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New species of marine life at an Antarctic deep-sea vent
New species of marine life at an Antarctic deep-sea vent

TEDx talk: No longer in the dark: our choice for the future of the deep ocean

For a summary of some of this week’s themes, you can watch a talk entitled No longer in the dark: our choice for the future of the deep ocean that Jon gave at a TEDxSouthamptonUniversity event in March 2013 (and the text of the talk is also available below).

As this course draws to a close, are there any choices that you might make as an individual for the future of the deep oceans? Examples might include sharing your new knowledge of the oceans, continuing your exploration of the oceans through further reading or study, considering the oceans in your choices as a consumer, or even raising ocean issues with your representatives.

TEDX talk transcript:

“The frontiers of space have given us some iconic images of exploration, such as Apollo 8’s “Earthrise” view of our world from the Moon’s orbit, and Buzz Aldrin’s photograph of a footprint on the lunar surface. But both of those pictures were taken before human eyes first saw one of our planet’s greatest geographic features: an undersea volcanic rift, known as the mid-ocean ridge, that meanders for sixty thousand kilometres around the globe at an average depth of two-and-a-half thousand metres in the deep ocean.

We’ve long known about one part of the mid-ocean ridge, where it sticks up out of the water to form Iceland. But the first vehicle to reach the deeply submerged rift did so south of the Azores in 1973. That journey took place during a joint US-French project called FAMOUS, which stands for French-American Mid-Ocean Undersea Study, four years after Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon. Since then, further exploration of the mid-ocean ridge has revealed wonders such as undersea vents, first encountered in the eastern Pacific in the late 1970s, along with lush colonies of deep-sea creatures that thrive around them.

The pools of light around our deep-diving vehicles give us tiny and fleeting glimpses into a vast realm of darkness, but we’re now able to dive deeper, stay longer, and visit the deep ocean more often than ever before. So for the first time in history, the half of our world that has been hidden by water more three kilometres deep is slowly becoming known to us - and just in time for us to chart a future course among its economic opportunities and environmental challenges.

Last month, my colleagues and I were exploring the Cayman Trough in the Caribbean Sea. We used a Remotely Operated Vehicle called Isis to investigate the deepest known undersea vents, five kilometres down on the ocean floor. That samples and data that we collected will help us to understand more about the geological processes that shape our world, and some of the reactions that govern the chemistry of the oceans. We also encountered new species of animals, which will help us to understand more about how marine life disperses and evolves in the ocean depths that make up most of our living world. Our expedition was the latest in a series of voyages exploring undersea vents around the globe, and just one of many such expeditions out there every day, gradually learning more about the deep ocean.

One of my favourite images from ocean exploration is called the “Floor of the Ocean”, a map drafted by Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen in the 1950s. They pieced together echo-sounder traces from ships crossing the ocean to produce the first global picture of the deep-sea landscape, and their work revealed the full extent of the mid-ocean ridge. Encountering an updated version of the map in National Geographic as a child, I was captivated by its secret landscape, and spent hours poring over its unseen undulations, tasting their strange names on my tongue: the Vema Fracture Zone, the Reykjanes Ridge, the Bouvet Triple Junction.

Today we also have global maps of the ocean floor from satellite data. But those maps can’t resolve features smaller than a few kilometres across, so even now there are still undersea mountains and seafloor craters out there for us to discover them with sonar from ships. And sonar and satellites can’t tell us what’s going on down there, or what lives there: for that, we need to send our eyes to the ocean floor.

Fortunately, after millennia of crossing the ocean surface, we now have the technology to visit its depths. From the pioneering bathysphere dives of William Beebe and Otis Barton in the 1930s, and the record-breaking plunge of Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in 1960, through the decades of dives by research submersibles such as the famous Alvin, to the latest generation of remotely operated vehicles like our Isis, along with autonomous underwater vehicles, and new human-occupied vehicles: there is no longer any part of the deep ocean inaccessible to us, if we can find the will to go there.

When Project FAMOUS visited the mid-ocean ridge for the first time in the early 1970s, the Alvin submersible spent a total of 81 hours working on the ocean floor down to a depth of 3000 metres. That was an astounding feat at the time, and it heralded the mainstream use of deep submergence vehicles for scientific research. During our recent expedition, the Isis ROV spent nearly 200 hours working on the ocean floor down to a depth of 5000 metres - and while we’re very proud of that achievement, it’s now routine.

Our new-found ability to peer into and investigate the ocean depths could not be more timely. Our everyday lives have an impact on the deep ocean. When we visit new areas of the ocean floor, we often find that our rubbish has already got there: the litter that we found on our recent expedition to the Cayman Trough included soft drink cans, bottles, plastic bags, and a doormat. Meanwhile, we are extracting oil and gas, on which our economies depend, from deeper waters, but we’re still learning about the consequences of accidents in those operations. We’re also fishing in deeper waters, and trawling remote areas where marine life has yet to be surveyed. And now we’re starting to unlock the mineral wealth of the deep ocean; the long-held dream of harvesting manganese nodules from the ocean floor is finally becoming a reality, with the first extraction projects starting in the eastern Pacific. Elsewhere, the deep-sea vents that have inspired our ocean exploration are now within reach for the deposits of metals that form around them.

In the past two years, the International Seabed Authority - the United Nations body that governs seafloor mining in international waters - has awarded four new licences for mineral exploration than span several thousand kilometres of mid-ocean ridge. So in just six decades, we have gone from not knowing about the full extent of the mid-ocean ridge, to visiting it for the first time, and now parcelling up its resources.

When Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen first glimpsed the full extent of the mid-ocean ridge in the 1950s, our global population was around 2.5 billion people. When Project FAMOUS first visited the mid-ocean ridge in the early 1970s, it was nearly 4 billion people, and today it’s 7 billion people. Those numbers only tell part of the story, of course, but as our growth and development continue, the deep ocean offers us a challenge. If we can act quickly and use our new powers of perception, we can decide how to benefit from the resources of the deep ocean while fulfilling our responsibility for its stewardship. Our species has a poor track record of achieving that balance elsewhere, so let this be our new testing ground: now that the deep ocean is no longer out of sight, it is our choice whether its future iconic images will inspire or shame us.”

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This article is from the free online course:

Exploring Our Oceans

University of Southampton

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