Seafloor Processes

Earth-Ocean Interactions provides expertise to NOAA for discovering, characterizing, and studying the processes of chemical and physical interactions between the solid Earth and the overlying global ocean.  The unique ecosystems that exist at hydrothermal vents and methane seeps are fundamentally different from other life on Earth, because they are based on chemical energy in the fluids (chemosynthesis) rather than energy from the Sun (photosynthesis). CIMRS researchers discovering new hydrothermal ecosystems and methane seeps in unexplored parts of the oceans characterize the geology, chemistry, and biology of new sites, and track changes in selected systems over time to understand their underlying processes, functions, and resources. Time-series observations show how these ecosystems are perturbed by episodic events. The range of chemical environments shows how they influence the diversity and biogeography of marine life.  Potential resources at hydrothermal vents include ore deposits formed by hydrothermal circulation, and novel bioactive compounds that have potential pharmaceutical applications for developing new drugs from the sea. The emission of methane gas from seeps on the West Coast continental margin creates carbonate hard ground that provides important fish habitat and provides a source of energy for marine ecosystems.

The Earth-Ocean Interactions (EOI) research teams comprise federal employees, OSU/CIMRS researchers, and outside collaborators from other government agencies and several universities in the United States and abroad. A wide range of research tools are used for this work, including seafloor instruments to detect earthquake and volcanic activity, multi-beam sonar systems for detailed mapping of seafloor bathymetry, and submersibles (both manned and robotic) for direct observation and sampling of seafloor hot spring systems. 

The Newport Helium Isotope laboratory provides important gas chemistry data on field samples that help discover and interpret the origin, setting, and character of seeps & vents.  This capability is relatively rare, with only a handful of labs across the country that can perform these types of analyses.

CIMRS personnel also have expertise in bathymetric mapping with multibeam sonar systems, which are used for mapping both the seafloor and bubble plumes in the water column (used to identify methane seeps).  The Newport EOI group also has an extensive database of seafloor mapping data from the Cascadia Margin, NE Pacific, and the Mariana regions (our primary working areas), and we collaborate with many outside groups in constantly expanding this coverage and sharing data.

CIMRS researchers are interpreting sub-surface geological structure using multi-channel seismic data, opening up new avenues for possible future collaborations on the Cascadia Margin with federal agencies.

Earth-Ocean Interaction Videos

Hydrothermal Vents

Hydrothermal venting occurs when seawater penetrates into the ocean crust, becomes heated, reacts with the crustal rock, and rises to the seafloor as fluid and gas (PMEL). 

CIMRS researchers study the effects of hydrothermal venting on the oceans - the circulation of the deep and intermediate waters of the Pacific Ocean. Oregon State University's Helium Isotope Laboratory (both at sea and in Newport, Oregon) serves as the base for the research group to study gases released from submarine volcanoes, hydrothermal vent systems and methane seeps from around the world. ​

PMEL Earth-Ocean Interactions Program

Helium Isotope Laboratory

Video gallery of hydrothermal vent animals

Research Locations

Submarine Volcanism

Time Series Studies are focused on Axial Seamount, the most active submarine volcano in the NE Pacific. It rises to a depth of 1,400 m below sea level and is located about 300 miles off the coast of Oregon. Axial Seamount was the site of the world's first underwater volcano observatory called NeMO and has erupted most recently in 2015. Because it is so active, Axial has been chosen as a key node on the new cabled observatory, which is part of the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatory Initiative (OOI). Axial continues to be the focus of long-term time-series studies of the interactions between geology, chemistry, and biology on a dynamic part of the mid-ocean ridge system using state-of the art technology.

EOI and PMEL developed and built bottom-pressure/tilt instruments that are currently deployed on the OOI Cabled Observatory at Axial Seamount. Realtime data can be viewed here. CIMRS researchers are using those data to try to forecast the next eruption at Axial Seamount here.

Cascadia Margin Methane Seeps

Up to ~5,000 gigatons of carbon is stored in icy methane hydrate deposits within continental margin sediment. Sources of this methane include biogenic production, disassociation of the methane hydrate layers, and deep thermogenic sources. Methane is an important greenhouse gases that can inform climate modeling. Emerging sonar technology allows reseearchers to rapidly locate and map submarine methane sources over large areas of the seafloor. There is increasing evidence for accumulation of seep-derived carbon species both from known seeps and in regional surface water along the Cascadia Margin, which potentially has an environmental impact on the upper water column. A baseline characterization of methane seeps along the Cascadia Margin is critical to complete to assess methane input into the water column, and is timely because the continued rise in ocean temperatures could potentially impact the rate of release of methane from the hydrate layers into the ocean and possibly the atmosphere.​

New Frontiers in Ocean Exploration Methane Seeps article

Cascadia Margin Methane Seeps (PMEL)

Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies - Hatfield Marine Science Center
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Newport, OR  97365

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