Hydrothermal Vents and Global Warming – New Revelations From Below the Ocean’s Surface

JOIDES Resolution Sunrise

The drilling ship “JOIDES Resolution” at sunrise. Credit: Peter Betlem (IODP)

Recent research reveals that volcanic activity 56 million years ago emitted a higher amount of methane than previously estimated.

Approximately 55 million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean was born. Until then, Europe and America were connected. As these land masses started drifting apart, the Earth’s crust in between them ruptured, releasing large volumes of magma. This phenomenon, known as rift volcanism, has resulted in the creation of large igneous provinces (LIPs) in several places around the world.

One notable LIP is situated between Greenland and Europe, submerged several kilometers beneath the ocean’s surface. An international drilling campaign led by Christian Berndt from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, and Sverre Planke from the University of Oslo, Norway, has collected extensive sample material from the LIP, which has now been evaluated.

Christian Berndt and Steve Midgley

During “core on deck” Co-Chief Scientist Christian Berndt (GEOMAR, Germany) and Operations Superintendent Steve Midgley (IODP JRSO) discuss the drilling process. Credit: Sandra Herrmann (IODP/JRSO)

In their study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers can show that hydrothermal vents were active at very shallow depths or even above sea level, which would have allowed much larger quantities of greenhouse gases to enter the atmosphere than previously thought.

“At the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, some of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history took place over a period of more than a million years,” says Christian Berndt. According to current knowledge, this volcanism warmed the world’s climate by at least five degrees Celsius and caused a mass extinction – the last dramatic global warming before our time, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). Geologists have not yet been able to explain why, as most modern volcanic eruptions cause cooling by releasing aerosols into the stratosphere.

JOIDES Resolution Norwegian Coast

The drilling vessel “JOIDES Resolution” off the Norwegian coast. Credit: Peter Betlem (IODP)

Further studies of the Karoo large igneous province in South Africa revealed an abundance of hydrothermal vents associated with magmatic intrusions into the sedimentary basin. This observation among others led to the hypothesis that large amounts of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane could have entered the atmosphere through hydrothermal venting.

“When our Norwegian colleagues Henrik Svensen and Sverre Planke published their results in 2004, we would have loved to set off immediately to test the hypothesis by drilling the ancient vent systems around the North Atlantic,” says Christian Berndt. But it wasn’t that easy: “Our proposal was well received by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), but it was never scheduled because it required riser drilling, a technology that was not available to us at the time.”

JOIDES Resolution Cruise Leaders

On the deck of the JOIDES Resolution: The cruise leaders Professor Dr. Sverre Planke from the University of Oslo (left) and Professor Dr. Christian Berndt from GEOMAR (right) with the scientists Carlos Alvarez Zarikian from IODP (2nd from right) and Reed Scherer from Northern Illinois University (2nd from left). Credit: Sayantani Chatterjee (IODP)

As the research progressed hydrothermal vent systems were discovered that were within reach of riserless drilling. Thus, the drilling proposal was resubmitted, and the expedition could finally begin in autumn 2021 – 17 years after the first proposal was submitted.

Around 30 scientists from 12 nations took part in the IODP (now the International Ocean Discovery Program) research cruise to the Vøring Plateau off the Norwegian coast on board the scientific drilling ship “JOIDES Resolution.” Five of the 20 boreholes were drilled directly into one of the thousands of hydrothermal vents. The cores obtained can be read by scientists like a diary of the Earth’s history. The results were compelling.

Drill Core JOIDES Resolution

A drill core is brought on board the JOIDES Resolution for scientific analysis. Credit: Sandra Herrmann (IODP/JRSO)

The authors show that the vent was active just before the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum and that the resulting crater was filled in a very short time, just as the global warming began. Quite unexpectedly, their data also show that the vent was active in a very shallow water depth of probably less than 100 meters. This has far-reaching consequences for the potential impact on the climate.

Christian Berndt: “Most of the methane that enters the water column from active deep-sea hydrothermal vents today is quickly converted into carbon dioxide, a much less potent greenhouse gas. Since the vent we studied is located in the middle of the rift valley, where the water depth should be greatest, we assume that other vents were also in shallow water or even above sea level, which would have allowed much larger amounts of greenhouse gases to enter the atmosphere.”

JOIDES Resolution Section of Cores

Each section of the cores looks different and contains information that experts can read like a diary of the Earth’s history. Credit: Sandra Herrmann (IODP/JRSO)

As far as today’s climate warming is concerned, there are some interesting conclusions to be drawn from the cores. On the one hand, they do not confirm that global warming at that time was caused by the dissolution of gas hydrates – a danger that has been much discussed in recent years. On the other hand, they show that it took many millennia for the climate to cool down again. So the Earth system was thus able to regulate itself, but not on time scales relevant to today’s climate crisis.

Reference: “Shallow-water hydrothermal venting linked to the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum” by Christian Berndt, Sverre Planke, Carlos A. Alvarez Zarikian, Joost Frieling, Morgan T. Jones, John M. Millett, Henk Brinkhuis, Stefan Bünz, Henrik H. Svensen, Jack Longman, Reed P. Scherer, Jens Karstens, Ben Manton, Mei Nelissen, Brandon Reed, Jan Inge Faleide, Ritske S. Huismans, Amar Agarwal, Graham D. M. Andrews, Peter Betlem, Joyeeta Bhattacharya, Sayantani Chatterjee, Marialena Christopoulou, Vincent J. Clementi, Eric C. Ferré, Irina Y. Filina, Pengyuan Guo, Dustin T. Harper, Sarah Lambart, Geoffroy Mohn, Reina Nakaoka, Christian Tegner, Natalia Varela, Mengyuan Wang, Weimu Xu and Stacy L. Yager, 3 August 2023, Nature Geoscience.
DOI: 10.1038/s41561-023-01246-8

Be the first to comment on "Hydrothermal Vents and Global Warming – New Revelations From Below the Ocean’s Surface"

Leave a comment

Email address is optional. If provided, your email will not be published or shared.