High seas research bolstered by $ 2 million grant

PICTURE: Deep-sea octopuses incubate their eggs on the rocks of Dorado Seamount off Costa Rica, nearly three kilometers below the ocean’s surface. Deep-water ecosystems like these are threatened by … After

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences received $ 2 million from the National Science Foundation to lead an international effort to accelerate scientific understanding of the environmental impacts of emerging industries on the high seas – one of the most mysterious and potentially lucrative areas of the ocean .

The five-year Crustal Ocean Biosphere Research Accelerator aims to identify the potential environmental costs of high seas activities to inform policies that will govern them. It will bring together various scientific and policy experts from industry, universities and private institutes in a race against time to guide the responsible use of these fragile environments.

The deep seabed covers two-thirds of the Earth’s surface. While humans have only explored a tiny fraction of it, it has been a source of remarkable discoveries. It is home to intricate webs of organisms, from microbes to fish, which can exist miles below the ocean’s surface in submarine canyons, mountain ranges, and volcanoes.

The region has potential for industry and even climate change mitigation. It is a potential source of rare and precious metals that are used in many modern electronic devices, such as smartphones and electric cars. As the demand for these limited resources has increased, countries around the world have begun to scan the seabed with increased interest. Some also see the region as a stable place to store carbon dioxide, keeping it out of the atmosphere where it accelerates global warming.

However, our understanding of deep-water ecosystems, as well as their ability to withstand human disturbance, is very limited. Scientists fear that human activity on the seabed could fundamentally alter the conditions that took millions of years to establish.

“Offshore activities like mining and underwater carbon sequestration can help us build a better future, but any potential impacts on these ecosystems are poorly understood,” said Beth Orcutt, project manager and senior scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory. “This project will accelerate understanding of these potential impacts by bringing together key stakeholders to coordinate efforts, generate and share knowledge, and inform decision-making.

Currently, deep sea mining is more of a goal than a reality, but it is changing rapidly. The technology for extracting precious minerals is still unreliable and does not result in a profitable practice. The industry is not yet clearly regulated. Some companies are eager to start mining. Others, including Samsung, Google and BMW, have called for a preventive moratorium on the use of seabed metals until environmental concerns are resolved.

The new funding for the project is timely. Last June, the Pacific island nation of Nauru notified the United Nations of its intention to begin deep-sea mining. Although the legal process has been underway for years, this notification triggered a two-year countdown for the International Seabed Authority to finalize the regulations – a breakneck pace for this complex level of science.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a pause in research on the high seas, but not on finding solutions for high seas mining and carbon sequestration on the high seas,” Orcutt said. “Scientific advice is needed more than ever to educate these emerging industries to advise sustainability and prevent serious damage. “

Beyond immediate needs, the research project will help fill knowledge gaps by helping to coordinate and support collaboration on deep-sea expeditions and by promoting new techniques that help accelerate the assessment of ecosystems d deep water. It will also train at least 50 early-career researchers and make study data accessible – both to promote long-term solutions and collaboration.

The project will be led by Orcutt with Julie Huber, an associate scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who will serve as associate director of the project. The COBRA leadership team also includes Jim McManus, vice president of research and administration at the Bigelow Laboratory, and scientists from Boston University, University of Alaska Fairbanks and University from California to Santa Cruz. Project partners include the Schmidt Ocean Institute, the Ocean Exploration Trust, Ocean Networks Canada, the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative’s Challenger 150 program, and other international collaborators.


The Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences is an independent, non-profit research institute located in East Boothbay, Maine. From the Arctic to the Antarctic, scientists at the Bigelow Laboratory use innovative approaches to study the foundations of global ocean health and unlock its potential to improve the future of all life on the planet. Learn more at bigelow.org and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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