A waterworld of volcanoes

August 8, 2013 - 05:00
Article from University of Bergen

In the Arctic Ocean, researchers have discovered a so far unknown world of volcanic activity underwater. They hope that this can become Norway’s new national park.

In 2008, UiB researchers discovered Loki’s Castle, a hydrothermal vent field on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between Norway and Greenland at 73°N. The field contains metal deposits and a unique wildlife.

New discoveries

This summer a team led by the director of UiB’s Centre for Geobiology, Professor Rolf Birger Pedersen, discovered five new hydrothermal vents in Loki’s Castle. The vents were discovered at depths ranging from 100 to 2,500 metres.

In this area, which is the most geological active part of Norway, a new volcanic seabed is formed at a rate of two centimetres a year.

“These discoveries are incredibly interesting as they represent a part of the Norwegian nature that is under-explored. They represent a part of nature where conditions are extreme and where we expect to find a lot of new and exciting biology,” sUiB’s Rector Dag Rune Olsen.

Unique videos

Norway is a volcanic country on par with Iceland. The difference being that whereas Iceland’s volcanoes are onshore, Norway’s volcano landscape is in the deep sea.

UiB researchers have found 20 new animal species in the volcano areas that they discovered this summer. These animals live off the heat caused by the hydrothermal vents in the area. (Foto: Senter for geobiologi, UiB)

Norway’s volcanoes are lined up underwater in large active earthquake zones, and there are hydrothermal vents churning out hot water – at 320 degrees Celsius – which gives rise to unique ecosystems and metal deposits on the seabed.

Leading research environment

UiB’s Centre for Geobiology is Norway’s leading deep-ocean research environment. For the past ten years, researchers and students from the centre have explored this volcanic underwater world. Through their summer expeditions to the area, they have discovered new Norwegian nature every year.

In this period they have surveyed hundreds of undersea volcanoes and a number of hydrothermal vents. Loki’s Castle (In Norwegian: Lokeslottet), Soria Moria and Trollveggen are the names given to the hydrothermal vents discovered by the UiB researchers in 2005 and 2008.

National park on the seabed

The researchers believe that Loki’s Castle could become a Norwegian national park on the seabed, not unlike Yellowstone in the United States or Iceland’s geysers.

They see that there could be future conflicts of interest if such a national park is to be established. They have found significant metal deposits that are formed around the hydrothermal vents in Loki’s Castle. The material value of these deposits remains unknown, but the mining industry is already showing a growing interest in exploiting these resources on the seabed. Deep-ocean mining could become a reality in the not too distant future.

Professor Rolf Birger Pedersen, director Centre for Geobiology, University of Bergen. (Photo: Walter Wehus/Universitetet i Bergen)

The distinctive wildlife in the deep seas, with the hydrothermal vents as oases of a unique genetic life, means that any industrial activity must be weighed against environmental concerns.

Based on their knowledge, the UiB researchers are thus proposing that deep-marine nature parks should be established as soon as possible. This is of particular importance for Norway, with vast deep-sea areas to manage. This management must be based on scientific knowledge.

“It is our opinion that this area is so unique that it should be preserved. We are talking about very vulnerable environments,” says Pedersen, and points out that research also needs to create more knowledge about the wildlife in the area.

“It would represent a new way of preservation thinking if a national park was to be linked to Loki’s Castle,” says Rector Olsen.

“Given the University of Bergen’s marine research profile, we definitely want to take responsibility for further exploration of these fields so as to give the Norwegian government a good scientific basis when they make a decision.”

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University of Bergen
The University of Bergen is located in Bergen, Norway. Six faculties cover most of the traditional university disciplines. Within the faculties are included 60 different specialised departments, centres and institutes. Read more

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