Close-up View of An Active Hydrothermal Vent Now Easily Accessible

Now accessible on OOI’s Data Explorer: 47,000 hours of video from a high-definition (HD) camera at an active hydrothermal vent and underwater volcano, 1500 meters below the ocean’s surface!

The HD camera has been streaming live video since 2015, offering a close-up look at what’s been happening within the caldera of Axial Seamount, a highly active underwater volcano about 300 miles off the coast of Oregon. The SubC 1Cam video camera was modified by the Applied Physics Lab (APL) at the University of Washington for deployment on OOI’s Regional Cabled Array (RCA) in the NE Pacific Ocean. The camera is connected via a roughly 4 km dedicated 10 Gb extension cable that runs across the caldera from the camera in the ASHES vent field to Primary Node PN3B located near the eastern edge of the caldera. From there imagery are streamed at the speed of light over 521 km of submarine fiber optic cable to the shore station in Pacific City, OR.

The HD camera (orange triangular frame) images the 14 ft-tall actively venting hot spring deposit ‘Mushroom’ located within the caldera of Axial Seamount. Credit: NSF-OOI/UW/CSSF; Dive R1730; V14.

Up until recently, the footage has been available on the OOI raw data server in 14-minute increments as both high resolution MOV files and compressed MP4 formats, but the imagery was not easily reviewed or searchable. To make this unique nearly decade of footage more readily available to researchers, a new gallery feature on Data Explorer was created that allows researchers to easily view, search, and download the stunning video. All files created over each 24-hour period are used to create a sped-up, compressed, and time-stamped preview video allowing rapid overviews of daily events. Associated metadata and quick links provide access to the raw and log files, and a higher-resolution version of the preview is also available for download.

“The camera faces an active hydrothermal edifice called Mushroom that is completely encased in a dense biological community thriving in fluids emanating from the chimney walls,” explained Michael Vardaro, a research consultant for the RCA, who has been involved in OOI since construction began in 2011. “Mushroom hosts an active chemosynthetic community with 300 ºC hydrothermal fluids streaming out its top and from a small, highly dynamic chimney at its base. The camera allows the research community to see how the flow of hydrothermal fluid and the activity of all the different creatures living on it change over time, as well as the growth and evolution of the sulfide structure.”

Vardaro also said that the video allows viewers to watch what is happening in the short term. “You can catch predation events that include little scale worms nibbling on the gills of the tube worms. You can observe sea spiders [pycnogonids] crawling around the base of the chimney and watch as new vent openings develop. It’s a very changeable environment, because as the hydrothermal fluid hits the cold seawater, the metals and other chemicals dissolved in the superheated water precipitate out as solid minerals, creating fragile projections that then repeatedly crumble over time as the flow changes. The camera imagery provides important insights into linkages among geological, chemical and biological process at seismically active underwater volcano that has erupted in 1998, 2011, and 2015 and is poised to erupt again.”

The chimney stands about 14 feet high. The camera sits on a tripod at the base of the chimney with a pan and tilt unit. It follows an automated, 14-minute routine with the camera moving up, down and across the chimney and water column, stopping at pre-selected key areas of interest. What’s more, the APL team onshore can stop and alter the viewpoint if something interesting is happening or a question needs answering. “The Data Explorer now offers a hugely rich dataset of video footage extremely rare in mid-ocean ridge settings that offers a unique window into what is happening on the seafloor at an active hydrothermal vent site,” Vardaro added. “As development on the gallery continues, we also plan to add annotations and eventually incorporate machine learning and event detection to tag interesting biological features or significant changes to the site”.

In addition to the Data Explorer access, the live video stream is available every three hours for 14-minutes online (at 2:00, 5:00, 8:00, and 11:00 EDT & PDT). The camera also runs for 24 hours straight on the 10th and 20th of the month, with a 72-hour run on the 1st-3rd of the month as a means of gaining a fuller picture of activity at the site.