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Go Deep Sea Exploring, From Your Computer

Liz Clift

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying look at the surface of the ocean itself, except that when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean.” –Dave Barry, writer

How many of us, as children, wanted to be explorers? To map uncharted territory? To discover new lands (or animals)? For me—and, I’d argue, so many in my generation and the one that followed—this was part of the appeal of The Magic School Bus series: Ms. Frizzle – a teacher who didn’t believe that limits should be set on what we explore took her students on all sorts of adventures. They were scientists. They were wanderers and wonderers, students of the world and themselves.

Sometimes, I think, we let ourselves believe there is nothing more to explore. That there is nothing else we should hold in wonder. And, I think when we do this, we are wrong.

In January 2009, President Obama established the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument (MTMNM), through Presidential Proclamation 8335. He assigned management responsibility to Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce. The Secretary of the Interior placed MTMNM within the National Wildlife Refuge System, and delegated management to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Secretary of Commerce, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is primarily responsible for fishery-management within these waters. The Marianas Trench Monument Advisory Council provides advice and recommendations on the development of management plans and includes three officials from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Island (CNMI) government, as well as a representative from both the Department of Defense and the US Coast Guard.

But it’s hard to create a management plan for an area we know very little about.

NOAA, in conjunction with a variety of partners, has been conducting a three-cruise expedition on the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer to collect and analyze baseline information about unknown and poorly known areas of the MTMNM and the CNMI. The information from the 2016 Deep Water Exploration of the Marianas will be used to support management needs of the area, and to better understand the diversity, ecology, geology, and distribution of deep sea habitats in the area. It will also provide foundational information for follow-up exploration and research.

2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas

The remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer surveying the 14-meter hydrothermal chimney. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas.

The third cruise in this series of expeditions began June 17th, and will conclude July 10th. It will be focused on mapping the northern part of the CNMI and the MTMNM using a remotely-operated vehicle. Highlight videos from this type of project, focused on the southern half of the CNMI and the MTMNM, (from the first leg of the cruise April 20-May 11) show a small octopus, a dandelion siphonophore, an aggregation of basket stars, and an extinct hydrothermal chimney, among other things. These videos include a combination of post-production music and the real-time-filming reactions of the scientists on Okeanos Explorer.

NOAA’s goal is to make mapping data from these cruises available within three months, and regular updates about the project are available on the NOAA website. Additionally, the Okeanos Explorer uses telepresence to engage the on-shore science team, who can engage with the ship through a teleconference line and online collaborative tools. This allows scientists and students to contribute expertise in real time, and extends the reach of ocean exploration to many more people. You can access the live stream (minus additional collaborative tools) here!

may10-hires

A small octopus made an appearance on the dive. You can see how small it is compared to the crinoid stalks it is next to. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas.

Part of what makes this project especially important, from a conservation and restoration perspective, is that when we better understand not only the ecology of these deep sea habitats, we can develop more effective management practices—and we have a baseline to monitor changes in these habitats. Already, this exploration has demonstrated that biota not previously known to live in MTMNM and CNMI do venture to—or in fact live in—this area.

Additionally, characterizing the biology and geology of the MTMNM and CNMI is crucial because it is an area that may one day be of interest for deep sea mining, due to the presence of metals in the Prime Crust Zone (PCZ) including manganese, nickel, cobalt, and iron in the substrate crust. A better understanding of the biology and geology of the area will allow us to better understand not only how to manage the area—but how to offset impacts to these habitats.

2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas

A beautiful stalked crinoid, likely Proisocrinus ruberrimus. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas.

Of course, when talking about impacts to deep sea habitats, it is important to note that these areas are already showing human impact: the exploration also shows trash, even at just over 3 miles (5,000 meters) below the surface of the water.

This expedition, along with expeditions that preceded it, will allow us to continue to monitor these and other pollution impacts. It also provides data on the impacts of on-going volcanic activity, which can result in lava flows that alter the geomorphology of the landscape and in large amounts of both gaseous and liquid carbon dioxide being released into the deep sea environment, which results in locally acidified environments.

The management plan, which is still under development, will provide public education programs, traditional access by indigenous persons who rely on the trench for fishing, and scientific exploration and research. Several draft plans, impacting various portions of the monument have been made available for review.

Now that you know all of this, what do you do with it? The answer to this question, naturally, depends on what you want to do with it. Below are a few ideas of what you might do with this information—but we’d love to know why you’re interested in this exploration. Please leave us a message on Facebook www.facebook.com/greatecology.

Educators:

  • Share some of the videos from the expedition with your students, because the footage provides opportunities to see species and geology many of us will never see in real life—and that have never been seen before;
  • Incorporate details about deep sea life into live science theater; or
  • Assign some of the background essays—which could be used in high school or college classes focused on fisheries management, geology, ethnohistory, or mining.

STEM Fields:

  • Better understand the potential of telepresence for the future of scientific exploration and collaboration. Telepresence changes the way that scientific exploration is disseminated not only to scientists, but to the rest of us;
  • Explore opportunities to work on creating remotely-operated vehicles that can explore even deeper areas of the ocean or which are equipped with more bio-sensing monitors that can provide more or enhanced feedback to scientists about the conditions of deep sea life; or
  • Develop improved analytics for ocean monitoring.

Social & Political Scientists:

  • Follow developments of the management plan in regards to fishery management and indigenous fishing rights;
  • Develop and refine environmental sociological models focused on current and historic use of natural resources in and near the trench;
  • Monitor or draft changes in regulatory policy; or
  • Develop economic models for the management plan.

Restoration Ecologists and Marine Biologists:

  • Follow the development of the management plan to better understand how fishing rights could impact the MTMNM and CNMI fisheries;
  • Understand the potential implications of PCZ and mineral mining on future restoration or mitigation efforts;
  • Use the data to develop mitigation plans for human impacts to these habitats; or
  • Study the changes in biota after a volcanic event on the seafloor.

Regardless of why you’re interested in this work, I hope you’ll take some time to watch the live stream of the final expedition—and perhaps find a few moments of wonder in seeing a portion of life in the deep sea you never imagined existed.

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