News Article | December 18, 2016
In 2011, a team of marine ecologists led by Jon Copley sent a remotely operated submarine nearly two miles underwater to observe a field of hydrothermal vents in the southwest Indian Ocean. Copley and his team collected 21 animal specimens from the vents using the underwater vehicle and after years of taxonomical research were able to determine that six of these species had not yet been formally described. As detailed in a paper published this week in Nature, the six new species include a hairy chested Hoff crab, two types of snails, one type of mollusk and two different species of worm. Aside from their novelty, these species are remarkable for their ability to survive in the harsh ecosystem that a hydrothermal vent creates. These vents are the result of mineral-rich magma from deep inside the earth coming into contact with the near-freezing ocean water, forming chimney-like structures as the magma cools. These chimneys are rich in sulfide minerals, are used by microbes in a chemosynthetic process that leverages the oxygen in the seawater to oxidize the chemicals emerging from the vents for energy. These microbes form the basis of the vent ecosystem, providing food for the crabs, clams, snails and other species around the vent. The vent field explored by Copley and his colleagues is known as Longqi, or Dragon's Breath. It was first discovered in 1997, but it wasn't until 2007 that an underwater drone captured the first images of the vents. Those photos revealed that these vents, some of which are over two stories tall, were also rich in copper and gold, making them especially attractive for deep-sea mining operations. The Longqi vents cover an area of the ocean floor about the size of a football field that was licensed to the Chinese Ocean Minerals Research Agency (COMRA) by the United Nations International Seabed Authority in 2011. This license allows for some exploratory extraction of minerals from the seabed as well as the ability to test mining technology that will be used by COMRA after they have obtained an exploitation-phase license that allows for full-scale deep-sea mining operations. According to Copley and his colleagues, their recent taxonomical survey of the Longqi vents is valuable not only for the newly discovered species, but also because it will provide a "baseline of ecological observations" so that scientists can have an idea of the degree to which deep-sea mining is harming animal life around the vents. "Our results highlight the need to explore other hydrothermal vents in the southwest Indian Ocean and investigate the connectivity of their populations, before any impacts from mineral exploration activities and future deep-sea mining can be assessed," Copley said. Another interesting finding from the 2011 survey of the Longqi vents is that a number of the animal species found living on or around the vents had also been previously discovered at other hydrothermal vents thousands of miles away in the Antarctic and Eastern Pacific oceans. "Finding these two species at Longqi shows that some vent animals may be more widely distributed across the oceans than we realized," said Copley. "We can be certain that the new species we've found also live elsewhere in the southwest Indian Ocean, as they will have migrated here from other sites, but at the moment no-one really knows where, or how well-connected their populations are with those at Longqi." Unfortunately, depending on the rate at which the deep-sea mining industry develops and the degree to which it harms the poorly-understood ecosystems of the deep sea, Copley and his colleagues might never have a chance to find out.
News Article | December 23, 2016
Last March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association exploration vessel Okeanos made a remarkable discovery while surveying the deep sea floor off of Hawaii. In the pale bright light of a remotely operated underwater vehicle's (ROV) floodlights, a purplish form appeared—an unknown species of octopus. The little gelatinous blob staring back at the camera became somewhat of an internet sensation and earned the endearing nickname "casper." Unfortunately, the deep sea environments where these beloved octopods live are going to be under serious pressure in the very near future. Casper and many other deep dwelling sea creatures make their livelihoods in undersea plains littered with metallic nodules of manganese, nickel, zinc, copper, gold and more—metals in high demand partly because of their use in electronic devices like smartphones. Mining companies have hungrily eyed these mineral rich regions for decades, but have never been able to reach them until now. With cost effective technology finally available to bring nodules up to the surface, organisms like the casper octopus, so long sheltered from human activity, are going to find themselves in danger. Polymetallic nodules are potato-sized hunks of metal that form much like a pearl does in an