Ask Pippa

What Are Thermal Vents and Does Anything Live There?

Imagine going deep down into the ocean. So deep, a diving suit won’t protect you from the pressure of tonnes of water above you. So far down that most submarines would collapse – except for tiny, tough submarine-like vehicles.

This is what several groups of scientists have done over the years – they went into very deep parts of the ocean in small submersibles.

Why go down to the ocean floor? To study hydrothermal vents and the life-forms around them. (“Hydro” means water, and “thermal” means heat – hot water vents) These vents are like hot springs and spew out extremely hot water mixed with sulfur.

Water coming out of the vents can be as hot as 400C (750F) – hot enough to melt lead. Further away from the vents, water at the ocean’s bottom is close to freezing at about 2C (35F).

Amazingly, there is life in this extreme environment. Some of the creatures that live by deep sea vents include tubeworms. They look like white tubes with a red head stuck to rocks. Some tubeworms are up to 6 or 7 feet long! They live close to the vents and absorb some of the smelly sulfur that comes out with the water.

Living inside the tubeworms are bacteria, which happen to like eating the sulfur stuff. The bacteria convert the sulfur-water to food the tubeworms like to eat.

Tubeworms have no legs and look like a plant, but they are actually a type of animal. There are other creatures that like this very deep, hot environment too. On the list are certain types of white crab, weird worms that look like plants, mussels, clams and a small number of fish.

The creatures don’t actually live in the vents, but nearby. Still, the water where they live is near boiling, and few things can live in that sort of temperature. It’s like an alien world.

Many of the vent creatures are white or albino, and have no eyes. Eye wouldn’t help them much in this part of the world anyway. There is no sunlight.

There are no green plants down this far either.