Scientists Discover Mysterious Underwater Leak That May Affect Pacific Northwest’s Safety

Photo by Matheo JBT on Unsplash

There is a hole in the ocean floor, and not the good kind. In 2015, Brendan Philip spotted bubbles that were floating up to the surface. Generally, bubbles mean that there could be a hydrothermal vent present, which is exciting because there can be concentrations of interesting biological activity there. However, Philip and a research team recently released a study on the vent, and it turns out that it is not a hydrothermal vent. Chemical analysis of fluid and sediment samples proved that this was actually fluid escaping a fault line. The fluid exiting is 16 degrees warmer than the surrounding water, and described as chemically different. It has extreme enrichment of boron and lithium, and is depleted of chloride, potassium and magnesium. 

That vent was named Pythia’s Oasis, and is located off the coast of Oregon. It is an almost-fresh water spring that wells up from under the ocean floor through a fault line. The vent was named after the Ancient Greek oracle Pythia, who, in the legends, ‘prophesized’ with the help of the gasses that rose from the hot springs her temple was built above.

Off the coast of the Pacific Northwest sits a fault called the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a large strike-slip fault, where two tectonic plates slide alongside each other. The water currently escaping through Pythia’s Oasis plays a crucial role in securing the safety of the PNW. The water is thought to act as a lubricant for the two tectonic plates, so that stress does not build up and cause a slip or an earthquake. 

Scientists have long said that should the Cascadia Subduction Zone slip, it could cause a devastating magnitude 9 earthquake, especially affecting people who live in the Northwestern U.S. With all the risks considered, seismologists are very rapidly trying to explore what kind of effects this leak could have, and are scouting for others that may also be present along the fault line. Such a leak has never been observed before, and scientists are still unsure about what effects this could have on seismic activity. It remains something to monitor and study further so that we learn more about how it will affect the Cascadia Subduction Zone and what that means for people living in the Pacific Northwest.