Letter | Published:

Basin-scale transport of hydrothermal dissolved metals across the South Pacific Ocean

Nature volume 523, pages 200203 (09 July 2015) | Download Citation



Hydrothermal venting along mid-ocean ridges exerts an important control on the chemical composition of sea water by serving as a major source or sink for a number of trace elements in the ocean1,2,3. Of these, iron has received considerable attention because of its role as an essential and often limiting nutrient for primary production in regions of the ocean that are of critical importance for the global carbon cycle4. It has been thought that most of the dissolved iron discharged by hydrothermal vents is lost from solution close to ridge-axis sources2,5 and is thus of limited importance for ocean biogeochemistry6. This long-standing view is challenged by recent studies which suggest that stabilization of hydrothermal dissolved iron may facilitate its long-range oceanic transport7,8,9,10. Such transport has been subsequently inferred from spatially limited oceanographic observations11,12,13. Here we report data from the US GEOTRACES Eastern Pacific Zonal Transect (EPZT) that demonstrate lateral transport of hydrothermal dissolved iron, manganese, and aluminium from the southern East Pacific Rise (SEPR) several thousand kilometres westward across the South Pacific Ocean. Dissolved iron exhibits nearly conservative (that is, no loss from solution during transport and mixing) behaviour in this hydrothermal plume, implying a greater longevity in the deep ocean than previously assumed6,14. Based on our observations, we estimate a global hydrothermal dissolved iron input of three to four gigamoles per year to the ocean interior, which is more than fourfold higher than previous estimates7,11,14. Complementary simulations with a global-scale ocean biogeochemical model suggest that the observed transport of hydrothermal dissolved iron requires some means of physicochemical stabilization and indicate that hydrothermally derived iron sustains a large fraction of Southern Ocean export production.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    Seafloor hydrothermal activity: black smoker chemistry and chimneys. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 18, 173–204 (1990)

  2. 2.

    & in Treatise Geochemistry Vol. 8 (eds & ) 191–233 (Elsevier, 2014)

  3. 3.

    & Mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal fluxes and the chemical composition of the ocean. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 24, 191–224 (1996)

  4. 4.

    & The biogeochemical cycle of iron in the ocean. Nature Geosci. 3, 675–682 (2010)

  5. 5.

    et al. Hydrothermal plume particles and dissolved phosphate over the superfast-spreading southern East Pacific Rise. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 60, 2297–2323 (1996)

  6. 6.

    & in Treatise Geochemistry Vol. 6 (eds & ) 23–47 (Elsevier, 2003)

  7. 7.

    et al. The distribution and stabilisation of dissolved Fe in deep-sea hydrothermal plumes. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 270, 157–167 (2008)

  8. 8.

    & Metal flux from hydrothermal vents increased by organic complexation. Nature Geosci. 4, 145–150 (2011)

  9. 9.

    , , & Hydrothermal vents as a kinetically stable source of iron-sulphide-bearing nanoparticles to the ocean. Nature Geosci. 4, 367–371 (2011)

  10. 10.

    , , & Size fractionation of trace metals in the Edmond hydrothermal plume, Central Indian Ocean. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 319–320, 15–22 (2012)

  11. 11.

    , & Distal transport of dissolved hydrothermal iron in the deep South Pacific Ocean. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 16654–16661 (2014)

  12. 12.

    , & Evidence of an extensive spread of hydrothermal dissolved iron in the Indian Ocean. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 361, 26–33 (2013)

  13. 13.

    , & Dissolved iron anomaly in the deep tropical–subtropical Pacific: evidence for long-range transport of hydrothermal iron. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 75, 460–468 (2011)

  14. 14.

    et al. Hydrothermal contribution to the oceanic dissolved iron inventory. Nature Geosci. 3, 252–256 (2010)

  15. 15.

    & Dispersal patterns for hydrothermal plumes in the South Pacific using manganese as a tracer. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 79, 241–249 (1986)

  16. 16.

    et al. Slow-spreading submarine ridges in the South Atlantic as a significant oceanic iron source. Nature Geosci. 6, 775–779 (2013)

  17. 17.

