One of the great traditions among deep-sea scientists is the shrinking of polystyrene cups by sending them down to our research sites. Polystyrene (or Styrofoam) is mostly empty space. When sent to the bottom of the sea, the massive pressure (an additional atmosphere for every 10 meters depths) squeezes the air out of these empty spaces reducing the cups–or, in some more dramatic examples, mannequin heads and prop skulls a la Hamlet–to a fraction of their former size. With a little bit of creative doodling during down time, we end up with a nice illustration of this physical phenomenon that is undoubtedly an insufficient gift for our loved ones, of whom we’ve abandoned to spend 30+ days mucking about on a boat*.
Fortunately, on my last expedition, I had the wherewithal to get before and after photographs of each cup the went over the side. So, for your enjoyment, for the next few weeks I’ll be posting some of my favorite shrunken cups. Enjoy!
Welcome to the Cayman Abyss!
*Though, it could be worse. Rumor has it one group of researchers was so confident in their ability to deploy and recover remote deep-sea landers, that they all affixed their wedding rings to the deepest rig before sending it over. Fortunately, it returned, rings unscathed.
There is only one giant squid, her name is Ducky, and she’s orchestrated the greatest prank in history.
No, I don’t mean that there’s only one species of giant squid, Architeuthis dux, as was recently revealed by marine science rising star Inger Winkelmann, although it’s true. I mean that there is only one individual Archituethis dux, her name must naturally be Ducky, and, for the last 3 decades, she’s been messing with us.
You know the good stuff is going to keep rolling in from my research cruise to Mid-Cayman Spreading Center. At the end of JC82, we had the opportunity to join a bolt-on cruise to explore the seabed around Montserrat. During a biological survey of the surrounding abyssal plain, we twice stumbled on a giant deep-sea isopods hanging out on the sea floor, doing their isopod thing. This was my first opportunity to observe a giant deep-sea isopod (Bathynomus giganteus*) alive and in the wild. My previous experiences have been limited to well preserved specimens.
Giant isopod behavior is not something that falls within my expertise. Like Craig McClain at Deep Sea News, I’m fascinated by the evolution of their large body size and how a relatively abundant population of such giants can be supported in the food limited deep benthos. But giant isopods are not common in my study area and what little I know of their behavior comes from the very few videos available, mostly of them scavenging on baited camera traps. So I was pretty surprised when the ROV Isis came across this delightful giant maintaining its burrow.
This isn’t the first time Bathynomus burrowing has been observed; the behavior is actually fairly well documented (at least, well-documented for deep-sea species). But as fascinating as watching a 20+ centimeter-long roly-poly digging it’s hole 800 meters deep on the seafloor near one of the most active volcanoes in the Caribbean is, what we found next was even more amazing:
At 7 AM EST on Monday, February 25, the ROV Isis rose from the depths of the Cayman Abyss, bringing to a close the 82nd cruise of the RRS James Cook. During JC82, we explored two recently discovered hydrothermal vents fields in the Cayman Trough: Von Damm, named for the late marine geochemist Karen Von Damm, and Beebe, named for the 20th century explorer William Beebe. By any measure, JC82 was a massive success. The samples and videos we’ll bring back will provide ecologists, geologists, and chemists with new insights into fundamental ocean systems for years. The images alone, some beautiful, some heart-breaking, have already inspired.
Eyeless shrimp, dancing anemones, and a garden of filamentous bacteria. I’m a pretty good writer, and I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful this is. Photo Credit: NERC
Since I last updated the blog on our adventures exploring the Cayman Trough, we’ve had a steady stream media coverage, most of which has been excellent, some of which has been… strange. It’s been fascinating watching the articles come out, seeing what different media outlets consider the story, and, most important to me, getting a chance to share our adventure with a wide audience. Now that the #DeepestVents cruise is officially over (and we’re in transit to yet another, equally exciting bolt on cruise to investigate submerged lava flows off the island of Montserrat), I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on the cruise, the story, and how the media shaped it.
Modern deep-sea science is built on broad international collaborations. We share resources, expertise, and ship time. These exchanges allow scientists from around the world to benefit from a global research fleet that includes dedicated oceanographic platforms like the RRS James Cook or the RV Atlantis as well as novel vessels-of-opportunity that could include Norwegian container ships, North Carolina ferries, or Papua New Guinea tug boats. There are small differences between the operation of vessels from different nations – new acronyms, different power supplies, and an enduring disagreement regarding what constitutes a proper biscuit (ask a North Carolinian to take you to Bojangles sometime) – but the rhythm of a ship at sea is dictated, above all else, by the ocean.
The international and interconnected network of deep-sea scientists is how I now find myself, as an American, sailing aboard a British ship, in a role that could best be described as a Benthic Mercenary.
The least-impacted places in the ocean are mainly in the deep sea, but as fishing technology has improved, even seamounts, sponge gardens and deep-sea coral beds are no longer out of reach of our appetites for seafood. Bottom trawling, which involves dragging a heavy weighted net along the seabed, is so destructive to benthic habitats that it has been compared to clear-cutting a forest. Bottom gillnetting catches almost anything that swims into them (and isn’t smaller than the mesh size), resulting in enormous levels of bycatch.
