Even in Deepwater Canyons, America’s Corals At Risk

August 18, 2014 by admin  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

At the beach this summer, gazing out over the waves from the shoreline, it’s hard to imagine the underwater world that lies just below the blue expanse: Partly because it’s so other-worldy, and partly because we just don’t know very much about it.

coral.png

A squat lobster makes its home among various deep-sea corals in Norfolk Canyon, offshore Virginia. (Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2013 - Pathways to the Abyss, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS.)

Scientific exploration into the ocean’s depths reveals new discoveries every day, and researchers at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are at the forefront on this work. Take a look at the incredible images from some of their recent dives off the Atlantic Coast:

These amazing gardens of deep-sea coral communities, in Dr. Seuss-like shapes and colors, are a sanctuary for marine life. They serve as a nursery for young fish and crustaceans, and shelter a range of sea life seeking a safe haven from threats that lie in the open waters of the deep sea.

However, the Atlantic’s deep-sea coral communities are at risk. They are highly vulnerable to harm from fishing gear, such as trawlers that pull their fishing nets along the bottom of the ocean. Most deep-sea corals are very slow-growing, so once they’re cut down, that habitat remains destroyed for a very long time. In fact, one pass of trawl gear can destroy corals that have been growing for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

The public now has an opportunity to help protect these ocean oases. Last Monday, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, made up of federal officials and state representatives from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, took an historic step forward to adopt protections for the region’s unique, ecologically important and highly vulnerable deep-sea coral communities. The Council released a full array of options for deep-sea coral protections and will soon ask the public to weigh in on the best ways to preserve these ecosystems.

This is the moment to act on the issue. Because of their depth and rugged topography, the deep-sea coral communities off the Atlantic coast have been largely sheltered from harmful bottom trawling. But as traditional fish species become overfished or markets change, fishing will continue to move into deeper waters and more difficult terrain.

We have a unique window to protect the deep-sea corals and the ecosystems they help support before irreversible damage is done. The Council should protect against the use of damaging fishing gear in both discrete coral protection zones, which would safeguard particularly high-value coral habitat like submarine canyons, and broad coral protection zones, which would provide a level of protection for deeper areas in the region until it is determined that coral communities are not present in these areas.

NRDC is working to ensure that these incredible resources are protected for the future. Public hearings to discuss the Council’s proposed protections will be held this fall — it is important that every voice is heard.

A version of this article was originally published on Live Science Expert Voices.

Article source: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/achase/even_in_deepwater_canyons_amer.html

Who Owns the Ocean Floor?

August 14, 2014 by admin  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

Deep-sea mining is coming. Some of the biggest mineral deposits are around the Cook Islands (above). (Brian Scantlebury/Flickr)

That cell phone you carry. It’s made from copper, gold, lead, nickel, zinc and a plethora of less known, hard-to-pronounce metals, not to mention the mined materials needed for the battery that powers the device. Same goes for your computer and other electronics you use on a daily basis.

The desire for these products is unflagging, with newer versions requiring an ever more complicated cocktail of minerals. Yet our resources on land aren’t limitless, so we’ve turned to the sea in search of new supply. “The world’s demand for minerals continues to increase and the terrestrial resources are becoming stretched,” writes the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which controls all mineral-related activities in international waters. “In addition, deep seabed resources often contain a higher concentration of valuable minerals than their terrestrial alternatives.”

The ocean floor teems with metal (at least in spots we’ve targeted so far): copper and nickel, cobalt and silver, even gold. Many consider it the next frontier in mining. Yet much of the ocean remains unstudied, meaning we have no baseline for determining what harm such a disturbance might cause. As we near the first deep-sea mining expeditions — Australian-based Nautilus has the proper permits and could be working below the waves as soon as 2016 — scientists are scrambling to answer these questions before we no longer can.

Heavy Metals
Ocean waters cover more than 70 percent of our Earth’s surface. Yet we’ve explored a mere droplet, according to NOAA. “For all of our reliance on the ocean, 95 percent of this realm remains unexplored, unseen by human eyes,” notes NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

“The extent that we’ve covered is very, very small,” confirms marine biologist Christian Neumann. He’s part of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative or DOSI, a multi-disciplinary group formed in 2013 aimed at making sure the right people are paying attention to the right issues surrounding deep-sea mining.