oyster. Over time—millions of years maybe—metal bits coalesce around a tiny object (strangely, the most common seed of these nodules is a shark's tooth). There's some argument over how long it takes them to form, but ecologist Autun Purser of the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, told Motherboard that "these things are like half a millimeter thicker than when Napoleon or Julius Caesar was walking around. So they're very slow to form." "These things are like half a millimeter thicker than when Napoleon or Julius Caesar was walking around. So they're very slow to form." "They're always in deep waters and are distributed across all the major oceans of the world in varying densities," said Purser, but he noted that wide deep sea basins 3000 - 6000 meters deep in the Pacific and Indian oceans, can have some very high densities. The Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean contains an estimated 21 billion tons of manganese nodules and covers an area the size of Europe. Nodules lie loosely in the sand, but because they exist in places devoid of any other hard substrates—just muddy sediment—they end up acting like pseudo-reefs. Sponges and other sessile creatures can anchor themselves to the metallic rocks. They in turn provide habitat for a wide variety of other deep sea organisms. "Any complexity in the seafloor adds more habitat niches," said Purser. More niches, more friends. An array of large, mobile creatures like sea cucumbers, deep-sea prawns, deep sea fishes, brittle stars (crazy looking starfish with spindly arms) and the beloved casper octopods spend their days in and around the nodule fields, foraging and reproducing. In a paper released this week in the journal Current Biology, scientists (including Purser, one of the paper's co-authors) described how the ghost-like octopus lays its eggs on the dead stalks of sponges affixed to manganese nodules. The mother broods these eggs on the sponges until they hatch, which can take years. Beneath the muddy sea floor exists a menagerie of squirming organisms living and dying in the muck. "There is a lot of biomass within that mud," said Purser. Crabs and mussels, spiky bristle worms, and many-legged copepods are some of the organisms that call the sediment home—and also probably make a nice meal for the casper octopod digging around in the mud with its tentacles. Purser believes the octopod to be an apex predator in these nodule environments. "The number of eggs it laid on these nodules was quite small, which usually means that an animal has a long life and not too many predators," he said. These secret, dark dwelling communities are about to be invaded by large machines, however. Over one million square kilometers of ocean floor, between 800 and 6,000 meters deep, have been earmarked for exploration by mining companies. "It's coming very soon," said Purser. Maybe even within the next year. Not only will the sea sponges and the other unique animals living directly on the nodules be killed, but as is evident with the casper octopod, other mobile creatures will be negatively affected as well. If the nodules are removed, then the sponges on which it relies to lay its eggs will be gone as well. And removing an apex predator like the octopod will have knock-on effects of its own—upending the balance of the sea floor ecosystem. "Species are found there and nowhere else on the planet, and many of the species are just getting discovered." The machines mining companies are likely to use resemble giant potato harvesters. These giant 300-ton robot tractors trundle along the seafloor, ploughing through the sediment, scooping up manganese rocks. The resulting clouds of mud agitated by such a disturbance could be devastating to the fauna that live within it and in the water column. Such machines could even contribute to climate change by shaking up the natural carbon storage processes in the ocean. Woe to the octopod that gets in a robot's way. "These are often very ancient, very slow-growing ecosystems," Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative and marine biologist at UC Santa Barbara, told Motherboard earlier this year. "Species are found there and nowhere else on the planet, and many of the species are just getting discovered. So, the prospect that you are going to grind a road on that space and then roll one of these 300-ton robots over the top of it and suck it all out—that makes a few alarm bells go off in terms of what the impact would be." Since so little is known about these mysterious ecosystems it'll be hard to get any protective legislation before extraction starts. "The companies that are inventing these technologies are playing their cards very close to their chest," Purser lamented, so the International Seabed Authority of the United Nations will have to be proactive in putting forth the protection required when the time comes. Hopefully it won't be too late. Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.