A (simplified) schematic of a bottom trawl. This one (on the NOAA vessel Henry Bigelow) is used for scientific sampling, not fishing, but it’s the same principle on a smaller scale. Image via Wikimedia Commons
The deep-sea fishing fleet of the European Union is one of the largest in the world, which is why it was so heartening to see the European Commission call for a phase-out of trawls and bottom gillnets recently. The Marine Conservation Institute, a longtime leader in marine protected areas, has obtained over 100 signatures (including mine) from marine scientists supporting a phase-out of bottom trawls and bottom gillnets by the EU fishing fleet. If you are a scientist who supports this measure, please consider adding your signature. This can be done by e-mailing [email protected] and including your name, institutional affiliation, degree, title, and full mailing address. Please note that MCI is primarily interested in signatures from the scientific community, and that simply posting a comment on this blog post is not equivalent to signing the petition.However, feel free to post a comment letting us know that you contacted MCI!
The full text of the petition can be seen after the jump:
Many decades of experimental and theoretical research on the origin of life have yielded important discoveries regarding the chemical and physical conditions under which organic compounds can be synthesized and polymerized. However, such conditions often seem mutually exclusive, because they are rarely encountered in a single environmental setting. As such, no convincing models explain how living cells formed from abiotic constituents. Here, we propose a new approach that considers the origin of life within the global context of the Hadean Earth. We review previous ideas and synthesize them in four central hypotheses: (i) Multiple microenvironments contributed to the building blocks of life, and these niches were not necessarily inhabitable by the first organisms; (ii) Mineral catalysts were the backbone of prebiotic reaction networks that led to modern metabolism; (iii) Multiple local and global transport processes were essential for linking reactions occurring in separate locations; (iv) Global diversity and local selection of reactants and products provided mechanisms for the generation of most of the diverse building blocks necessary for life. We conclude that no single environmental setting can offer enough chemical and physical diversity for life to originate. Instead, any plausible model for the origin of life must acknowledge the geological complexity and diversity of the Hadean Earth. Future research may therefore benefit from identifying further linkages between organic precursors, minerals, and fluids in various environmental contexts.
Newsweek, in is new and impressive digital format, released a series of articles this week on deep-sea exploration, the challenges of human occupied and remotely-operated vehicles, and the decline in funding for ocean science, particularly in the deep sea. The main article, The Last Dive? Funding for Human Expeditions in the Ocean May Have Run Aground, is a deep, detailed look at the state of deep-sea science, seen through the eyes of Dr. Sylvia Earle and Dr. Robert Ballard, two giants in the ocean community. The follow-up, James Cameron Responds to Robert Ballard on Deep-Sea Exploration, provides insight into the mind of James Cameron, who last year successfully dove the Challenger Deep in his own deep-sea submersible.
Both the articles continue to perpetrate the canard that there is a deep chasm between the human-occupied submersible (HOV) and remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) communities. The reality is that deep-sea scientists use a variety of tools, from mechanical samplers to autonomous robots, to study and understand the deep. The choice comes down to which tool is most efficient, least expensive, and currently available. Absent a sea change, ROV’s will continue to be the workhorses of deep-sea research. And that is a good thing. I sang the praise of my robot underlings the last time this debate breached the public consciousness. I also discussed why basic deep-sea research and training highly skilled ROV pilots is a matter of national security.
A new hydrothermal vent site in the Southern Mariana Trough has been discovered using acoustic and magnetic surveys conducted by the Japan Agency for Marine–Earth Science and Technology’s (JAMSTEC) autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Urashima. The high-resolution magnetic survey, part of near-bottom geophysical mapping around a previously known hydrothermal vent site, the Pika site, during YK09-08 cruise in June-July 2009, found that a clear magnetization low extends ~500 m north from the Pika site. Acoustic signals, suggesting hydrothermal plumes, and 10 m-scale chimney-like topographic highs were detected within this low magnetization zone by a 120 kHz side-scan sonar and a 400 kHz multibeam echo sounder. In order to confirm the seafloor sources of the geophysical signals, seafloor observations were carried out using the deep-sea manned submersible Shinkai 6500 during the YK 10-10 cruise in August 2010. These discovered a new hydrothermal vent site (12°55.30′N, 143°38.89′E; at a depth of 2922 m), which we have named the Urashima site. This hydrothermal vent site covers an area of approximately 300 m x 300 m and consists of black and clear smoker chimneys, brownish-colored shimmering chimneys, and inactive chimneys. All of the fluids sampled from the Urashima and Pika sites have chlorinity greater than local ambient seawater, suggesting subseafloor phase separation or leaching from rocks in the hydrothermal reaction zone. End-member compositions of the Urashima and Pika fluids suggest that fluids from two different sources feed the two sites, even though are located on the same knoll and separated by only ~500 m. We demonstrate that investigations on hydrothermal vent sites located in close proximity to one another can provide important insights into subseafloor hydrothermal fluid flow, and also that, while such hydrothermal sites are difficult to detect by conventional plume survey methods, high-resolution underwater geophysical surveys provide an effective means.