Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, a research organisation based in East Boothbay, Maine, has been awarded US$2 million by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to lead an international effort to accelerate scientific understanding of the environmental impacts of emerging industries in the deep sea.
The five-year Crustal Ocean Biosphere Research Accelerator project aims to identify the potential environmental costs of deep-sea activities to inform the policies that will govern them.
The deep seafloor covers two-thirds of Earth’s surface area. While humans have only explored a tiny fraction of it, it has been a source of remarkable discoveries.
The area is home to complex networks of organisms, from microbes to fish, that can exist miles below the ocean surface in underwater canyons, mountain chains, and volcanoes.
Bigelow Laboratory said the region has potential for industry and is a prospective source of rare and valuable metals that are used in many modern electronics, such as smartphones and electric cars. 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-sea ecosystems, as well as their ability to withstand human perturbation, is severely limited. Scientists are concerned human activity on the seafloor may fundamentally alter conditions that took millions of years to establish.
Beth Orcutt, project director and a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory, said the full potential impacts of deep-sea activities, like mining and subseafloor carbon sequestration, to these ecosystems are poorly understood.
Orcutt added that the project will accelerate understanding of these potential impacts by bringing together key stakeholders to coordinate efforts, generate and share knowledge, and inform decision making.
The project will also help to close knowledge gaps by helping coordinate and support collaboration on deep-sea expeditions and promoting new techniques that help speed assessment of deep-sea ecosystems. It will also train at least 50 early-career researchers and make the data from the study accessible – both to promote long-term solutions and collaboration.
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