Tyler has discovered a new set of deep-sea volcanic vents in the chilly waters of the Southern Ocean.

In 2013 a new team, led by the University's Dr Jon Copley, has returned to the Cayman Trough with high-definition cameras and sampling equipment. They are accompanied by the BBC's Science Editor, David Shukman. Read more about the latest expedition.

Missing puzzle piece

Doug explains that the deep-sea vents in the Cayman Trough, an undersea trench south of the Cayman Islands, are the world’s deepest known ‘black smoker’ vents, so called for the smoky-looking hot fluids that gush from them. The undersea hot springs, which lie 0.8km deeper than any seen before, may be hotter than 450°C and shoot a jet of mineral-laden water more than a kilometre into the ocean above.

During an expedition in April 2010 aboard the Royal Research Ship James Cook, Doug and Jon’s team used the National Oceanography Centre’s robot submarine called Autosub6000 and a deep-diving vehicle, HyBIS, manufactured by the British firm, Hydro-Lek to locate and study the vents.

Mining for minerals

The vents, which the team named the Beebe Vent Field after the first scientist to venture into the deep ocean, gush hot fluids that are unusually rich in copper, and shoot a jet of mineral-laden water four times higher than any known deep-sea vents into the ocean above, explains Doug.

“As well as scientific interest, there is an economic interest in copper as well as other metals such as platinum and gold,” he says. Although they were not able to measure the temperature of the vents directly, the hot fluids and the presence of copper deposits indicate that these vents may be hotter than 450°C. “These vents may be one of the few places on the planet where we can study reactions between rocks and supercritical fluids – liquids that behave like gases – at extreme temperatures and pressures,” Doug adds.

“More than half of our planet is deep ocean and we are increasingly using this resource for different things such as fishing and extracting oil and gas. We are also starting to see mining for metals such as copper and iron from the sea floor,” says Jon. “But we don’t yet fully understand what governs the patterns of life down there. If we want to make responsible decisions about how to use the oceans sustainably, it is imperative we get the understanding and knowledge of the habitat,” he adds.

Find out more

A 'black smoker' vent

A 'black smoker' vent

The deep-sea vents in the Cayman Trough are the world’s deepest and shoot a jet of mineral-laden water more than a kilometre into the ocean above.

Key facts