Joining the dots on deep-sea systems

J Murray Roberts takes us on a journey into the deep Atlantic in final ASC keynote, revealing findings from the ocean basin and stressing the importance of international cooperation in this lesser-known marine area.
Published: 29 September 2018

​​​Roberts, of Edinburgh University, is coordinator of the Atlas project​, a consortium formed through a transatlantic alliance between Europe, Canada, and the USA. His presented some findings from this project, which is shedding new light on the ecosystems that exist in the depths of the Atlantic ocean basin, how they work, how they are connected, and how vulnerable they are to change. 

While some research has been at local and regional scales, across the wider ocean basin knowledge is still limited. Understanding how these ecosystems are interconnected, and the geological, biogeochemical and physical processes at play is important, especially as the deep Atlantic is opening up to more activity such as mineral and oil extraction. Because of the presence of valuable resources and the fact the basin areas lie beyond national jurisdiction, international cross-sectoral efforts are key for effective management measures.

Findings from the deep

Roberts outlined some of the exciting things currently being done. For example, because stronger sea flow deposits coarser sediments on the seabed, scientists have been able to identify from sediment below the Gulf Stream that the rate of current circulation (the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation​, AMOC) over the last 1600 years has been low. Changes to this circulation, as well as other variables such as heat and energy, have vast implications, including for how deep ecosystems function.

Roberts also asked what it would mean for the movement of coral larva between communities, highlighting again the importance of basin scale. The team have looked at such patterns between deep corals under different atmospheric sea level pressures (NAO index). Here, there seemed to respond very differently, meaning a potential shift in the pathways of dispersal that have evolved over thousands of years.

Another unknown is how the projected ocean circulation change will impact food supply to deep sea corals and sponges, given that these organisms rely on organic particles and nutrients arriving in the passing currents. Such work relies on engagement with physicists and biogeochemists.

Exchanging expertise

As Atlas was co-written with industry, cooperation was built in from the start. A Blue Growth initiative, it is involved with those making an impact in the marine economy and sectors such as seabed mining​. Consultations are currently being held with the International Seabed Authority​ on regulation around mining. This is highly relevant to international community as it is about taking a resource that is mandated to be the common heritage of mankind in areas of the deep sea that have never seen human activity.

The project works with data from industries operating in the deep Atlantic. Oil and gas sectors are some of the largest, with the biggest GDP impact and also most pressing need to understand the ecosystems. Atlas receives data from industry, while the industry is reliant on Atlas to do basin scale modelling so they know where their operating areas fit into the bigger picture. For Roberts, this cooperation has to be built on long-established relationships and trust, where objectives are aligned.

Other notable collaborative efforts include on socioeconomics, which involves expert surveys on major issues and impacts on marine ecosystem services. There is also an early career scientist element, with a network between European postdocs and students and the Canadian Healthy Oceans Network.

"We’re at just over the halfway point of Atlas. Politics and agreements between countries are now aligning and allowing research to happen. We started from bottom-up activity on saltwater coral, regionally and locally, and the next series of questions have to be around how they are connected to each other, what their history over time is, and in the future. For this we need geographic scales and to work across borers," said Roberts. 

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​J Murray ​Roberts at the 2018 Annual Science Conference (ASC) in Hamburg, Germany

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Joining the dots on deep-sea systems

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