    & Quantification of dissolved iron sources to the North Atlantic Ocean. Nature 511, 212–215 (2014)

  18. 18.

    & A major helium-3 source at 15°S on the East Pacific Rise. Science 214, 13–18 (1981)

  19. 19.

    & Deep, zonal subequatorial currents. Science 263, 1125–1128 (1994)

  20. 20.

    & A nonconservative β-spiral determination of the deep circulation in the eastern South Pacific. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 23, 1975–2000 (1993)

  21. 21.

    , , & Dissolved aluminium and the silicon cycle in the Arctic Ocean. Mar. Chem. 115, 176–195 (2009)

  22. 22.

    , , & Dissolved aluminium in the Southern Ocean. Deep Sea Res. II 58, 2647–2660 (2011)

  23. 23.

    , , & Dissolved Al in the zonal N Atlantic section of the US GEOTRACES 2010/2011 cruises and the importance of Hydrothermal inputs. Deep-Sea Res. II 116, 176–186 (2015)

  24. 24.

    et al. Chemical and physical diversity of hydrothermal plumes along the East Pacific Rise, 8° 45′ N to 11° 50′ N. Geophys. Res. Lett. 20, 2913–2916 (1993)

  25. 25.

    , , , & Dissolved iron in the Southern Ocean (Atlantic sector). Deep Sea Res. II 58, 2678–2694 (2011)

  26. 26.

    , , & Aluminium as a depth-sensitive tracer of entrainment in submarine hydrothermal plumes. Nature 344, 137–139 (1990)

  27. 27.

    et al. Hydrothermal plumes in the eastern Manus Basin, Bismarck Sea: CH4, Mn, Al and pH anomalies. Deep Sea Res. I 40, 2335–2349 (1993)

  28. 28.

    et al. The effect of magmatic activity on hydrothermal venting along the superfast-spreading East Pacific Rise. Science 269, 1092–1095 (1995)

  29. 29.

    , , & Constraints on mantle 3He fluxes and deep-sea circulation from an oceanic general circulation model. J. Geophys. Res. 100, 3829–3839 (1995)

  30. 30.

    , , & Hydrography and circulation near the crest of the East Pacific Rise between 9° and 10°N. Deep. Sea Res. I 58, 365–376 (2011)

  31. 31.

    & Rapid and noncontaminating sampling system for trace elements in global ocean surveys. Limnol. Oceanogr. Methods 10, 425–436 (2012)

  32. 32.

    & Dissolved Fe(II) in the Arabian Sea oxygen minimum zone and western tropical Indian Ocean during the inter-monsoon period. Deep. Res. I 73, 73–83 (2013)

  33. 33.

    & An ultratight fluid sampling system using cold-welded copper tubing. Eos 64, 735 (1983)

  34. 34.

    , & Dissolved iron in the Australian sector of the Southern Ocean (CLIVAR SR3 section): meridional and seasonal trends. Deep Sea Res. I 55, 911–925 (2008)

  35. 35.

    et al. Iron in the Sargasso Sea (Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study region) during summer: eolian imprint, spatiotemporal variability, and ecological implications. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 19, GB4006 (2005)

  36. 36.

    , & Determination of iron in seawater by flow injection analysis using in-line preconcentration and spectrophotometric detection. Mar. Chem. 50, 3–12 (1995)

  37. 37.

    , & Analytical intercomparison between flow injection-chemiluminescence and flow injection-spectrophotometry for the determination of picomolar concentrations of iron in seawater. Limnol. Oceanogr. Methods 2, 42–54 (2004)

  38. 38.

    & Determination of manganese in seawater using flow injection analysis with on-line preconcentration and spectrophotometric detection. Anal. Chem. 64, 2682–2687 (1992)

  39. 39.

    & Fluorometric determination of Al in seawater by flow injection analysis with in-line preconcentration. Anal. Chem. 66, 4105–4111 (1994)

  40. 40.