DOSI and other projects like MIDAS (stands for Managing Impacts of Deep-seA reSource exploitation) have much work to do, because of the staggering amount we still don’t know.

We do know, however, that great potential sits on, and below, the seabed floor. “There are certainly rich deposits to be had in our deep oceans and now it is possible to reach them,” Maria Baker, project manager of the International Network for Scientific Investigations of Deep-Sea Ecosystems (INDEEP) told weather.com by e-mail.

The three types of deep-sea mining are worth describing briefly. The first, seafloor massive sulfides (SMS), are caused by hydrothermal fluids on or below the seafloor along the oceanic plate boundaries. “That’s the type of deposit off Papua New Guinea,” Phil Weaver of MIDAS told weather.com, and that’s where Nautilus plans to mine. The largest known SMS deposit is a 94-million-ton expanse of dry ore containing gold, silver, copper and zinc in the Red Sea.

An example of a manganese nodule, one of the three main sources to find mineral deposits on the ocean floor. (GRID-Arendal)

Cobalt-rich crusts, another type of mining, are deposits full of cobalt and other metals found on the seafloor, typically on seamounts, and are typically irregularly contoured. Despite the abundance of these crusts — one ISA estimate says they cover nearly 2 percent of the entire ocean floor — Weaver predicts this mining is the furthest off.

Which leaves manganese nodules, metal-containing rocks found thousands of feet below the surface that can be mined by sifting just the top foot or so of seabed. The Pacific holds an abundance of these, particularly in a spot called the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone and around the Cook Islands. “The nodules in the Cook Islands lie in national waters. The rest is in international waters and requires permission from the International Seabed Authority,” Weaver said. “The ISA has only, so far, given license for exploration, not for exploitation. It’s still working on the regulations that will be put in place to govern and manage exploitation. Those won’t be in place for two or three years yet.”

Exploitation vs. Protection
So while mining of our ocean deep isn’t happening this month or next, it will happen in the near future. “It’s coming,” Neumann said. “But it’s not tomorrow, and it’s not the day after tomorrow.” That gives us time to ask — and hopefully answer — some important questions. Like: who owns the ocean floor, and how do we both explore deep-sea resources and care for the ecosystems that house them?

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that the deep-sea minerals found within a nation’s marine boundaries — 200 miles beyond their physical borders — belong to that nation. That border can expand up to 350 nautical miles, Weaver said, if the nation applies for and is granted an extension, but beyond that, waters fall under ISA jurisdiction, with any discoveries therein deemed the “common heritage of mankind.”

Like it or not, that phrase, the common heritage of mankind, seems to put the onus on all of us to understand how we’ll affect these deep-sea ecosystems. Many scientists working in this realm think so. “These environments are just so complex,” Baker said. “It is very important that careful monitoring of any mining activity that does go ahead is extremely well thought through and standardized.”

“[The deep ocean] is often forgotten or understood as something that isn’t valuable from an ecological standpoint,” added Neumann. “But it is.”

MIDAS is in the midst of a three-year, $16 million project to determine whether these ecosystems will mind our presence. Most recently, a team explored a region of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge near the Azores to study plumes from mining and species that live near hydrothermal vents, Nature reported. “We don’t know how far the plumes will travel and how much toxic material it will contain,” Weaver said. “It will suffocate bottom-living organisms in the vicinity of the mining. We don’t know how far it’ll spread.”

Scientists also don’t know just how toxic the material will be, whether it matters where excess water gets dumped, how species in extremely stable environments might handle disturbances. The list goes on. The idea isn’t to halt deep-sea mining, but rather to establish a baseline for what these ecosystems currently look like and a set of best practices, Baker said. “The depth of studies required to fully understand these systems and to gauge the potential impact on the environment would require significant funding and time for survey and analysis.”