News Article | April 13, 2016
Embryos edited Researchers at Guangzhou Medical University in China have reported editing the genes of non-viable human embryos to try to make them resistant to HIV infection. The team collected a total of 213 fertilized human eggs, donated by 87 patients, that were unsuitable for implantation as part of in vitro fertility therapy because they contained an extra set of chromosomes. The researchers then used the CRISPR–Cas9 genome-editing technique to introduce into some of the embryos a mutation that cripples an immune-cell gene called CCR5. Some people naturally carry this mutation, which alters the CCR5 protein in a way that prevents the HIV virus from entering the cells it tries to infect. Genetic analysis showed that 4 of 26 human embryos targeted were modified with the CCR5 mutation. But in some embryos, not all sets of chromosomes harboured the mutation; some contained the unmodified gene, whereas others had acquired different mutations. In April 2015, a different China-based team announced that it had modified a gene linked to a blood disease in non-viable human embryos, igniting a worldwide storm of ethics concerns. See go.nature.com/igymgu for more. SpaceX rocket touches down at sea SpaceX took a major step towards re-usable rockets when it flawlessly landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on an unmanned ship in the Atlantic Ocean, after an 8 April launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was the first successful landing of the rocket at sea, following four attempts that resulted in crashes. The company, based in Hawthorne, California, returned an intact Falcon rocket to land in December last year. The latest flight delivered cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), including an expandable astronaut habitat designed by Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nevada. The previous SpaceX mission to the ISS failed when a Falcon 9 rocket broke apart after launch in June 2015. Kepler scare NASA mission managers were shocked to discover on 7 April that the exoplanet-hunting Kepler space telescope had entered emergency mode. Mission control was able to return it to normal operations three days later, but the cause of the malfunction remained a mystery as Nature went to press. This was the first software glitch in Kepler’s seven years in space, although it previously suffered hardware breakdowns. The spacecraft has lost at least the first several days of a planet-hunting campaign that it was scheduled to begin on 7 April and conduct until 1 July. See go.nature.com/mu7woc for more. China satellite lab China has launched its largest-ever suite of microgravity and life-science experiments into orbit. The country’s Shijian-10 probe left the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu province, northern China, on 7 April. It is carrying 19 experiments that include tests to assess the effects of radiation on genes as well as the influence of microgravity on materials, fluid physics and combustion. The early development of mouse embryos in microgravity will also be examined. After its 15-day mission, the bullet-shaped craft will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere to be recovered from a landing site in Inner Mongolia. Self-driving lorries Six squads of automated lorries successfully arrived in Rotterdam in the Netherlands on 6 April after having driven themselves from Sweden, Belgium and Germany, with one fleet travelling more than 2,000 kilometres from Stockholm. The trial was part of the Dutch-government-led European Truck Platooning Challenge and included lorries from six different manufacturers. ‘Truck platooning’ involves two or more lorries connected by WiFi and driving in a convoy, with the first vehicle determining the speed and route. The technology aims to save fuel by enabling lorries to travel closer together, which reduces air drag. Bank climate plan The World Bank announced a Climate Change Action Plan on 7 April to help countries to meet their commitments under the United Nations climate agreement signed in Paris in December 2015, and to prepare for unavoidable impacts of climate change. Under the plan, the bank will mobilize US$25 billion in private financing for clean energy by 2020. Among other actions, it will quadruple funding for clean transportation programmes and help to bring early-warning systems for natural disasters to 100 million people. Reef catastrophe Huge swathes of coral in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are undergoing severe bleaching (pictured), according to aerial surveys. Many corals in the northern part of the reef are likely to die, because raised sea temperatures have caused them to expel the symbiotic algae that give them their colour. Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Townsville, Queensland, who are assessing the damage, say that more than 1,200 kilometres of the roughly 2,300-kilometre-long reef have bleached, and that the situation is substantially worse than in the two previous bleaching episodes in 1998 and 2002. See go.nature.com/ys7bau for more. Cambodia tiger loss Tigers are no longer breeding in Cambodia and the population there should be considered “functionally extinct”, the conservation group WWF announced on 6 April in Phnom Penh. The last wild tiger there was seen on a camera trap in 2007 in the Mondulkiri Protected Forest. But the WWF noted that national estimates and data compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature suggest that global tiger populations have rebounded to 3,890, from about 3,200 in 2010. Cambodia plans to bring eight young tigers from India into its dry forests in the Eastern Plains by 2019, as part of the global Tx2 initiative aiming to double wild tiger populations by the year 2022. Pharma merger off A marriage between two large pharmaceutical companies has been called off. Pfizer of New York City and Allergan of Dublin announced on 6 April that they had terminated a proposed merger process, which would have enabled the resulting company to take advantage of lower taxes in Ireland. The news came two days after the US Department of the Treasury unveiled stricter rules on companies that seek to move abroad to avoid US taxes. Pfizer pledged to announce by the end of the year whether it will spin off some parts of the company. NASA science chief Former astronaut John Grunsfeld, who has overseen NASA’s science portfolio since 2012, announced his retirement from the space agency on 5 April. The physicist and space-telescope expert flew five times on the space shuttle — including three visits to the Hubble Space Telescope — and was the lead spacewalker on the final flight to maintain and upgrade the telescope in 2009. As associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, he was responsible for more than 100 missions, such as the New Horizons spacecraft that visited Pluto last year. Grunsfeld’s deputy, Geoff Yoder, will take charge until a successor is chosen. Contracts with the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which regulates sea-bed mining in international waters, have picked up in recent years. Although commercial mining operations have not yet started, governments and corporations have signed contracts with the ISA to allow them to explore areas of the world’s oceans for materials including manganese nodules, copper, zinc, cobalt and platinum. Researchers have warned about the environmental impacts, saying that stricter regulation is needed. 16–20 April The American Association for Cancer Research holds its annual meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana. go.nature.com/q1t4fp 17–22 April The American Meteorological Society’s 32nd meeting on hurricanes and tropical meteorology convenes in San Juan, Puerto Rico. go.nature.com/pvszif
News Article | December 18, 2016
Six new species of marine animals have been discovered on the sea floor of Indian Ocean, living close to a bunch of hot springs. In a robot led survey, scientists from the Southampton University, Natural History Museum in London and University of Newcastle explored hydrothermal vents in the seabed. Their expedition in November 2011 yielded valuable data and led to the discovery of new organisms living on the ocean floor. For the research, the scientists explored an area of the Southwest Indian Ridge, which bisects the sea between Antarctica and Africa. Longqi, the name by which the hot geysers are known, etymologically means "Dragon's Breath." It is located 1,240 miles southeast of Madagascar at 1.7 miles depth below the Indian Ocean's surface. The area was already licensed for seabed mineral exploration. The following new creatures were discovered by the expedition with the help of a remote-operated underwater robot. "We can be certain that the new species we've found also live elsewhere in the southwest Indian Ocean, as they will have migrated here from other sites, but at the moment no one really knows where, or how well-connected their populations are with those at Longqi," said lead researcher Jon Copley, a scientist at the University of Southampton. Copley and his colleagues shared their discoveries in Scientific Reports. According to experts, hydrothermal vents are essentially a junction where seawater meets magma and attracts an array of organisms previously unknown to science. Already, hydrothermal vents have added more than 400 new animal species. Copley explained that hydrothermal vents are vital as a network of marine life and the one discovered in the Indian Ocean was a single node of the network. As for the rising concentration of seabed organisms near hot springs, experts see it as a migration of deep sea creatures to warmer regions seeking the warmth from mineral spires surging to big heights. In addition to the new species, researchers also noted the presence of other marine animals including scale worms found in Antarctic vents. According to Copley, the results highlight that it is imperative to explore other hydrothermal vents in the southwest Indian Ocean to know the connection of these marine populations before assessing impacts of mineral exploration and deep-sea mining on them. There is a huge economic value attached to the spires as they are rich in copper and gold and deep sea mining players are interested in them. Concerns are high about the upcoming plans for seabed mining as that may damage the hot springs and wipe out these rare organisms. Seabed mining is emerging as a sunrise industry and growth area. Already, contracts have been issued for seabed exploration in high seas by the International Seabed Authority led by the United Nations. According to reports, more than one million square km of the ocean floor (400,000 square miles) in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans has been earmarked for exploration by 16 countries. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.
