THE (ENVIRONMENTAL) TREASURES OF THE DEEP

May 07 2021

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Ever heard of a siphonophore? A deep-sea predator, it’s a gelatinous string made up of thousands of tiny clones, that paralyzes and consumes small crustaceans and fish. Last year, off the coast of Western Australia, researchers discovered the longest ever found, describing it as looking something like a UFO. At 46 meters long, the creature is twice as long as most blue whales, making it the lengthiest animal in the world (that we know of).  

Recent deep-sea discoveries do not stop there. Earlier this year, in February, researchers in Antarctica discovered marine organisms living on the seafloor beneath 900 meters of ice shelf (they weren’t even looking for life, because they didn’t believe it could exist somewhere so cold). The discovery – described by the researchers as “bonkers” – has led scientists to rethink the possibilities of life in cold climates and, therefore, the limits of life on Earth. 

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), right now, more than 80% of our oceans are still unmapped and unexplored. “We can still say we have better maps of the surface of the Moon and Mars than of the seafloor,” explains Prof George Wolff, an ocean chemist from the University of Liverpool who was involved in a 2020 project that discovered 12 new species in the Atlantic Ocean, "so whenever you go to the deep ocean, you find something new – not just individual species but entire ecosystems." 

However, as well as discovering new species, Wolff’s research trip also reported on how ocean warming, acidification, and decreasing food availability are combining to reduce the availability of many habitats for deep-sea species, meaning that the time we have to discover some of the mysteries of the deep could be limited. "It's like understanding that the rainforest is an important place for biodiversity on the land,” Wolff told the BBC. “The same is true of the deep sea – there are important places that need to be protected and, crucially, they are all connected."

When it comes to the importance, urgency, and benefits of mapping our oceans, Gunnar Brink, a former finalist in the $7M Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE agrees. A marine robotics expert, Brink was the technical lead for ARGGONAUTS from Fraunhofer IOSB, the German team that created a swarm of robots to chart the deep ocean. Their goal? To map as much of the sea floor as possible in 24 hours, with completely unmanned autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), at the Ocean Discovery XPRIZE finals in Kalamata in 2019. 

When asked about his drive to enter the competition, Brink explains: “I really believe in the abundance of the oceans. We have inhabited ⅓ of the planet since Neolithic Times and a lot of the resources are exploited, yet we have an increasing population that needs resources. There are plenty of resources in the ocean but they need to be used in a responsible way. We cannot make the same mistakes we made on land’s surface.” 

In this sense, for Brink, “mapping the oceans is part of the overall scientific endeavor to map the world” but it’s also about environmentalism: “to protect the environment you have to know it first – mankind will only protect what people love, and you can love only what you know.” 

As for the untapped discoveries that lie within our oceans, they are plentiful, and might just encompass more than we think. Beyond wildlife, for instance, there is the critical carbon removing potential of the oceans and the organisms, currents, and rocks within them. 

The oceans are some of the world’s biggest carbon sinks, with the NOAA estimating that 25% of CO2 that is released into the atmosphere is absorbed by oceans and 25% land plants and trees, with 50% remaining in the atmosphere. “Yet we don’t really understand all of the ways in which the ocean absorbs carbon,” says Brink. “We don’t really know the surface topology of the oceans, their mountains, how the currents move, and how carbon dioxide is transported in the water. So from a scientific point of view, it is disappointing.” 

Yet, the sheer capacity of our oceans makes them compelling in the quest for large-scale CO2 removal. Startups are already growing kelp, using it to absorb CO2, then sinking it to the bottom of the ocean. Others have suggested drawing nutrient-rich waters up from the deep ocean to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, which consume CO2 through photosynthesis. Another approach is to use Direct Air Capture (DAC) to convert CO2 from the air, and then sequester that CO2 by injecting it into deep sea rocks or saline formations – an energy-intensive process that could be powered by offshore wind. 

The biggest incentive prize in history, the $100M XPRIZE Carbon Removal will support and incentivize teams in accelerating existing and discovering new carbon removal pathways at sea – unlocking more of the potential of the oceans.

In the meantime, another reason for learning more about the oceans, says Brink, is to observe the impacts of climate change on the planet. In 2020, for example, an international team of researchers shared a new climate reference curve that reconstructed the Earth’s climate since the end of the Cretaceous period by using data they obtained from sediment cores on the ocean floor. “If we don’t know about these ecosystems, we can’t know the effects we are having on them. We need to monitor them over long periods of time,” Brink says. 

Finally, as we continue to mine for fossil fuels and minerals, and run underwater cables for transporting electricity and data, we can use underwater robotics – aka AUVs – for monitoring and inspecting that these practices are conducted in the safest way possible, Brink adds. Two years on from the Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, Brink is working with Rosen, a German company that specializes in this area and who recently received a 12M Euro grant from the German Ministry of Economics for an AUV development project. 

“Our main customers are oil and gas companies,” explains Brink. “Most oil and gas comes from the seafloor. Everyone remembers the [Deepwater Horizon] spill in the Gulf of Mexico. If we compare the number of accidents with ships to pipelines over the last decade, pipelines are much safer. If a pipeline would break a huge amount of crude oil would enter the ocean, so monitor subsea assets to make sure they're not corroded or washed away by currents and sediment moves, and to make sure that everything can be operated smoothly.”

Overall, if we continue to advance mapping and monitoring capabilities in a sustainable way (for instance, low energy usage robotics tech that can be launched from shore, without require a fossil fuel burning vessel to take it out to sea), we can better get a picture of the effects climate change is having on the ocean, slow these effects, and even discover new ways to fight climate change. 

There are endless treasures lying await in the ocean when it comes to environmentalism, but we must protect our oceans if we want to access them, and keep pushing the new frontiers of ocean exploration through technology. There have been multiple moon landings and hundreds regularly reach the top of Mount Everest, but very few people have reached the depths of the Challenger Deep, the ocean's deepest (known) point. We’ve barely scraped the seafloor surface.