Earthquakes that rattle the world, spewing magma that expands the ocean floor and volcanic byproducts that give life to the creatures living deep in the oceans – these and other wonders are encompassed within the mid-ocean ridge, studied in great depth by one of UCSB’s leading authorities in the field of marine tectonics, professor Ken C. Macdonald.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently honored Macdonald’s research, naming him a Fellow for his contributions and discoveries in the developing area of Marine geophysics. His studies – which have taken him on various expeditions in the South Pacific and Atlantic Ocean – are primarily focused on the mid-ocean ridge, which is the longest mountain range in the world where new ocean floor is constantly produced by a series of active volcanoes.
“[The mid-ocean ridge] is a system of active underwater volcanoes that wraps around the globe like a seam line on a baseball where new ocean floor is created,” Macdonald said. “This new ocean floor is created at a rate of a little bit faster than how fast your fingernails grow. It’s creating several tens of thousands of acres every year.”
Macdonald said that studying the mid-ocean ridge gives rise not only to new concepts of how our planet works, but also to some surprising developments. For example, the creatures that live near these volcanoes have promising pharmaceutical purposes, Macdonald said.
A series of volcanoes rich with valuable minerals, the mid-ocean ridge is also where tectonic plates are spreading apart. This process allows for new magma to flow out and form new layers of ocean floor while giving off nutrients and energy to sustain life.
Macdonald said that scientists are stunned by various forms of life in the ocean’s depths that are able to survive solely on the nutrients produced by surrounding volcanoes. It is the first ecosystem discovered in which the native animals are able to survive independently of sunlight.
“We’re finding that there is some very amazing linkages between what’s happening deep inside the earth with volcanic activity on the sea floor, connecting that to the chemistry of the ocean and the occurrence of life in the deep sea volcanoes,” said Macdonald. “In other words, the volcanoes basically provide the energy and nutrients from which the animals live on.”
In his most recent expedition last year, Macdonald, along with 16 UCSB students – eight graduates and eight undergraduates – explored the regions 500 miles northwest of the Galapagos Islands.
“We go on university-operated ships and go out to places like the South Pacific and Atlantic Ocean and make a model of the ocean floor, and we collect samples,” said Macdonald. “Sometimes we dive to the sea floor in small three-person submarines.”
Professor Rachel Haymon, a fellow scientist who is married to Macdonald, said her husband’s endeavors have resulted in impressive discoveries in his field.
“Professor Macdonald has spent his career exploring, mapping and revealing the nature of the mid-ocean ridge and its processes, starting in the 1970s, when very little was know about the mid-ocean ridge,” Haymon said. “The hallmarks of his research are big-picture thinking and interdisciplinary approaches that lead to major new insights.”
Macdonald said the world is still open to many potential new discoveries.
“The main message is that we know less about the deep ocean floor then we do about the surface of Venus,” MacDonald said. “The age of exploration is just beginning.”