August 5, 2013
Researchers Seek To Protect Loki’s Castle By Making It A National Park
Susan Bowen for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Off the coast of Norway, on the floor of the Arctic Ocean, lies a largely unexplored world of undersea volcanoes. This system, with the fanciful name of Loki's Castle, contains rich metal deposits and unique wildlife. This field of five active hydrothermal vents was discovered in 2008. A team from the University of Bergen (UiB), led by Professor Rolf Birger Pedersen, continues to make discoveries at the site, which is thought to be the most northerly field of its kind in the world.
The vents are at depths ranging from 100 to 2500 meters and add two centimeters a year to the surrounding seabed. Loki's Castle is a black smoker, a type of vent that forms when seawater penetrates deep under the ocean floor, heats up and returns to the surface. As it travels back upward, it collects partially dissolved minerals in its super-heated plume that can spew 40 feet up through the ocean water. These plumes reach a temperature of about 570 degrees Fahrenheit as they break through the crust. The minerals form chimney stacks as they cool in the ice-cold water at the bottom of the ocean. Most of the minerals deposited are sulfides, but there are also large quantities of iron and other minerals.
Like other hydrothermal vents, Loki's Castle is home to highly unusual flora and fauna. In a recent statement, Pederson explained no one yet knows much about what kinds of organisms survive there or how the black smoker was formed, or its age and history. Twenty new animal species have been found there already. "It is our opinion that this area is so unique that it should be preserved. We are talking about very vulnerable environments," he added.
The scientists are concerned the metal deposits formed around the vents will prove irresistible to miners. They are already showing interest, and deep ocean mining could be on the horizon. The researchers have raised the issue that mining could harm the pristine environment and compromise additional discoveries.
Knowing there are competing interests at work, Professor Pedersen and UiB spokesman Dag Rune Olsen recently made a proposal to Norway's Minister of the Environment, Bard Vegar Solhjell. They would like to see Norway create a deep-marine national park. As Norway's leading deep-ocean research center, UiB's Centre for Geobiology is hoping their arguments are persuasive. Norway has huge deep-sea areas to manage, which need to be dealt with based on sound scientific knowledge. Though national parks are usually thought of as being land-based tourist destinations, the university hopes the ministry sees merit in the idea of creating this undersea park.
"It would represent a new way of preservation thinking if a national park was to be linked to Loki's Castle," Olsen said. "Given the University of Bergen's marine research profile, we definitely want to take responsibility for further exploration of these fields so as to give the Norwegian government a good scientific basis when they make a decision."
The ministry's response was cautious, but not unfavorable. "The Ministry of the Environment will start work to consider more carefully how to take care of these areas in the best way possible. It is an amazing idea that we can create spectacular underwater nature parks, but it may not happen right away as we need more knowledge in how to make this work," Minister Solhjell said.