Winter brings icy cold, on land and at sea. But 300 kilometres off the B.C. coast, 2,000 metres below the ocean surface, a constant stream of smoky, searing hot water spews into surrounding seawater from cracks in the Earth's crust known as "hydrothermal vents". The superheated water sheds minerals that accumulate and create large, underwater towers that resemble smoking chimneys. Numbering in the hundreds, some of these "black smokers" can reach over 40 metres high (as tall as a 12-storey building!) with clouds of scorching water shooting up 300 metres. One of the most extreme environments in the world, temperatures can range from 2C to 400C within just a few centimetres!
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Hydrothermal vents form wherever the Earth's tectonic plates move apart. As plates diverge, they create paired mountain ridges with a deep valleys or rifts between known as "mid-ocean ridges". There, new crust emerges from within the planets core, releasing hot pressurized water into the ocean.
The water from these vents contains chemicals toxic to most life forms, like hydrogen sulfide. Yet millions of deep-sea creatures thrive around black smokers, creating an oasis in an otherwise barren environment. Just off our coast, the Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents support some of the most diverse, unusual organisms on Earth, including giant tubeworms, spider crabs, octopuses, coral, and ancient microbes suspected to be one of Earth's earliest life forms.
Giant tubeworms live in symbiosis with bacteria that convert hydrogen sulfide into energy. With no digestive tract, the worms collect hydrogen sulfide for the bacteria using a plume on one end of their bodies. The bacteria, in turn, convert chemical compounds into organic food for the host tubeworm — a process known as "chemosynthesis". Despite this extreme environment, the tubeworms grow for hundreds of years and up to two meters long.
The Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents were designated as Canada's first Marine Protected Area (MPA) in 2003. But in the 10 years since, Canada has only created eight more — despite having the world's longest coastline. The B.C. seafloor — such as the glass sponge reefs in Hecate Strait and the Southern Strait of Georgia, and other important cold-water coral communities supporting deep-dwelling groundfish such as halibut and many species of rockfish — need safeguarding. With over 90 per cent of the world's oceans still unexplored, and the ever-increasing threat of climate change, these magnificent, rare ecosystems need more protection than ever.