Scientists Shed Light on Deep-water Atlantic Canyons

A new video, Atlantic Canyons: Pathways to the Abyss, documents a three-year collaboration between BOEM, USGS and NOAA to explore two deepwater canyons off the US mid-Atlantic coast.

The aim of the project was to ensure protection of the benthic ecosystems while preparing for possible oil and gas exploration.

Key to weighing the balance of these needs is gaining a better understanding of the existing ecosystem and the behavior of its inhabitants. “What is that balance between tapping into the resources that we need as a thriving civilization, but also protecting these habitats?” asked Dr. Nancy Prouty, US Geological Survey.

The Atlantic Canyons project demonstrates the value of organizations with different capabilities collaborating to combine resources and achieve common objectives. It also highlights the benefits of a multi-disciplinary approach that takes advantage of an array of available tools for exploration. Tools like manned submersibles, remotely operated vehicles, and ocean landers are valuable tools in the exploration toolbox that scientists can use to achieve specific mission objectives.

“…through advanced technology such as remotely operated vehicles and manned subs, we’ve been exposed to this amazing world that lives below the light zone – which we call the aphotic zone – where there’s actually thriving ecosystems living in complete darkness,” said Prouty.

Unfortunately, darkness can also be used to broadly describe our collective understanding the world’s oceans “…we are still literally blundering around in the dark, often with the deep sea”, said Dr. Sandra Brooke of Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Lab.

Projects like the Atlantic Canyons shed new light on a previously underexplored habitat. In this project, one of the major research findings in these canyon ecosystems included high densities of corals, including some that were previously unknown in the area.

“One of the best ways to describe deep sea corals is that they can be considered the old growth forest of the deep sea.”, stated Prouty. “65% of the deep sea corals live in water depths greater than 50 meters.” As a result, less is know about these corals compared to those at shallow depths seen by scuba divers.

“One of the things that’s happening in ocean resource use is that everybody is moving deeper. As we use up resources that are easy to get to, we are going to start exploiting resources that are more difficult to get to, which includes an increasing part of the deep sea,” Dr. Steve Ross, University North Carolina Wilmington.

This increasing need to go deep demands a more efficient approach to exploration. A nimble solution that puts scientists directly into the environment that they study, and that does not require the use of a large research class vessel, provides the flexibility and rapid deployment that scientists and explorers need.

“The science of understanding the environment that’s impacted by any development has to move quickly, and we are constantly trying to play keep up with the demands for energy,” said Dr. Rod Mather, University of Rhode Island.