We know more about the dark side of the moon and the surface of Mars than we do about our deep ocean environments. EU-funded research is shedding more light on the darkest depths of the North Atlantic maritime region. A better understanding of deep-sea habitats will inform the sustainable management of this vital resource.
© JM Roberts, Changing Oceans Expedition 2012
What happens in the depths of oceans has a profound effect on our environment and climate. A global effort is underway to improve understanding of these depths essential to developing what is called maritime spatial planning (MSP). This is a process of involving multiple users of the ocean, across borders and sectors, to make informed and coordinated decisions on managing marine resources in an efficient, safe and sustainable way.
The EU-funded project ATLAS applies a new approach to an international effort to develop an adaptive Atlantic MSP that will span the deep waters of the EU, US and Canada as well as international waters.
ATLAS will also bring together a wide variety of marine science datasets, which coupled with the ocean-scale MSP, can transform our ability to sustainably manage the oceans resources. And all the research will take place in the wide context of better understanding climate change.
The ATLAS project was put together in response to a broad call from the European Commission to improve our understanding of the balance between preservation and exploitation in the North Atlantic ecosystem, says project coordinator Murray Roberts of the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh in the UK. The project is highly interdisciplinary, including aspects of both fundamental and applied research from biology to physics, and also with contributions from social scientists, industry stakeholders and civil society. Together this will yield an interconnected understanding of how we should value deep ocean systems.
Research activities will focus on waters 200-2000 metres deep, where the greatest gaps in our understanding lie and certain animal and plant populations and ecosystems are known to be under pressure.
We are looking to study the deep Atlantic eco-systems in support of blue growth, Roberts continues. The project is aiming to explore some of the areas of the ocean that we know least about, and get better knowledge of the massive ocean circulation patterns, and how they are changing: this is vital to better understand how marine ecosystems will respond to climate change.
ATLAS will exploit the vast purpose-built international sensor arrays already in place in the ocean and use these as a foundation to understand how climate and ocean variability interact with human pressures to shape the living resources they provide.
The existing OSNAP Subpolar North Atlantic array moorings in the Atlantics Rockall Trough which lies to the northwest of Scotland and Ireland will be augmented with oxygen, acidity and carbon dioxide sensors, and a water sampler for nitrate, silicate and phosphate. For the first time this will provide regular information on both ocean circulation and biogeochemical fluctuation.
During the project, marine scientists will investigate interconnections between ocean circulation, surface production, and the biological richness of Atlantic ecosystems. Some 25 deep-sea cruises are planned with more in development.
These cruises will study a network of 12 case study areas that span the Atlantic Ocean. Ecosystems to be studied include sponge, cold-water coral, seamount and mid-ocean ridge systems.
For example, an ATLAS cruise named MEDWAVES led by Covadonga Orejas of Spains Instituto Español de Oceanografía, a project partner, took place in autumn 2016. The expedition followed outflow water from the western end of the Mediterranean to the Azores. During the cruise, several important new discoveries were noted, including a spectacular range of coral gardens and glass sponges sitting in North Atlantic Deep Water and a lost coral reef.
The outputs and outcomes of the ATLAS project will have a direct impact on protecting the marine environment by filling important gaps in our knowledge and enabling effective planning for, and regulation of, activities including deep-water hydrocarbon drilling and deep-sea mining.