ATLAS maps the deep blue Atlantic
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 under way to improve understanding of these depths essential for developing what is called ‘maritime spatial planning’ (MSP). This process involves 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. It 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 ocean’s resources. 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.’
Blue growth is a strategy deployed by the EU to boost the contribution of the marine and maritime sectors to growth and employment. More specifically, it highlights the existence of untapped potential in aquaculture, coastal tourism, marine biotechnology, ocean energy and seabed mining.
The strategy also encompasses various components crucial to the ‘blue’ economy. These include marine knowledge, both in terms of accessing existing data and creating new insights, and maritime spatial planning to permit efficient and sustainable management of activities at sea. ATLAS will exploit the vast purpose-built international sensor arrays already in the ocean and use them 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 Atlantic’s Rockall Trough to the north-west 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 bio-geochemical 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 being developed.
These cruises will study 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 Spain’s 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 made, including spectacular coral gardens and glass sponges sitting in North Atlantic Deep Water and a ‘lost’ coral reef.
New observations on weaker ocean currents
The outputs and outcomes of ATLAS will have a direct impact on protecting the marine environment by filling important knowledge gaps and enabling effective planning for, and regulation of, activities including deep-water hydrocarbon drilling and deep-sea mining.
They include findings published in the scientific journal Nature in April 2018: ATLAS has observed that the system of ocean currents in the Atlantic has been weaker over the past 15 decades than in the preceding 15 centuries. The study points to larger volumes of meltwater from glaciers and sea ice as the probable cause, noting that the trend is likely to last.
Changes in the system which is more specifically referred to as the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) could have very significant implications for the deep-ocean ecosystems that rely on them. However, they would not be the only ones affected.
Marine species as varied as coral and cod could be impacted, the researchers note, and effects might be felt well beyond the Atlantic’s shores. Ocean circulation plays a significant role in the climate. AMOC slowdown could lead the Northern Atlantic to cool and might thereby also lower temperatures on dry land for example, in north-west Europe.
ATLAS involves partners in Europe and North America, which are bringing expertise in a wide variety of areas. The team will consider aspects as diverse as ocean circulation, socio-economics and data management during the project, which ends in April 2020.
Specific streams of activity focus on policy, interaction with stakeholders, and communication reflecting the consortium’s determination to facilitate science-led ocean management and governance and strengthen trans-Atlantic cooperation.
Throughout the project’s lifetime, findings about the ocean and possible blue growth opportunities will be presented at annual science-policy panel events in Brussels.