A new expedition by an international research team has probed farther and deeper beneath the Arctic than anyone has gone before, capturing new film and samples from one of the most inaccessible places on Earth.
The HACON 2021 expedition explored underwater thermal vents at 82.5N latitude, the furthest north any such exploration has reached, over a three-week stretch in late September and early October.
Led by the CAGE/UiT (The Arctic University of Norway) and the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA), the research team of 28 scientists and engineers aboard the Arctic icebreaker RV Kronprins Haakon used an underwater remote-operated vehicle (ROV) to probe so-called "black smokers" in the Aurora vent field on the Gakkel Ridge.
The vent field on the Gakkel Ridge, located 4,000m beneath an Arctic ice sheet, was first detected two decades ago when seafloor dredging pulled up hydrothermal rock material from the vents. Later, the HACON team went back in 2019 to image the field with a towed high-resolution camera but were unable to sample the site due to drifting ice conditions.
This time around, however, the HACON team had an ROV named "Aurora" from REV Ocean dive down to the vent field and directly sample the black smokers. These vents are called this for the 300 degree Celsius liquid they produce that has a dark, smoke-like appearance as they flow out of the chimney-looking vents.
Among the more than 100 samples collected from the site, researchers were able to obtain geological, geochemical, and biological material that will now be analyzed in a lab.
"I was thrilled to be invited to contribute to this ‘high risk - high gain’ expedition that we had discussed many years previously as part of the Census of Marine Life program," Dr. Maria Baker, co-lead of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative at the University of Southampton who was invited to take part in the expedition, said in a statement. "To feel the excitement of historic discovery, meet many fabulous people, and learn so much from deep-sea scientists from disciplines other than my own was just wonderful."
The HACON team hopes that the new data gathered during the expedition will help protect vulnerable marine ecosystems that we might not even know exist in the world, due to their extreme inaccessibility. These ecosystems can still be a vital part of our environment, and their degradation and loss can have cascading effects on the ecosystems around them.