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Hydrothermal vent systems could have persisted millions of years, incubated life

d stability, it's possible that black-smoker systems might last as long as 100,000 years but it's unlikely, Kelley says. That's because black-smoker systems typically form where new seafloor is being created, a process that even if a volcanic eruption doesn't bury a hydrothermal vent field in lava will eventually shove the seafloor bearing the vents away from the source of volcanic heat needed to power them.

Lost City is already nine miles from the nearest volcanically active spreading center and sits on 1.5 million-year-old crust. Seawater permeating deeply into the fractured surface of the mantle rocks transforms olivine into a new mineral, serpentine. The heat generated during this process is not as great as that found at volcanically active sites where fluids can reach 700 F but it is enough to power hydrothermal circulation and produce vent fluids of 105 to 170 F.

Tectonics, the movement of the Earth's great plates, contributes to the fracturing of the mantle rock. But a big reason this kind of system is so self-sustaining, the Science report says, is that fracturing also happens because rocks undergoing serpentinization increase in volume 20 percent to 40 percent. Kelley likens it to water seeping into tiny cracks in roads, then freezing and expanding to cause ruts and frost heaves in the pavement.

Scientists think many Lost City-type systems were possible on early Earth because so much of the mantle had yet to be skinned over with crust, putting it in contact with seawater and making serpentinization possible, Kelley says. Lost City is the only vent field of its kind known today but scientists say more could exist. Within a 60-mile radius of Lost City are three similar mountains and there are other, potential sites along thousands of miles of ridges in the mid-Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Arctic.

Beyond Earth, peridotite the mantle material that reacts with seawater during serpentinization is abundant on all the terrestrial pl
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Contact: Sandra Hines
shines@u.washington.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
24-Jul-2003


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