The ocean is the final frontier, the last truly unexplored region on the planet, with mysteries and secrets not yet known to humans. Only recently have we been able to penetrate the cool blue waters to discover what lies beneath. The deeper we explore, the more strange and wonderful creatures and landscapes we find. In the context of climate change, it is important to assess how the ocean depths will be impacted, not only to better understand this part of the planet, but also to prevent the loss of rare and unusual forms of life.
The oceans hide dramatic landscapes, more extreme than anything found on land. The tallest mountain from base to tip is Mauna Kea . With its base on the sea floor, Mauna Kea is 10,203 meters tall; the top 4,205 meters extend beyond the ocean to form an island in Hawaii (to compare, Everest is 8,848 meters from base to peak). The planet's deepest canyon is the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean, well off the coast of Japan, with a depth of 10,911 meters (whereas the land-locked Grand Canyon is only 1,600 meters deep). These deep places are home to many organisms, with new species and habitats constantly being discovered.
Reaserch projects around the world are dedicated to exploring the rich areas of the deep sea environment. Since the 1970s, scientists have discovered two new ecosystems that support unique organisms never before seen by humans: hydrothermal vents and cold seeps. Each year expeditions venture away from the land on huge reserch vessels with the sole purpose of studying the unknown. The purpose of many of these studies is to study the biodiversity of the region, but also to set a baseline for environmental conditions so that future changes may be oberseved.
We are still learning about these deeps sea areas and make new discoveries with each reserach endeavour. Trawls off the continental shelf continue to bring up new species new to science. One study off the coast of Western Australia reported 15% of their total catch as new species never before described . Expeditions in the Tasman Sea by NORFANZ continue to bring new wild and wonderful creatures up from the deeps including blind lobsters, torpedo fish, coffin fish, a prickly shark, a tripod fish, a new species of brittle stars.
Off Canada's Coast
NEPTUNE is a research endeavour off Canada 's Pacific Coast taking place over the next several decades that will study the deep sea off British Columbia. NEPTUNE stands for North-East Pacific Time-series Undersea Networked Experiments. The project, which involves international collaboration, focuses on learning more about the ocean, both near shore and offshore. Led by the University of Victoria in Canada and partnered with the University of Washington in the US, this research endeavour will further develop our understanding of the underwater world .
NEPTUNE will be the largest cable-linked observatory on the ocean bottom. Fiber-optic power cables will extend from Barkley Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, offshore to the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate. Along the 800-kilometer ring several stations will be set-up with specialized equipment for data collection. Scientists will be able to control the stations or nodes from their land-based labs simply by adjusting cameras and instruments. Ultimately, the data from these collection nodes will be fed in real time to classrooms and science centres worldwide so that students can be involved in exploring the oceans .
NEPTUNE put to good use
The Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre (BMSC) is very excited to be a part of this project. Two researchers that have been working in the Barkley Sound area for many years, Dr. Ron Tanasichuk of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Dr. Rich Pawlowicz of the University of British Columbia, were instrumental in bringing this project to BMSC. One of the nodes will be located in Folgers Passage, where both these researchers have long-term studies, and will benefit from the data and information collected.
Dr. Ron Tanasichuk's research examines how the abundance of krill, the tiny, shrimp-like food of juvenile salmon and whales, affects adult salmon populations. This research has been ongoing for 15 years and the node at Folgers Passage will allow real time data to be collected for the first time. The new NEPTUNE node will be equipped with sensors to monitor phytoplankton blooms, chlorophyll concentration, and important events otherwise missed such as krill spawning. Understanding what factors impact local salmon populations is instrumental in managing this important fishery in the changing ocean environment .
Dr. Rich Pawlowicz is part of the Ocean Dynamics Lab at UBC, and is interested in how water and currents move through areas such as Barkley Sound. Water movements lead to changes in temperature, salinity, and oxygen content, all things that affect the animal and plant communities of the marine environment. Currently, several stations in Barkley Sound are sampled throughout the year. The information collected from the NEPTUNE node will add to these data by constantly taking measurements to help us understand how changes in water conditions may affect marine organisms .
NEPTUNE reaches near and far
In keeping with NEPTUNE 's education objectives, the project will also offer an opportunity to train marine science students in specialized techniques. This means that the more than 4000 students that visit the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre each year will have further opportunities to learn about the marine environment by getting to use real time data provided by the NEPTUNE project.
Since the oceans cover the majority of the planet's surface, it is important to understand and monitor them with projects like NEPTUNE, especially with climate change affecting the ocean waters greatly. Warming of the oceans has been observed to reach depths of 3000 meters , deep enough to reach some of the organisms and ecosystems only recently discovered. While some might say that space is the final frontier, marine scientists would argue that the final frontier is right here in our own backyard.
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