    , & Reduced iron associated with secondary nitrite maxima in the Arabian Sea. Deep Sea Res. I 54, 1341–1349 (2007)

  41. 41.

    , , & A new automated method for measuring noble gases and their isotopic ratios in water samples. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 10, Q05008 (2009)

  42. 42.

    Improvements in noble gas separation methodology: a nude cryogenic trap. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 2, 2001GC000202 (2001)

  43. 43.

    & An automated cryogenic charcoal trap system for helium isotope mass spectrometry. Rev. Sci. Instrum. 55, 1982–1988 (1984)

  44. 44.

    & Isotopic fractionation of helium during solution: a probe for the liquid state. J. Solution Chem. 9, 895–909 (1980)

  45. 45.

    & Modeling organic iron-binding ligands in a three-dimensional biogeochemical ocean model. Mar. Chem. 173, 67–77 (2015)

  46. 46.

    & Globalizing results from ocean in situ iron fertilization studies. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 20, GB2017 (2006)

  47. 47.

    , & The impact of different external sources of iron on the global carbon cycle. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 920–926 (2014)

  48. 48.

    & The solubility of iron in seawater. Mar. Chem. 77, 43–54 (2002)

  49. 49.

    & The solubility of iron hydroxide in sodium chloride solutions. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 63, 3487–3497 (1999)

  50. 50.

    & Interactions between iron, light, ammonium, and nitrate: insights from the construction of a dynamic model of algal physiology. J. Phycol. 35, 1171–1190 (1999)

  51. 51.

    et al. Hydrothermal methane and manganese variation in the plume over the superfast-spreading southern East Pacific Rise. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 61, 485–500 (1997)

Download references


We thank the captain and crew of the RV Thomas G. Thompson (TGT cruise 303) for their support during the 57-day mission. Samples were collected on board ship by C. Parker and C. Zurbrick, from the US GEOTRACES sampling system maintained and operated by G. Cutter. We thank the many people who have devoted time and effort to the international GEOTRACES programme. This work was funded by US National Science Foundation awards OCE-1237011 to J.A.R., OCE-1237034 to P.N.S., OCE-1232991 to W.J.J., OCE-1130870 to C.R.G., and OCE-1131731 and OCE-1260273 to J.W.M. Model simulations made use of the N8 HPC facilities, funded by the N8 consortium and EPSRC grant EP/K000225/1. C.R.G. also acknowledges support from a Humboldt Research Award. J.A.R. was funded in part through JISAO by the PMEL-Earth Oceans Interactions programme. This is JISAO publication number 2388 and PMEL publication number 4255.

Author information


  1. Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and the Ocean, University of Washington and NOAA-PMEL, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA

    • Joseph A. Resing
  2. Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia 23529, USA

    • Peter N. Sedwick
    •  & Bettina M. Sohst
  3. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Christopher R. German
    •  & William J. Jenkins
  4. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Southern California, 3616 Trousdale Parkway #AHF204, Los Angeles, California 90089, USA

    • James W. Moffett
  5. Department of Earth, Ocean and Ecological Sciences, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool, 4 Brownlow Street, Liverpool L69 3GP, UK

    • Alessandro Tagliabue


  1. Search for Joseph A. Resing in:

  2. Search for Peter N. Sedwick in:

  3. Search for Christopher R. German in:

  4. Search for William J. Jenkins in:

  5. Search for James W. Moffett in:

  6. Search for Bettina M. Sohst in:

  7. Search for Alessandro Tagliabue in:


J.A.R. participated on the EPZT and determined Ald and Mnd; P.N.S. interpreted the Fed data; C.R.G. co-designed the study and participated in the EPZT; W.J.J. collected 3Hexs data; J.W.M. co-designed the study, participated in the EPZT, and collected Fe(II) data; B.M.S. participated in the EPZT and determined Fed; A.T. conducted the modelling experiments and interpreted their results. All authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Joseph A. Resing or Alessandro Tagliabue.

Extended data

About this article

Publication history






Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.