Chemical input to the deep sea from hydrothermal systems is a globally distributed phenomenon. Hydrothermal discharge is one of the primary mechanisms by which the Earth’s interior processes manifest themselves at the Earth’s surface, and it provides a source of energy for autotrophic processes by microbes that are too deep to capitalize on sunlight. Much is known about the water-column signature of this discharge from high-temperature mid-ocean Ridge (MOR) environments and their neighboring low-temperature counterparts. Hydrothermal discharge farther away from the ridge, however, has garnered less attention, owing in part to the difficulty in finding this style of venting, which eludes methods of detection that work well for high-temperature ‘black smoker’-type venting. Here we present a case study of the plume from one such ‘invisible’ off-axis environment, The Lost City, with an emphasis on the dissolved volatile content of the hydrothermal plume. Serpentinization and abiotic organic synthesis generate significant concentrations of H2 and CH4 in vent fluid, but these species are unevenly transported to the overlying plume, which itself appears to be a composite of two different sources. A concentrated vent cluster on the talus slope channels fluid through at least eight chimneys, producing a water-column plume with the highest observed concentrations of CH4 in the field. In contrast, a saddle in the topography leading up to a carbonate cap hosts broadly distributed, nearly invisible venting apparent only in its water-column signals of redox potential and dissolved gas content, including the highest observed plume H2. After normalizing H2 and CH4 to the 3He background-corrected anomaly (3HeΔ) to account for mixing and relative amount of mantle input, it appears that, while a minimum of 60% of CH4 is transported out of the system, greater than 90% of the H2 is consumed in the subsurface prior to venting. The exception to this pattern occurs in the plume originating from the area dubbed Chaff Beach, in which somewhat more than 10% of the original H2 remains, indicating that this otherwise unremarkable plume, and others like it, may represent a significant source of H2 to the deep sea.
The oceanic basaltic crust is the largest aquifer on Earth and has the potential to harbor substantial subsurface microbial ecosystems, which hitherto remains largely uncharacterized and is analogous to extraterrestrial subsurface habitats. Within the sediment-buried 3.5 Myr old basaltic crust of the eastern Juan de Fuca Ridge flank, the circulating basement fluids have moderate temperature (∼65 °C) and low to undetectable dissolved oxygen and nitrate concentrations. Sulfate, present in high concentrations, is therefore expected to serve as the major electron acceptor in this subsurface environment. This study focused on the availability and potential sources of two important electron donors, methane (CH4) and hydrogen (H2), for the subseafloor biosphere. High integrity basement fluids were collected via fluid delivery lines associated with Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) Circulation Obviation Retrofit Kits (CORKs) that extend from basement depths to outlet ports at the seafloor. Two new CORKs installed during IODP 327 in 2010, 1362A and 1362B, were sampled in 2011 and 2013. The two CORKs are superior than earlier style CORKs in that they are equipped with coated casing and polytetrafluoroethylene fluid delivery lines, reducing the interaction between casing materials with the environment. Additional samples were collected from an earlier style CORK at Borehole 1301A.
The basement fluids are enriched in H2 (0.05–1.8 μmol/kg), suggesting that the ocean basaltic aquifer can support H2-driven metabolism. The basement fluids also contain significant amount of CH4 (5–32 μmol/kg), revealing CH4 as an available substrate for subseafloor basaltic habitats. The δ13C values of CH4 from the three boreholes ranged from −22.5 to −58‰, while the δ2H values ranged from −316 to 57‰. The isotopic compositions of CH4 and the molecular compositions of hydrocarbons suggest that CH4 in the basement fluids is of both biogenic and abiotic origins, varying among sites and sampling times. The δ2H values of CH4 in CORK 1301A fluid samples are much more positive than found in all other marine environments investigated to date and are best explained by the partial microbial oxidation of biogenic CH4. In conclusion, our study shows that CH4 and H2 are persistently available to fuel the deep biosphere and that CH4 is both produced and potentially consumed by microorganisms in the oceanic basement.
The permeable upper oceanic basement serves as a plausible habitat for a variety of microbial communities. There is growing evidence suggesting a substantial subseafloor biosphere. Here new time series data are presented on key inorganic species, methane, hydrogen and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in ridge flank fluids obtained from subseafloor observatory CORKs (Circulation Obviation Retrofit Kits) at Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) boreholes 1301A and 1026B. These data show that the new sampling methods (Cowen et al., 2012) employed at 1301A result in lower contamination than earlier studies. Furthermore, sample collection methods permitted most chemical analyses to be performed from aliquots of single large volume samples, thereby allowing more direct comparison of the data. The low phosphate concentrations (0.06–0.2 μM) suggest that relative to carbon and nitrogen, phosphorus could be a limiting nutrient in the basement biosphere. Coexisting sulfate (17–18 mM), hydrogen sulfide (∼0.1 μM), hydrogen (0.3–0.7 μM) and methane (1.5–2 μM) indicates that the basement aquifer at 1301A either draws fluids from multiple flow paths with different redox histories or is a complex environment that is not thermodynamically controlled and may allow co-occurring metabolic pathways including sulfate reduction and methanogenesis. The low DOC concentrations (11–18 μM) confirm that ridge flank basement is a net DOC sink and ultimately a net carbon sink. Based on the net amounts of DOC, oxygen, nitrate and sulfate removed (∼30 μM, ∼80 μM, ∼40 μM and ∼10 mM, respectively) from entrained bottom seawater, organic carbon may be aerobically or anaerobically oxidized in biotic and/or abiotic processes.