Deep below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico lies a salt lake so deadly that researchers are calling it the ‘Jacuzzi of Despair.’ Measuring 100 ft in circumference and 12 ft deep, the brine pool gets its well-deserved reputation due to its warm temperature and high methane and salt content — a fatal combination for many unfortunate sea creatures that wander in.
The lake was discovered in 2014 by a team of researchers aboard the exploration vessel (EV) Nautilus, which has been exploring and recording the world’s oceans since 2009. Curious to investigate further, the scientists returned the following year with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the Hercules, to try to get a closer look at the underwater lake.
The clear images captured by the ROV showed a circular, crater-like pool that rose 3 m (10 ft) above the surrounding seafloor. With brine overflowing in a gorgeous ‘waterfall,’ a thriving colony of mussels, and black, red, and white mineral deposits covering the pool’s edge, it appeared to be an idyllic setting. That, however, changed when the camera caught the hundreds of perfectly preserved isopod and crab carcasses floating in the water.
The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Oceanography earlier this year, say the mussels, and fields of tube worms also found, are able to survive this inhospitable environment due to their symbiotic relationship with bacteria. The shellfish and marine invertebrates provide a home for the single-celled creatures who return the favor by using dissolved toxic gases, like methane and hydrogen sulfide seeping from the ocean floor, to supply them with energy.
However, fish and other sea life are not as fortunate. The high concentration of the toxic gases and absence of oxygen kills them as soon as they come in contact with the water. But thanks to the brine, which is four times saltier than regular ocean water, the critters remain perfectly preserved. Eric Cordes, associate professor of biology at Temple University, who was involved in the study, says, “It could be decades that the crabs have been there upside down.”
Though the ‘Jacuzzi of Despair’ is not the only brine pool found under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it is the first one observed with a vibrant ecosystem around the edges. The researchers say that in addition to allowing them to understand more about how these ecosystems form, the extreme conditions found in the salty lake also serve as a model for oceans in outer space. They could, for example, help us discover what sort of extraterrestrial life may be supported by the purported subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
The brine pools in the Gulf Of Mexico are a result of the thick layers of salt that cover its floor. When the seawater seeps through them, it dissolves the saline layer, causing it to collapse and form depressions. Thanks to the extra salt, the water is denser than the surrounding seawater, causing it to settle into the depressions, forming what we call underwater lakes.
Resources: Nautiluslive.org, treehugger.com,oceantoday.noaa.com,latimes.com, http://theterramarproject.org/