Dwight Owens: Canada’s Hydrothermal Vents

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It was like stepping through the looking glass and being accosted by strange creatures in an environment you could only imagine as being true – science fiction.

Dwight Owens, from UVic Ocean Networks Canada, in early March took Probus members on a journey to the bottom of the ocean, only 300 km off the west coast of Vancouver Island, in an area called Neptune (along the Juan de Fuca and Pacific plate collision zone), and it was not only fascinating, but educational and simply – amazing.

Owens, with more than 25 years of experience in the design and development of rich media and interactive education, held the crowd spell bound as he gave us an insight into the earth’s crust, the ever changing plate structure, tectonic activity, volcanic volatility and the amazing world that is 2400 metres down in one of Canada’s most significant Marine Protected Areas.

He explained that in an environment where there is virtually no light, life abounds and creatures thrive because of a rich and active ocean floor that influenced by what is happening under the seabed.  “The area we are studying is part of the ‘Ring of Fire’ a 25,000 U-shaped crescent that goes from South America up to Alaska and down the Asian coastline to the Philippines,” said Owens.  “This area is very active and literally hundreds of under sea volcanoes and thousands of thermal vents are constantly extruding incredible mineral based deposits and heated plumes that encourage nutrient-rich microscopic growth”.

Owens went on to explain that the Canadian government has set up an extensive research field (just off Port Alberni) that includes a number of nodes, the main one called Endeavour.  He described the field as being fibre-optically connected and went on to say that from these submerged nodes they have put out an array of testing tools that are helping to build a ‘smart ocean’.   “Everything is positioned and maintained remotely and because from one node we can deploy to extensive floor level vantage points, we can monitor and report safely and unobtrusively 24-hours a day, ” he explained.

“We’re checking water temperatures at bottom as well as in and around the thermal vents; watching for changes to the floor structure, sediment trapping and watching how vents are growing and what type of life patterns are occurring”, he added.  “It’s like a specialized eco-system down there.”  He also went on to share that from one thermal (or hydro) vent, they discovered that upwards of 80 megawatts of energy is produced and temperatures just inside the top can reach over 400C, “that one vent could potentially heat 52,000 homes.  But don’t hold your breath, under-sea commercialization is not in the near future and costs would be simply be improbable to guess at”, he added.

Owens further described how Canada has set up a score of Marine Protected areas in all three oceans surrounding the country but said that Neptune site and the Endeavour node is by far the most complex and best studied.  He went on to admit that, “only .8% of Canada’s coastal oceans fall into this ‘protected’ status.

The scientist also took time to share with the group some of the unusual and different creatures and organisms that are flourishing in these ‘test zones’.  “We’ve found unique sponges, crustaceans, fish, crabs, eels, anemone, corals, octopods and worms that you could find closer to the surface (in a like-form) but all of these have adapted to this unique and warmer than normal environment,” he said.  “The state of our ocean is an important indicator as to the health of our seas and by studying and gathering first-hand data we are enabling people to make evidence-based decisions that could and will affect the near and far distant future.”

In closing Owens said that it’s important to recognize that minute changes are happening every day and they are having an impact – subtly.  He said that everyone should have a vested interest in what is happening and he encouraged people to visit the Ocean Networks Canada website (oceannetworks.ca) and tune in to live coverage from remote cameras that are turned on every four hours. 

Report by Don Dempson

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