Scientists plan next steps in deep-sea ridge exploration


NEWPORT - Ocean scientists from the U.S. and overseas will gather here on Sept. 22-24 in a conference called RIDGE 2000 to plan a new decade of research into the geology, chemistry and biology of the Earth's mid-ocean ridge system .

The globe-encircling ridge system is responsible for swarms of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions off the Oregon Coast.

At Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center, about 130 researchers will be hosted by OSU's Ridge Interdisciplinary Global Experiments (RIDGE) Program Office, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

The RIDGE Program began a decade ago when scientists meeting on the Oregon Coast formally recognized a need for organized, interdisciplinary research into the volcanic, hydrothermal, and biological processes along the mid-ocean ridge system. Since that time, more than 10,000 miles of previously unknown ridge has been explored, and discoveries have increased knowledge of deep-ocean hydrothermal vents, their relationships to the organisms that are nourished by them, and the volcanic and magmatic systems in the Earth beneath them.

The RIDGE Program has been at OSU since 1998, when David Christie, an associate professor in OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, was elected chair of the program steering committee.

The mid-ocean ridge system marks the boundary along which Earth's major plates form. The nearest examples to the U.S. are the Gorda and the Juan de Fuca Ridges off Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, where monitoring of earthquakes at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Vents Laboratory in Newport revealed several active eruptions in recent years. The ridge system as a whole can be considered as a single 35,000 mile-long volcano transferring massive amounts of heat and material from the Earth's deep mantle to the ocean floor and the oceans themselves.

"More than 70 percent of the Earth's present surface, almost the entire ocean floor, has been created along this volcanic system in only the last 100 million years," Christie said. "If we think of the Earth as only 100 days old, more than 70 percent of it has been resurfaced in only the last four days."

The deep water hot vents, black smokers, and exotic fauna are featured on many television documentaries. The vents' ability to support abundant and diverse life forms, in the total absence of sunlight, is ripe for further investigation, Christie said. At the lowest levels of this ecosystem are abundant microbial populations that are among the most primitive life forms on the planet. Recognition of these forms has prompted speculation that there are other parts of the solar system, especially the moons of Jupiter, that are capable of supporting similar life forms.

Scientists at the conference will identify opportunities and priorities for multi-disciplinary research in the next 5-10 years, building on recent successes and taking advantage of new and emerging technological developments.

The RIDGE Program formally advises the National Science Foundation on priorities for mid-ocean ridge research and promotes communication among scientists in diverse disciplines through conferences, meetings, a newsletter, and a website Note to Editors: This story originally contained a World Wide Web address. The characters used in Web addresses will not telecommunicate in our system. Please call us at 541-737-5205 for the address.