For many years geoscientists have studied the Gulf of California between mainland Mexico and its Baja peninsula and have learned a great deal about the complex history of plate tectonics and associated geological processes, such as hydrothermal venting. It is one of the few places on the planet where scientists can actively study the birth and formation of an ocean basin.
On their most recent trip to the gulf, researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego used the unmanned remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason to locate and collect rock samples critical to learning how the gulf was formed. The researchers want to know how the area transitioned from continental rifting, where continental crust thins and breaks apart, to seafloor spreading, where magma delivered to the seafloor creates new ocean crust.
Controlling Jason from the ship above using cables that connect it to the surface, Scripps researchers obtained a rare glimpse of the gulf’s seafloor. They discovered hydrothermal vents that had never been seen before and using its robotic arms, Jason collected its heaviest sample ever, a rock weighing 152 lbs.! Once the samples were brought onboard researchers described, photographed, and cataloged them for future analysis.
Depending on the number of samples to analyze and the type of measurements to be made, the analyses can begin immediately with simple observations of characteristics like size and color, but some more specialized studies can take longer than a year. These samples will likely become part of geological collections at Scripps and elsewhere so that they will be available to future generations of geologists as well. This data will provide researchers a better understanding of the complex process of forming an ocean basin and can apply this knowledge to studying older basins throughout the world.
-- Jared Kluesner, graduate student, Marine Physical Laboratory