Throughout June of 2013, Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor will be exploring the Mid Cayman Rise, the Earth’s deepest and slowest spreading mid-ocean ridge, home to diverse and remarkably abundant submarine venting phenomena. Led by Dr. Chris German from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the research cruise will take place within a 6-hour transit from George Town, Cayman Islands, with an international team of scientists from WHOI, British Geological Survey, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, and Marine Biological Laboratory.

Falkor leaves port with HROV Nereus ready to explore the Mid-Cayman Rise (photo: Colleen Peters)

Prior chemical observations in the water column above these venting sites have shown each is hosted in a distinct geologic setting and that, together, these systems extend the known limits of conditions under which hydrothermal circulation—and the unique ecosystems they host—can occur.

The scientists aim to find and explore two new hydrothermal vent fields, "Europa" and "Walsh," and to compare them with the nearby recently discovered "Piccard" and "Von Damm" fields.  This work establishes an innovative natural laboratory for the submarine vent research.  Specifically, this project will investigate:

how the temperature, pressure and rock composition at the vent locations may be affecting the venting fluids and associated mineral deposits,

what the potential may be for abiotic organic synthesis at each of the hydrothermal vent setting and what the implications are for astrobiology and the origin of life,

how the microbial community population structure, functional diversity, and geochemical environment vary among the sites, and what factors influence the community assembly of invertebrate taxa at vent sites.

R/V Falkor will support a broad variety of scientific operations during this cruise, including CTD casts, multibeam mapping, operation of an add-on HROV Nereus in both AUV and ROV modes for high resolution vent site mapping, chemical and physical data collection at vent sites, interactive research at vent sites, observation and sampling of associated biological communities, and satellite teleoperations with shore-side scientists.

- based on a research proposal by Dr. Chris German, WHOI, edited by Genny Biggs

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