There’s still time, but we need to act now, she added. “We are certainly running out of time.” As the mining industry moves forward, the environmental stewards can’t afford to stand still.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article listed Nautilus as Toronto-based.


Article source: http://www.weather.com/news/science/who-owns-ocean-floor-20140819

New carnivorous harp sponge discovered in deep sea

November 20, 2012 by admin  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

A blog by Scientific American.

You may remember the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) from such discoveries as the Yeti crab, the squid with elbows and my personal favourite, the pigbutt worm, and now they’re back with footage of a new species of carnivorous sponge.

Seventeen years ago, Jean Vacelet and Nicole Boury-Esnault from the Centre of Oceanology at France’s Aix-Marseille University provided the first real evidence that a sponge could be more than, well, a sponge. They had discovered a new species of deep-sea sponge living in the unusual setting of a shallow Mediterranean sea cave, the inside of which mimicked the conditions of its usual habitat more than a kilometre below the surface. This allowed the researchers an unprecedented view of the sponge’s eating habits, and they watched as it snared its prey of small fish and crustaceans instead of absorbing bacteria and organic particles through their bodies, like most other sponge species do – including ones living in the very same cave.

Vacelet and Boury-Esnault’s sponges were of the Asbestopluma genus and belonged to the Cladorhizidae family of carnivorous demosponges – the class that contains over 90% of the world’s sponges. Since reporting their discovery in a 1995 issue of Nature, 24 new species of cladorhizid sponges, including the incredible ping-pong tree sponge (see below), have also been discovered. Yet due to the difficulty of studying their behaviour at such incredible depths, researchers have had little opportunity to describe essential aspects of their lives, particularly how they reproduce.

Chondrocladia, or ping-pong, sponge.  MBARI

Chondrocladia, or ping-pong, sponge. MBARI

Which is where MBARI’s remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) Tiburon and Doc Ricketts, come in. Using these deep-diving vessels, a team of researcher s led by Senior Research Technician Lonny Lundsten discovered a species of harp sponge called Chondrocladia lyra off the coast of California, at depths of 3316–3399m.

As Mr_Skeleton pointed out on Reddit this week, this sponge doesn’t look like it could clean anything. But it can catch prey, envelope it in membrane and digest it whole, so it certainly has other priorities. Based on footage of several individuals and two large, fragmentary specimens brought up by the ROVs, Lundsten’s team described how the vertical branches and horizontal stolons that make up the sponge’s basic harp-like structure, called a vane, are covered in barbed hooks and spines. They found that a number of crustacean prey were passively ensnared on these branches thanks to the Velcro-like hooks and then aggressively enclosed in a cavity to be dismembered into small, digestible particles, which provided direct evidence of the species’ carnivorous appetites.

The vertical branches of the harp sponge are tipped by swollen terminal balls containing packets of sperm.

The vertical branches of the harp sponge are tipped by swollen terminal balls containing packets of sperm.  MBARI

The vertical branches of the harp sponge are tipped by swollen terminal balls containing packets of sperm. MBARI

C. lyra can grow up to 37cm long – impressive for a sponge – and are anchored to the sea-floor by a structure called a rhizoid, which looks like a root system. They can have 1-6 vanes, each supporting a number of equidistant vertical branches, and each of these end in swollen terminal balls. According to the researchers, these terminal balls produce condensed packets of sperm called spermatophores, which are released into the surrounding water in the hopes of fertilising other harp sponges in the area. Each C lyra sponge also has an egg development area around the mid-point of the branches, and when the spermatophores make contact, these areas swell up as the eggs are fertilised and begin to mature.

The team suggests that the structure of the harp sponge is designed to ensure that they catch the most prey possible, and also maximise their chances of catching spermatophores from other harp sponges.

“Video footage taken as the ROVs approached specimens of C. lyra provided information about the biological diversity of the areas in which the sponges live,” the researchers added in their report in the current issue of Invertebrate Biology. “Among the coexisting invertebrates were unidentified sea anemones; the soft coral Anthomastus robustus, members of several species of sea pens; and the sea cucumber Paelopadites confundens, as well as another sea cucumber in the family Elipidiidae.”

