Gigantic, hot vents at the bottom of the ocean hold more than just hot air

The ocean is a mysterious place, and there are a great many things we still don’t understand about it despite our continued exploration. One of these many mysteries includes the production of various forms of carbon in the deep sea. Some of these carbon emissions arrive from the surface, but others come from much older sources that are mostly unknown.

Previous theories for the origin of these older carbon emissions have included disturbed sediment, deep sea hydrothermal vents, and soot from combustion processes. None of the earlier theories were ever accepted as concrete answers to where the carbon originated from.

Recently, however, scientists may have discovered where these older sources of carbon are emerging from. Graphite found at the openings of these deep sea vents may explain the continued production of carbon in the deepest areas of the ocean, assisted by the scientific process of carbon dating.

The carbon in the deepest parts of the ocean is old as hell

Though you might initially assume otherwise, carbon dating is not when molecules share a romantic dinner, but is instead a process of ascertaining the age of molecules based on how far along a radioactive carbon isotope is in decay. Through this process, scientists have found that the carbon dissolved at the seafloor is much older than initially thought.

This older carbon is also identifiable in how the molecules move through the ocean water. Previous theories have included the suggestions that specific carbon molecules may be tougher to break down than others, or that burning materials carried by river currents may have tampered with the molecular makeup of the sea bed, resulting in these unusual carbon occurrences.

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The rivers-delivering-burning-carbon theory has been disproved by various studies in the past, which would leave the hydrothermal deep sea vents as the most likely candidate. These deep sea vents produce heat of up to 400 degrees Celsius (or 750 degrees Fahrenheit).

To further examine these incredible vents, a research team dove off the coast of Mexico in the East Pacific Rise in hopes of better understanding how the hydrothermal deep sea vents functioned. They took samples from the boiling hot vents and analyzed them once they were back on deck to assess what relationship they may have with carbon production on the seafloor.

A breakthrough with the discovery of graphite

The findings from their analysis were published in a paper for Nature Communications, detailing how the scorching hot liquid from the deep sea vents actually possessed traces of graphite within it. This evidence gave the theory that the vents were responsible for the levels of carbon near the sea bed, much more credence.

However, it isn’t all crystal clear just yet. The nature of the formation of this carbon in these deep sea vents still remains a mystery, with theories ranging from the extremely high temperatures to the pressure caused by the vents themselves. The ocean still has a lot of explaining to do.

There’s no doubt numerous more analyses needed before we can confidently understand everything that happens beneath the surface of the Big Blue

As much as eighty percent of the ocean is entirely unexplored, even now. It’s one of Earth’s most awe-inspiring (and occasionally terrifying) mysteries, and there’s no doubt numerous more analyses are needed before we can confidently understand everything that happens beneath the surface of the Big Blue.

Luckily, we’re moving closer every day, and the studies done into these carbon-producing deep sea vents are just one step closer to unraveling some of the bigger questions the sea provides.

A deeper dive – Related reading on the 101

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Sea monsters may exist after all, but we’re not sure deep sea vents have anything to do with it this time

The deep sea isn’t only weird because of its strange carbon-producing vents; the alien fish are also pretty wild