A team led by scientists from The University of Texas at Austin is attempting “to boldly go where no man has gone before”: the Earth’s deepest oceans.
In the 1989 science fiction film “The Abyss,” a search and recovery team is tasked with finding a lost U.S. submarine that has vanished somewhere deep in uncharted waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Although the team’s discovery of an extraterrestrial species living on the ocean floor is imaginative, it did highlight how little we know about what may be present in the deepest parts of the Earth’s oceans.
Water covers more than 70% of the planet’s surface, but only 10% of the undersea world has been explored. Oceans provide about 90% of living space on the planet by volume. They also absorb more than 90% of the Earth’s radiative heat imbalance leading to ocean warming, and about a third of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions leading to ocean acidification.
Now, more than 30 years since the release of “The Abyss,” scientists have gained some new insights. For example, the deep ocean (below 200 meters, from the mesopelagic zone downward) could provide a vast repository for biodiversity — providing critical climate regulation and housing a wealth of hydrocarbon, mineral and genetic resources. Nevertheless, the deep ocean remains a mostly unknown realm of our planet. Deep-ocean habitats are under increasing pressure from climate change and human activities such as seafloor mining, fishing and contamination.
Through its “Accelerating Research through International Network-to-Network Collaborations” (AccelNet) program, the National Science Foundation is funding a team led by the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at UT Austin to implement a Deep-Ocean Observing Strategy (iDOOS). The initiative brings together U.S. and international networks engaged in deep-ocean observing, mapping, exploration, modeling, research and sustainable management to leverage each other’s efforts, knowledge and resources.