Article source: http://www.nature.com/news/new-carnivorous-harp-sponge-discovered-in-deep-sea-1.11789

Creatures of deep new to scientists

November 20, 2012 by admin  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

Weird underwater discoveries such as an egg-eating Australian sea serpent and a strikingly coloured worm named after Star Wars‘ Yoda could carry on for decades to come, with new research estimating that up to one third of species remain undiscovered.

A study co-led by a University of Auckland expert and published today in international journal Current Biology calculated there were fewer than one million marine species on the planet, lower than some previous estimates. The number undiscovered likely amounts to a third of all species.

Hot spots for new finds included deep sea ecosystems and those in tropical areas, said Associate Professor Mark Costello from the University of Auckland, who co-led the research with Ward Appeltans of Flanders Marine Institute and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of Unesco.

“If we look at the number of undescribed species and samples from around the world, especially deep sea and tropical areas, the average over 100 studies was that about 30 per cent of those new species were new to science,” he told the Herald.

Easier identification, better technology and more scientists would boost the rate of discovery.

“It’s likely it will get harder and harder to find the rarer things, but it also gets more exciting.”

Bizarre species discovered within the past year included Yoda purpurata, which had features resembling the Jedi master’s large sagging ears, a crimson shrimp found at a depth of 2600m beneath the Norwegian Sea, and an odd-looking bristle worm discovered 1600m below the northeast Pacific.

“Knowing how many species there are in our oceans, and describing them, is vital for science and conservation for several reasons,” Professor Costello said.

“Species are the most practical measure for distinguishing habitats and tracking progress in exploring the earth’s biodiversity.

“They are as fundamental to biology as elements are to chemistry and particles to physics.

“So failure to consider all species in an ecosystem is analogous to an accountant ignoring items of inventory in a company’s stock.”

Better understanding of what species exist enabled more accurate estimates of extinction rates through habitat loss, while having a “master list” of species’ names was essential for quality assurance.

Research efforts have been boosted by the World Register of Marine Species - an open-access, online database that has received contributions from almost 300 scientists from 32 countries.

The study supports previous research by Professor Costello and colleagues, which used statistical modelling and an earlier version of the register to reach a similar estimate of the number of species on earth and in the oceans. It is also the culmination of 14 years’ work for Professor Costello, who began a European register of marine species in 1997 that expanded until the world register was initiated in 2006.

OCEANS STILL TO GIVE UP THEIR INHABITANTS

Around 226,000 species have been described by science and as many as 72,000 more are in collections awaiting description - yet hundreds of thousands more may still be waiting for discovery in our oceans.

The rate of discovery is, however, increasing, with an unprecedented 20,000 new marine species described in the past decade alone, suggesting that most marine species will be discovered this century.

Earlier estimates of ocean diversity had relied on expert polls based on extrapolations from past rates of species descriptions and other measures.

Those estimates varied widely, suffering because there was no global catalogue of marine species, and a new study gauging a more accurate figure canvassed 120 of the world’s top experts on the taxonomy, or classification, of marine species.

Mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and larger plants were some of the best-described groups of marine species to date.

Many of the species yet to be discovered will come from among the smaller crustaceans, molluscs, algae, worms, and sponges.

By Jamie Morton Jamienzherald Email Jamie

Article source: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10847735

Deep sea expedition reveals Mediterranean secrets

August 30, 2012 by admin  
Filed under Featured, Secrets of the Ocean

During most of August, Ballard’s research team on board the EV Nautilus have concentrated on the unique geological makeup of the Eratosthenes Seamount, one of the largest features on the eastern Mediterranean seafloor.

Ballard shot to fame after ‘discovering’ the Titanic in 1985

“We have found a lot of fascinating things,” Ballard told DW, on board the Nautilus. “You have to realize that when you go where no one has gone before on planet earth, you are not really sure what you’re going to find.”

“We’ve been making some real biological discoveries, and we’ve also been mapping two Ottoman war galleys which sank about 3,000 feet beneath where we are right now.”

