Nobel Conference 48 Profile of Maya Tolstoy

Posted on May 4th, 2012 by

What does the bottom of the ocean really look like? Ask a child to draw the seafloor, and she’ll likely draw something that looks like the bottom of a swimming pool with seaweed growing in towers. The deep seafloor is intriguingly more complex than this, of course, and no one knows that better than Maya Tolstoy. Home to the world’s longest mountain range—the mid-ocean ridge system—the deep seafloor produces nearly all the planet’s new crust in a series of continuously active volcanoes. The dark, hot flanks of the volcanoes provide the chemical energy to fuel an ecosystem that exists without sunlight, at the margins of habitability on this planet.

It is this volcanic mountain range that captivates Maya. She is a marine geophysicist and seismologist; she studies the numerous earthquakes along the mid-ocean ridge, exploring their locations, magnitudes, and causes. These earthquakes, though, aren’t isolated or random; they provide clues to the location and arrangement of faults. In turn, these faults are zones where hot water circulates along the flanks of the volcano, cooling the rock, warming the water, and connecting the mid-ocean ridge to the ecosystems that thrive on the hydrothermal seafloor.

That life at hydrothermal vents is linked to the location, clustering, and activity of earthquakes should, perhaps, not surprise us. After all, life on land is linked to energy sources—where sunlight reaches the forest floor, a raucous array of plants compete for space. So it goes with the seafloor: where faults serve as pipelines, warm, chemically active seawater fertilizes the seafloor and mussels, tubeworms, and blind crabs thrive. How do these relationships play out in time and space? This is a question that Maya seeks to answer in her explorations of the deep.

Maya began her studies at the University of Edinburgh and subsequently earned a Ph.D. from the University of California’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Now at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, she uses sophisticated instrumentation to probe the secrets of the seafloor, from earthquakes to oil spills. Please join us at the Nobel 48 Conference for Maya Tolstoy’s lecture to hear more about the secrets of the seafloor.


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