Deep Ocean Studies Unlock Hidden Secrets

July 31, 2020

In spite of social distancing and quarantining requirements of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, scientists from Geoscience Australia, the University of Sydney, and the Queensland Museum, led ­by Dr. Robin Beaman of James Cook University, have succeeded in conducting unprecedented coral reef mapping and gathering vital environmental data from the depths of the Queensland Plateau off the western coast of Australia.            

With an area close to 300,000 square kilometres, this region is one of the world’s largest continental margin plateaus and is known to contain a large variety of reef systems, including more than 30 coral atolls. What’s unique here is that prior to this recent research endeavor, the Queensland plateau had never been explored beyond 800 meters in depth.

Photo credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Deep Ocean Research Capability

A significant factor in the ability of these investigators to go deep has been the Schmidt Ocean Institute and the contribution of their ocean vessel, Falkor.  The goal of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, founded by former Google chairman, Eric Schmidt, and his wife Wendy Schmidt, is to support deep sea projects by providing technologically innovative resources, such as the Falkor and its remotely operated vehicle (ROV), SuBastian.

SuBastian is capable of seabed sampling and photographing deep waters and abyssal reef structures that lie at ocean depths greater than 4500 meters (The below screenshot is from one of their videos studying the Bremer Canyon off the western coast of Australia).

Screenshot from depth of 2820 meters from video of Bremer Canyon

Studies of Bremer Canyon and western coastal sites in early 2020 revealed previously unseen deep sea coral gardens and numerous ecosystems supported by deep sea cliffs.  Due to their positioning on the southwest coast of Australia, where they are closely connected with the currents of Antarctica, these ecosystems help our understanding of ocean acidification and the impacts of global warming.

The Queensland Plateau

During the more recent 2020 expedition at the Queensland Plateau, the team of scientists led by Robin Beaman (whose research efforts extend from studying the carbonate sediments of green alga to undersea landslides and canyons), received images, video, and data from Falkor directly onto their home computers

Dr. Beaman reported to the New York Times that he was toggling between doing household chores and watching the world of unknown creatures in the Coral Sea, when, in addition to finding ten new ocean species, he noticed  the presence of the mollusk Nautilus.

Photo credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

The Nautilus is a known marine mollusk, but its discovery in The Coral Sea is significant because it’s a living fossil, meaning it hasn’t evolved much over the last 500 million years.  Therefore, it provides clues as to how life and the earth’s ecosystems have adapted and evolved.  Further, the Nautilus is close to being an endangered species.  Its survival in this area suggests that efforts to protect the Coral Sea Marine Park may be working to protect the preservation of wildlife.

As the expedition progressed, video footage from SuBastian was posted for public viewing. 

Among many new species uncovered, one interesting finding is this unknown stalk sponge that is possibly carnivorous.  So much data has been collected from this footage that it will take many months, possibly years, of research to fully comprehend what has been found in this Queensland Plateau expedition.

Seabed Mapping of Queensland Plateau

Seabed mapping data has been collected from greater ocean depths of the Queensland Plateau than ever before. In conjunction with GeoScience Australia, this data has been made accessible through the AusSeabed Marine Data Portal, a technological tool that allows collaboration, investigation, and public distribution of this information. 

Due to this collaborative effort with the Schmidt Ocean Institute, this data was collected and distributed at an extremely rapid pace, allowing it to inform immediate future expeditions taking place during summer 2020. 

Comprehensive mapping of reefs from their deepest locations to their shallowest depths, allows scientists to understand how deep sea reef structures evolved, as well as to determine policy to protect and sustain the reefs. 

Seabed mapping, in general, provides a gateway for scientists to increase their knowledge of geologic events, such as periods of climate change that have occurred during evolution, and that may inform our understanding of trends.  Ultimately, this information  helps us coordinate future responses to the current climate change situation.

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