The remains of the Ottoman war galley were found along with a flintlock pistol and what appeared to be black rum bottles littering the sea floor.

Surprisingly, the metal pistol seemed to be remarkably well-preserved, but most of the wood from the ship has deteriorated having been eaten away by marine organisms.

Uncharted waters

Ballard found global fame in 1985 after discovering the Titanic some three miles below the surface of the Atlantic. This discovery gave the world its first glance at the ghostly ship that sank in April 1912 after hitting an iceberg.

His sensational discovery launched a whole new Titanic movement – spawning books, films and documentaries. It also gave Ballard the opportunity to be able to indulge in his passion of going “where no man has gone before.”

Ballard and his team have found a range of artefacts

His crew for the Cyprus expedition includes researchers, geologists and the renowned NASA astronaut, Cady Coleman, who is working as their navigator. She says that the earth’s oceans, much like deep space, remain a largely unexplored frontier.

“There are a lot of similarities in a general sense, but sometimes things happen really quickly - we suddenly see something underwater, we want to record its position immediately … And it’s up to me to coordinate those things and that’s kind of similar to being up in space.”

Rare discoveries

For those onshore, the expedition brought a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, as cameras beamed live, high definition pictures from the bottom of the Mediterranean sea to the internet.

Katy Croff Bell, chief scientist of the Nautilus Exploration Programme, says that many viewers to the web stream were able to delve into the oceans’ secrets. Viewers witnessed a huge shark crossing the ship’s path with other highlights - including live pictures of mating squid and fossilized whale bones.

“The most unexpected discovery,” says Bell “was the fossilized rib cage of a large mammal, possibly a whale. We immediately contacted marine mammal specialists who are following up on the discovery to determine what and how old it is. We have also observed mating squid possibly for the first time ever for this species, and increased the known depth range of a particular species of fish.”

Biological discoveries have been made as well - above we see what’s believed to be fossilized whale bones

Technology applied

Bell says one of the most important results of their exploration was the use of a so-called tele-presence, which means experts were on-call day-and-night to assist the team onboard when discoveries were made.

“In every case, we were able to contact specialists who provided their expertise on how to proceed with studying the amazing discoveries that we have made in Cypriot waters,” she says.

For Robert Ballard, the most fascinating aspect of the expedition was the in-depth probe of the Eratosthenes Seamount, which measures 120 km long and 80 km wide. Its peak lies at the depth of 690 meters and it rises 2000 meters above the surrounding seafloor.

“It’s large, and it’s situated between Cyprus and Egypt, so we’re in an area traversed by a lot of ancient mariners. And during our time here we’ve been able to document a whole range of artifacts that have fallen to the ocean floor.”

Article source: http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,16206778,00.html

Deep-sea coral reefs off Fla. coast a new frontier for marine scientists

January 5, 2011 by admin  
Filed under Protecting Habitats

In the Atlantic Ocean off Florida’s coast, at 1,500 feet and deeper, the water is 45 degrees and pitch-black. Yet life thrives there.

Scientists are just beginning to explore this vast secret of the deep sea: extensive coral reefs and the marine creatures that live there because of them.

A scientific mission last month explored more than 800 square miles of ocean, from Jacksonville to the Keys, confirming the existence of several deep-water reefs and charting new sites. One of the scientists involved in the study of the deep-water coral reefs is John Reed of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce.

Like the corals found in shallow, tropical reefs, deep-sea corals help form habitat for crabs, shrimp, fish and other marine life. Growing from the seafloor, the corals have produced massive cliffs through the centuries as new generations of coral grow atop the old.

Scientists already know that deep-water corals attract commercially important fish, offering protection for the young and places to reproduce for sea bass, snapper, porgy and rock shrimp.

Unlike the easily accessible tropical coral reefs, however, these deeper corals have many unknowns. Scientists suspect massive mounds of the corals are still undiscovered and that the habitats are vital to the overall health of marine life. Exactly what role the reefs play for the survival of fish populations and the benefit of people is unknown.

There are a few tantalizing possibilities, though. Early studies indicate that some species found only on deep-sea coral reefs have possible medical uses. A unique sponge, for example, is being used in cancer-treatment studies.

