Mar 10th 2017

Deep Sea Offers a Gateway to Deeper Understanding of Life

FacebookPinterestTwitterLinkedIn

Very close to home is an alien world home to creatures that have evolved in unique ways to survive. There’s a whole ecosystem that thrives on methane, for example. This is the deep sea, where scientific and technological advancements have paved the way for incredible discoveries.

The Alien World Called Earth

In December 2016, researchers exploring hydrothermal vents at a depth of nearly two miles announced the discovery of six new species of animals. These creatures were living in a vent field dubbed Longqi, or Dragon’s Breath, about 1,200 miles southeast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

A new species of scaleworm discovered in the deep sea.
New species of scaleworm Peinaleopolynoe (credit David Shale)

These vents serve as the heart of a thriving ecosystem. Through a series of chemical reactions, hydrothermal vents become hot spring playgrounds for organisms. Microbes feed off the methane and minerals spewed forth from the vents to serve as the fuel for much larger organisms. While we live in a world of sunlight, these creatures live in darkness, freezing temperatures and intense water pressure.

Most famous of these deep sea creatures are the nightmare-inspired anglerfish and the blobfish, with the latter earning popular recognition as the “world’s ugliest fish.” The female anglerfish has an extended dorsal spine that hangs over its mouth and resembles a fishing pole. At the end of the spine is a piece of flesh containing glowing bacteria that the anglerfish uses as bait for unsuspecting prey. The blobfish gets its reputation because it’s adapted to an environment where the pressure is up to 120 times greater than what we’re used to on the surface, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Humpback Anglerfish (Wikipedia Commons)

Much like how deep space exploration unlocks the mysteries of the universe from its origins to its expansion, so too does deep sea exploration for our planet. From the depths of the ocean comes a better understanding of the beginning of life on Earth, dynamic geological changes and the effects of climate change. But deep sea exploration ultimately requires

A Deeper Understanding

Despite the numerous discoveries of unknown species, sea exploration is very much in its infancy. To date, we’ve explored under 5 percent of the ocean, according to the National Ocean Service. That means 95 percent of all the water that covers the Earth, not just the deep sea, has yet to be explored.

Earth Observing System – Aqua – Artist conception of Aqua

Considering how much of the world is water, it’s not surprising that the ocean helps regulate temperature, shapes the weather and serves as the lifeblood for countless people — in the form of fishing and transportation — around the world. The weather pattern known as El Niño, which affects the North American winter and global weather, is the result of warmer-than-usual temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. NASA deploys space-based technology such the Northrop Grumman built Aqua and autonomous systems such as NASA Global Hawk to better understand the earth’s oceans, water cycles and storms. But deep sea exploration is just as important and can also lead to better earthquake and tsunami prediction models. Meteorologists use tsunami buoys to detect changes in sea levels that may be caused by underwater earthquakes.

Advancements in medicine can also be driven by the discovery of new organisms in the depths of the ocean. Cancer researchers already use the zebrafish, a tropical freshwater fish, as a model for research leading to new insights on tumor development. Deep sea creatures live in some of the harshest environments on Earth and understanding how they survive could potentially lead to new drugs or treatments.

Our bodies, while resilient, can only dive so deep without some help. Luckily, that’s where unmanned underwater exploration has proven invaluable in our exploration of the unknown.

Exploring the Unknown

Remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer being prepared for deployment on the Okeanos aft deck (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)

The discovery of six new species mentioned earlier was the result of researchers using a remotely operated vehicle to explore hydrothermal vents in 2011. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses Deep Discoverer, affectionately known as D2, to explore the mysteries of the sea at depths of up to four miles. D2 is equipped with high-definition cameras to reveal the deep in amazing clarity. Everything D2 records is uploaded to the internet, which means citizen scientists and researchers can aid in the scientific process from anywhere in the world.

Even though the vessel itself is unmanned, people are at the heart of underwater exploration. Teams of researchers and engineers have developed STEM skills throughout their education to advance the science and develop the technology to reveal the ocean’s mysteries. Without talented people, unmanned undersea exploration would be a guessing game.

Check Out These Frontiers Articles Too