February 5, 2009
Deep Sea Study Returns With Climate Change Info, New Creatures
A research team returned from a month long underwater voyage that shed the light on never before seen species of fish and the effects of climate change in the deepest areas of the ocean.
Scientists from the California Institute of Technology and an international team of collaborators traveled around Tasmania, Australia with a 502-pound video camera.
"It was truly one of those transcendent moments," says Caltech's Jess Adkins. Adkins is the lead scientist and an associate professor of geochemistry and global environmental science at Caltech. "We were flying--literally flying--over these deep-sea structures that look like English gardens, but are actually filled with all of these carnivorous, Seuss-like creatures that no one else has ever seen."
A preceding deep sea study used battery-operated instruments. However, the new camera uses real time data that streams to the shore, allowing researchers to have an improved comprehension of how pollution is affecting the ocean.
The ocean absorbs the majority of its carbon dioxide pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, creating increased acidity. Greenhouse gas pollution is also warming the ocean, a trend that can wipe out an extensive collection of marine life.
The area of the ocean being studied, the Tasman Fracture Zone, was previously explored at a depth of 5,900 feet. Using the new camera system, the researchers descended to 13,000 feet.
"We set out to search for life deeper than any previous voyage in Australian waters," scientist Ron Thresher said.
"The revolution in oceanography is to replace expeditionary science with a permanent presence in the ocean in the deep sea," added Widder.
"With rising sea levels as a result of ocean warming and ice caps melting, we need better observations recorded regularly and openly to better quantify what's happening to the oceans and the planet," said John Orcutt, a professor of geophysics at University of California.
The mission had two goals, stated Adkins: to try and use samples of deep-sea corals to recreate the paleoclimate and to comprehend the variations in CO2 discovered in the ice-core records.
Investigators also wanted to see the shifts in the ocean's life over the last hundred to one thousand years ago.
"We want to see what's happened to the corals over the Industrial Revolution timescale," says Adkins. "And we want to see if we can document those changes."
They also just wanted to see what is down there.
"In one sense, the deep ocean is less explored than Mars," Adkins adds. "So every time you go to look down there you see new things, magical things."
Amid the "magical things" discovered on the voyage was a new kind of carnivorous sea squirt that "looks and behaves like a Venus fly trap," says Adkins; new kinds of barnacles and a brand new species of sea anemone dubbed by Adkins to be "the bane of our existence," because it resembled the coral they were collecting.
The sea anemone was irritating, said the researchers, because they wanted to locate deep-sea samples of the fossilized coral, but could not find the coral below 7,800 feet.
"Not being able to find the coral down deeper was our single biggest disappointment on the trip," says Adkins.
However, the 10,000 samples found will aid the researchers in their work of decoding what has been going on in the ocean during the centuries of climate change. They will begin by dating the fossils gathered to conclude what part of history they came from.
"The deep ocean is part and parcel of these rapid climate changes," says Adkins. "These corals will be our window into what their impact is on climate, and how they have that impact. The info is there; now we just have to unpack it."
Image 1: The coral the researchers were looking for, d. dianthus, can be seen in the upper middle of the picture. Its look-alike anemone, a new species, is below and to the left. Credit: Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, WHOI/Jess Adkins, Caltech
Image 2: This is one of the new species seen during the voyage of the RV Thompson. Credit: Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory, WHOI/Jess Adkins, Caltech
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