Microbial processes within the subseafloor can be examined during the ephemeral and uncommonly observed phenomena known as snowblower venting. Snowblowers are characterized by the large quantity of white floc that is expelled from the seafloor following mid-ocean ridge eruptions. During these eruptions, rapidly cooling lava entrains seawater and hydrothermal fluids enriched in geochemical reactants, creating a natural bioreactor that supports a subseafloor microbial “bloom.” Previous studies hypothesized that the eruption-associated floc was made by sulfide-oxidizing bacteria; however, the microbes involved were never identified. Here we present the first molecular analysis combined with microscopy of microbial communities in snowblower vents from samples collected shortly after the 2011 eruption at Axial Seamount, an active volcano on the Juan de Fuca Ridge. We obtained fluid samples and white flocculent material from active snowblower vents as well as orange flocculent material found on top of newly formed lava flows. Both flocculent types revealed diverse cell types and particulates when examined by phase contrast and scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Distinct archaeal and bacterial communities were detected in each sample type through Illumina tag sequencing of 16S rRNA genes and through sequencing of the sulfide oxidation gene, soxB. In fluids and white floc, the dominant bacteria were sulfur-oxidizing Epsilonproteobacteria and the dominant archaea were thermophilic Methanococcales. In contrast, the dominant organisms in the orange floc were Gammaproteobacteria and Thaumarchaeota Marine Group I. In all samples, bacteria greatly outnumbered archaea. The presence of anaerobic methanogens and microaerobic Epsilonproteobacteria in snowblower communities provides evidence that these blooms are seeded by subseafloor microbes, rather than from microbes in bottom seawater. These eruptive events thus provide a unique opportunity to observe subseafloor microbial communities.
The Eastern Lau Spreading Center (ELSC) is the southernmost part of the back-arc spreading axis in the Lau Basin, west of the Tonga trench and the active Tofua volcanic arc. Over its 397-km length it exhibits large and systematic changes in spreading rate, magmatic/tectonic processes, and proximity to the volcanic arc. In 2005, we collected 81 samples of vent water from six hydrothermal fields along the ELSC. The chemistry of these waters varies both within and between vent fields, in response to changes in substrate composition, temperature and pressure, pH, water/rock ratio, and input from magmatic gases and subducted sediment. Hot-spring temperatures range from 229° to 363 °C at the five northernmost fields, with a general decrease to the south that is reversed at the Mariner field. The southernmost field, Vai Lili, emitted water at up to 334 °C in 1989 but had a maximum venting temperature of only 121 °C in 2005, due to waning activity and admixture of bottom seawater into the subseafloor plumbing system. Chloride varies both within fields and from one field to another, from a low of 528 mmol/kg to a high of 656 mmol/kg, and may be enriched by phase separation and/or leaching of Cl from the rock. Concentrations of the soluble elements K, Rb, Cs, and B likewise increase southward as the volcanic substrate becomes more silica-rich, especially on the Valu Fa Ridge. Iodine and δ7Li increase southward, and δ11B decreases as B increases, apparently in response to increased input from subducted sediment as the arc is approached. Species that decrease southward as temperature falls are Si, H2S, Li, Na/Cl, Fe, Mn, and 87Sr/86Sr, whereas pH, alkalinity, Ca, and Sr increase. Oxygen isotopes indicate a higher water/rock ratio in the three systems on Valu Fa Ridge, consistent with higher porosity in more felsic volcanic rocks. Vent waters at the Mariner vent field on the Valu Fa Ridge are significantly hotter, more acid and metal-rich, less saline, and richer in dissolved gases and other volatiles, including H2S, CO2, and F, than the other vent fields, consistent with input of magmatic gases. The large variations in geologic and geophysical parameters produced by back-arc spreading along the ELSC, which exceed those along mid-ocean ridge spreading axes, produce similar large variations in the composition of vent waters, and thus provide new insights into the processes that control the chemistry of submarine hot springs.
Dissolved oxygen is often considered the most important single chemical species in the ocean. Despite its central importance to understanding the biogeochemistry of the ocean, the accurate measurement of oxygen in the marine environment remains surprisingly challenging. Commercially available “optode” oxygen instruments are often plagued by data drift issues tied to material choices of the sensing membrane. This is especially true over long instrument deployment periods and in extreme environments. C-DEBI provided funds to build and deploy an optode-like instrument utilizing a UW-developed oxygen crystalline sensing material with superior long-term stability. To successfully meet the projects goals we built the VentO2 instrument, wrote control software for realtime acquisition and data processing, and deployed it on multiple dives using the ROV Jason II at Axial Seamount. We used a spectrometer-based measurement approach for the VentO2, which is a more challenging, but ultimately more powerful approach than the phase measurement used in optodes. The VentO2 instrument was successfully tested for functionality in the laboratory, and successfully recorded oxygen and temperature data on five separate dives to Axial Seamount on the Juan de Fuca Ridge. The resulting data was precise, but not accurate-- it tracked the trends in oxygen concentration as measured by the onboard reference instrument, but the magnitude of the data was offset. While we are encouraged by the success to date on a very limited budget, we acknowledge that much additional work is necessary to move the instrument beyond a working proof of concept.