But first, researchers are still trying to answer basic questions such as: What is down there? And what lives there?

“With every expedition, every time we dive, we find more and more coral,” said Steve Ross, a University of North Carolina-Wilmington professor and the expedition’s chief scientist. “These coral reefs are extremely diverse and abundant and widely distributed.”

Research about the deep reefs off the Southeastern U.S. started in earnest only a decade ago, but the reefs are already federally protected. Officials declared more than 23,000 square miles of ocean off-limits to bottom trawling, a fishing practice that has destroyed similar reef systems off the European coast.

Only one commercial-fishing group, a small outfit that catches golden crab, continues to trap the crustacean among the deep-sea corals, and it works with federal managers to limit the impact on the reefs.

For scientists, just reaching the reefs is a big obstacle because the corals thrive in depths of 1,300 feet to 3,200 feet, well beyond diving range for humans.

This year’s expeditions depended on the Jason II, a 9,000-pound, remotely operated vehicle from the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Equipped with several cameras and robotic arms to collect samples, the Jason II was dispatched to the ocean floor for days at a time, exploring seven key reefs.

Carrying the vehicle, 56 researchers and crew for the 15-day expedition was the Ronald H. Brown, the largest ship of the fleet for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA’s coral-reef-conservation program sponsored the trip, which included researchers from seven academic and scientific organizations.

Ross and Andrew David, a research-fishery biologist with NOAA Fisheries, said the Jason II proved invaluable in helping scientists advance their research into the corals.

“Sonar had suggested there was more coral, and we were able to confirm that,” David said. “There are several ongoing studies trying to age the corals using radioactive-carbon dating, which suggests some of these reefs are 2,000 years old.”

Reed, of Harbor Branch, is continuing some studies of a unique sponge with compounds that have shown promise in fighting pancreatic cancer.

“One might ask the basic question of ‘Who cares what is living in the deep ocean a mile down?’ but there are many reasons why that we are just beginning to understand,” David said.

This year’s research will help federal managers refine the protected area and include some of the new reefs that were discovered, Ross said.

But with many hours of video and other data collected, and with rare samples taken from the reef, Ross said some of the greatest insights are yet to come.

“It may be years before the data can be analyzed and some of the big picture comes out,” Ross said. “But it’s so difficult to study these reefs that every cruise we can take, we learn a lot.”

Article source: http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2011/jan/06/deep-sea-coral-reefs-fla-coast-new-frontier-marine/

Plumbing the oceans could bring limitless clean energy

November 27, 2008 by admin  
Filed under Secrets of the Ocean

by Phil McKenna

For a company whose business is rocket science Lockheed Martin has been paying unusual attention to plumbing of late. The aerospace giant has kept its engineers occupied for the past 12 months poring over designs for what amounts to a very long fibreglass pipe.

It is, of course, no ordinary pipe but an integral part of the technology behind Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), a clean, renewable energy source that has the potential to free many economies from their dependence on oil.

“This has the potential to become the biggest source of renewable energy in the world,” says Robert Cohen, who headed the US federal ocean thermal energy programme in the early 1970s.

This has the potential to become the biggest source of renewable energy in the world

As the price of fossil fuels soars, private companies from Hawaii to Japan are racing to build commercial OTEC plants. The trick is to exploit the difference in temperature between seawater near the surface and deep down (see diagram).

First, warm surface water heats a fluid with a low boiling point, such as ammonia or a mixture of ammonia and water. When this “working fluid” boils, the resulting gas creates enough pressure to drive a turbine that generates power. The gas is then cooled by passing it through cold water pumped up from the ocean depths via massive fibreglass tubes, perhaps 1000 metres long and 27 metres in diameter, that suck up cold water at a rate of 1000 tonnes per second. While the gas condenses back into a liquid that can be used again, the water is returned to the deep ocean. “It’s just like a conventional power plant where you burn a fuel like coal to create steam,” says Cohen.

Limitless Clean Energy from the Ocean

Limitless Clean Energy from the Ocean

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