Understanding underwater - an in-depth approach to what lies beneath
For thousands of years, underwater life has fascinated scientists' minds and dreamers' imagination alike. Countless mysteries lie hidden within those depths just waiting to be explored - most of all in the deep-sea.
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The deep-sea is the lowest layer of the ocean, beginning below 1800m depth. Crushing pressures, bone-chillingly cold water, scalding hot water vents and no sunlight make the deep-sea one of the planet’s most hostile environments – and up until fifty years ago, researchers believed it to be uninhabitable for most species. But discoveries during the past two decades have shown that, in fact, the deep-sea is the world’s biggest ecosystem. “There is still an incredible amount to discover with deep-sea research. Many areas have actually been investigated less thoroughly than Mars,” says marine geologist Professor Achim Kopf, from the MARUM Research Centre at the University of Bremen. However, deep-sea research is not just about satisfying curiosity. Kopf recently coordinated the EU-funded project, Deep-Sea and Sub-Seafloor Frontiers (DS3F), which ran from 2010 to 2012. He explains the project “set out to provide a pathway towards the sustainable management of ocean resources on a European scale.”
Deep-sea sustainability is an increasingly urgent socioeconomic concern, as deep-sea fishing, hydrocarbon exploitation and mineral extraction are affecting this remote environment at an unprecedented rate and the potential threat posed by marine geohazards, such as tsunamis and earthquake slips, is mounting. “Estimates suggest that a biodiversity loss of 20 to 25 percent can result in a 50 to 80 percent reduction of deep-sea ecosystem key process,” explains Kopf, “but we still know much too little to predict whether and how these fragile communities could recover. It is therefore imperative that we ensure a sustainable management of deep-sea diversity in line with international treaties before it is too late,” he adds. Evolving from the Deep Sea Frontier (DSF) international symposium in June 2006, DS3F brought together nine ocean research institutions from seven EU countries.
“Deep-sea ecosystems and their development are complexly interdependent. In addition, explorations of the deep-sea are more costly than other fields of basic research. So for projects to reach their full potential and be cost-effective, they need proper cross-disciplinary and international coordination,” says Kopf. DS3F was the first project to emphasise the importance of creating synergies between industry, science and policy to form strategic partnerships. The project thus brought research in marine life, geosciences, climate change and environmental development, together with socioeconomic issues and policy building.
“We were surprised to discover how area specific experts’ deep-sea knowledge really was,” adds Kopf. To broaden researchers’ outlook, DS3F organised workshops in Brussels towards the end of the project. “The workshops broadened DS3F participants’ knowledge base and also juxtaposed our scientific goals with the views of the European Commission and decision-makers.”
All DS3F workshop reports fed into a white paper that serves as a guide towards future European marine research and policies. The comprehensive document includes the identification of primary issues that need to be addressed in sub-seafloor drilling, long-term monitoring requirements in the next 10-15 years and recommendations for expanding and applying national research efforts across borders to a European level. The project also produced an open-access web-portal for future deep-sea frontier research priorities.
Kopf believes the project has benefited both deep-sea resources – like biomedical applications and gas hydrates for energy – as well as geohazard assessment. “This means that ultimately DS3F will benefit society, because it will provide citizens with safer supplies, sustained environmental practices and resilience to hazards,” he concludes.