Creatures living among the hydrothermal vents burbling under the Arctic Ocean's ice layer have been historically difficult to study, but an underwater vehicle, the Nereid Under Ice, can get close to the vents to peek in at the animals and their homes without disturbing their environment with icebreaking ships. Scientific American caught up with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution senior scientist, Chris German, on the R/V Neil Armstrong to discuss how studying these Arctic dwellers could shape our understanding of how life evolved.
The Arctic became a really interesting challenge because we know there are hydrothermal vents there...what's going to be living there? We know we can answer the question if we could just go down and look. We're standing on the back deck of Woods Hole's newest research ship the R/V Neil Armstrong and what we have behind us is the Neirid Under Ice. It's one of our newest robotic vehicles that's being designed specifically for studying ice-covered oceans here on Earth. We've got photographs of hydrothermal vents, but we haven't been able to go down and study them in detail and this is the only kind of technology that could do that. The way we've been able to study the unperturbed system in the past is using ice breakers where by breaking holes in the ice there's a danger you're perturbing the system just by getting there in the first place. And so what we've designed is a vehicle that you can launch from an ice breaker but it can then swim laterally under the ice to get to the unperturbed system and study it in new ways. The first thing you see on the back are the little black pods with the orange propellers on them. So those are the thrusters that's what we actually use to control how the vehicle moves left and right and forwards and back. We have the high-definition camera, so that's where we do our video sensing and what we also have in there is a whole science payload of things that can measure for example the basic physical parameters of the ocean -- how salty it is, its temperature...As you find hydrothermal vents on the seafloor in every different ocean, you don't find the same animals inhabiting that thing niche. There are different animals that have evolved to adapt to the same environmental conditions. If we could understand where the barriers are between the different populations where these biogeographic provinces are, that could actually teach us something not just about how hydrothermal vents work, but actually how evolution of biology works in the world's oceans so like a fundamental question of how does biological evolution exist