Exploring the Habitability of Ice-covered Waterworlds: The Deep-Sea Hydrothermal System of the Aurora Mount at Gakkel Ridge, Arctic Ocean (82°54’ N, 6°15W, 3900 m)
Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 4:15 PM
The geographic remoteness of the ultraslow Gakkel Ridge in the ice-covered Arctic Ocean raises many questions about the nature and biogeography of its habitats. In 2001, the two-ice-breaker mission AMORE (RV POLARSTERN and USCGC HEALY) detected hydrothermal plumes and evidence for seafloor venting associated with volcanic ridges rising from the rift valley floor of 4.2 km depth (Edmonds et al., 2003; Michael et al., 2003). The AURORA expedition in July 2014 (RV POLARSTERN Cruise PS86) targeted this “Aurora” field at the SW limit of Gakkel Ridge, to investigate its habitats, communities and their energy sources. No robots can yet be deployed through ice-cover to explore such deep habitats and ice-breaking research vessels cannot hold position in the thick multiyear ice. Instead, we estimated ice-drift to predict suitable start positions, then attached POLARSTERN to a matching ice floe, to achieve the bottom trajectories that we required for targeted exploration. The Aurora mount is volcanic in origin formed from mounded pillow basalts overlain by about a meter of sediment and cut through by steep cliffs revealing basalt pillows in outcrop and in talus piles. We identified persistent plume activity in the water column above the mount at 3100-3600 m (800-300 m off-bottom of its top) characterized by anomalies in turbidity, Eh, methane, temperature, density, and elevated microbial chemoautotrophic activity. Using a towed camera-, and multisensor- platform (OFOS) we located active venting as the source of this plume together with inactive chimneys and associated craters on the SW flank of Mt.Aurora. Its dominantly filter-feeding fauna is apparently sustained by venting of energy-rich fluids and microbial transfer of this geofuel into nutrition. This communication presents first results of our recent fieldwork and experimental investigations in Summer 2014 to explore deep-sea ecosystems in ice-covered oceans.