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NSF Press Release


NSF PR 00-93 - December 11, 2000

Media contacts:

 Cheryl Dybas, NSF

 (703) 292-8070


 Monte Basgall,
 Duke University

 Not available
(aboard ship)

Program contact:

 Dave Epp

 (703) 292-8582

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Huge New Hydrothermal Vent System Found on Seafloor
Surprise discovery dubbed "Lost City"

The top of an active chimney.
The top of an active chimney in the hydrothermal vent field Lost City taken from the submersible Alvin. The chimney rises 180 feet above the seafloor and is nearly 30 feet in diameter at its top. White carbonate minerals, which cap active portions of the chimneys, precipitate from warm vent fluids.

Cone-shaped pinnacles.; caption is below.
Cone-shaped pinnacles rise from a central edifice in the Lost City hydrothermal field. Actively venting, white colored chimneys stand in sharp contrast to beige colored edifices that are now extinct. This image shows the top 20 feet of a structure that stands 160 feet above the seafloor.

A carbonate ledge or flange.; caption is below.
This image shows a carbonate ledge or flange that extends outwardly from the trunk of a 160 foot chimney in the Lost City hydrothermal vent field. The flanges trap pools of 160 degree Fahrenheit fluids. The nutrient-rich fluids support dense microbial communities.

See a video clip.
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B-Roll is available on Betacam SP. Contact Susan Bartlett at 703-292-8070

 Note About Images

A new hydrothermal vent field, which scientists have dubbed "The Lost City," was discovered December 5th on an undersea mountain in the Atlantic Ocean. The unexpected discovery occurred at 30 degrees North on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge during an oceanographic cruise aboard the research vessel Atlantis. A team of scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Duke University, the University of Washington and other institutions conducted the National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported expedition. "We thought that we had seen the entire spectrum of hydrothermal activity on the seafloor, but this major discovery reminds us that the ocean still has much to reveal, "says Margaret Leinen, NSF assistant director for geosciences.

"These structures, which tower 180 feet above the seafloor, are the largest hydrothermal chimneys of their kind ever observed," said Deborah Kelley, a University of Washington geologist and co-principal investigator on the cruise.

"If this vent field was on land, it would be a national park," added Duke University structural geologist Jeff Karson, a second co-principal investigator who, along with Kelly, dove in the submersible Alvin to the site.

Perhaps most surprising is that the venting structures are composed of carbonate minerals and silica, in contrast to most other mid-ocean ridge hot spring deposits which are formed by iron and sulfur-based minerals. The low-temperature hydrothermal fluids may have unusual chemistries because they emanate from mantle rocks.

Nothing like this submarine hydrothermal field has ever been previously observed, say the scientists. These events are unique, they believe, because they rest on one-million-year-old ocean crust formed tens of kilometers beneath the seafloor, and because of their incredible size. Dense macrofaunal communities such as clams, shrimps, mussels, and tube worms, which typify most other mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal environments, appear to be absent in this field.

The Lost City Field was discovered unexpectedly while Studying geological and hydrothermal processes that built an unusually tall, 12,000-foot-mountain at this site. In this area, deep mantle rocks called serpentinized peridotites, and rocks crystallized in subseafloor magma chambers, have been uplifted several miles from beneath the seafloor along large faults that expose them at the surface of the mountain.

"As so often happens, we were pursuing one set of questions concerning building of the mountain and we stumbled onto a very important new discovery," said Donna Blackman, a geophysicist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and chief scientist of the expedition. She added that "the venting towers are very spectacular and, although they bring up a whole new set of questions, we will learn about the evolution of the mountain itself as we study the vents carefully in the future."

Observations using the submersible Alvin and deep-towed Vehicle Argo, operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, show that the field hosts numerous active and inactive hydrothermal vents. The steep-sided, 180-foot-tall deposits are composed of multiple spires that reach 30 feet in width at their tops. They are commonly capped by white, feathery hydrothermal precipitates. The tops and sides of the massive edifices are awash in fluids that reach temperatures up to 160 degrees.

From the sides of the structures, abundant arrays of delicate, white flanges emerge. Similar to cave deposits, complex, intergrown stalagmites rise several meters above the flange roofs.

Underneath the flanges, trapped pools of warm fluid support dense mats of microbial communities that wave within the rising fluids. Downslope, hundreds of overlapping flanges form hydrothermal deposits reminiscent of hot spring deposits in Yellowstone National Park. During the Alvin dive, expedition leader Patrick Hickey collected rocks, fluids, and biological samples for shorebased analyses.

"By studying such environments, we may learn about ancient hydrothermal systems and the life that they support," suggested Kelley.


Notes to editors and reporters: For samples of photos, see:
For more photos and graphics, see

The three principal scientists may be contacted aboard ship until Sat. Dec.16:
Donna Blackman/
Debbie Kelley/
Jeff Karson/

As of Monday, Dec. 18, they may be reached at their home institutions through their press officers: University of Washington: Sandra Hines (206) 543-2580/
Scripps Institution of Oceanography: Cindy Clark (619) 534-1294/
Duke University: Dennis Meredith (919) 681-8054/



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