News Article | December 15, 2016
Scientists at the University of Southampton have discovered six new animal species in undersea hot springs 2.8 kilometers deep in the southwest Indian Ocean. The unique marine life was discovered around hydrothermal vents at a place called Longqi ('Dragon's Breath'), 2000 kilometers southeast of Madagascar and is described in the journal Scientific Reports. A research team, led by Jon Copley, explored an area the size of a football stadium on the ocean floor, pinpointing the locations of more than a dozen mineral spires known as 'vent chimneys.' These spires, many of which rise more than two storeys above the seabed, are rich in copper and gold that is now attracting interest for future seafloor mining. However, the spires are also festooned with deep-sea animals, nourished by hot fluids gushing out of the vent chimneys. The team, which includes colleagues at the Natural History Museum in London and Newcastle University, carried out genetic comparisons with other species and populations elsewhere to show that several species at Longqi are not yet recorded from anywhere else in the world's oceans. The expedition, which took place in November 2011, provides a record of what lives on the ocean floor in the area, which is licensed for mineral exploration by the International Seabed Authority of the United Nations, before any mining surveys are carried out. The Longqi vents are the first known in the region and the expedition was the first to explore them using a deep-diving remotely operated vehicle (ROV). The deep-sea animals that are so far only known from Longqi include: a species of hairy-chested 'Hoff' crab, closely related to 'Hoff' crabs at Antarctic vents; two species of snail and a species of limpet; a species of scaleworm; and another species of deep-sea worm. Apart from one species of snail, which has been given the scientific name Gigantopelta aegis, most have not yet been formally described. "We can be certain that the new species we've found also live elsewhere in the southwest Indian Ocean, as they will have migrated here from other sites, but at the moment no one really knows where, or how well-connected their populations are with those at Longqi," said Copley. "Our results highlight the need to explore other hydrothermal vents in the southwest Indian Ocean and investigate the connectivity of their populations, before any impacts from mineral exploration activities and future deep-sea mining can be assessed." The scientists also found other species at Longqi that are known at other vents far away in other oceans. Another new species of scaleworm lives at vents on the East Scotia Ridge in the Antarctic, 6,000 kilometers away, while a species of ragworm live at vents in the eastern Pacific, more than 10,000 km away. "Finding these two species at Longqi shows that some vent animals may be more widely distributed across the oceans than we realized," added Copley.
News Article | February 17, 2017
Home to an immense diversity of marine life, the deep ocean also contains valuable minerals with metals such as nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese, zinc, and gold, and rare-earth elements used in electronic technology like smart phones and medical imaging machines. As demand for these resources increases and supplies on land decrease, commercial mining operators are looking to the deep ocean as the next frontier for mining. What are the risks and environmental impacts of deep-sea mining on fragile marine ecosystems? Would seafloor mineral resources be enough to keep up with the evolving demands of modern society? A panel of scholars including Stace Beaulieu, a deep-sea biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), will discuss these and other questions during the symposium, "Should We Mine the Seafloor?" scheduled on Saturday, February 18, at the AAAS meeting in Boston, MA. A news briefing for science journalists will be held at 4 p.m. on Friday, February 17, in room 103 of the Hynes Convention Center. The speakers will examine the pros and cons of seafloor mining, its engineering feasibility, and its legal and societal implications with the goal of providing the best available, objective, scientific evidence to inform ongoing policy efforts on this important and timely topic. "Our panel is unique in that we bring together knowledge of the demand for critical metals and the potential supply from known and yet-to-be-discovered seafloor mineral resources, and an understanding of deep-sea ecosystems, including a new perspective on ecosystem services that contribute to human well-being," Beaulieu says. Currently, there's no mining occurring in the ocean deeper than the continental shelves, but the industry is moving forward quickly. Many of the engineering challenges associated with working in the deep sea have already been addressed by the offshore oil and gas industry. Different types of machines for mining have been built and the components for mining systems are currently being tested in deep-sea deployments. About 27 countries have already signed contracts to explore for deep-sea resources with the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the organization that controls mineral exploration and exploitation in the area beyond national jurisdiction. And the first deep-sea mining project --Solwara 1 within the jurisdiction of Papua New Guinea--is scheduled to begin in 2019 by Nautilus Minerals. Beaulieu's talk will address potential environmental impacts from deep-sea mining and highlight new research on the vulnerability and resilience of deep-sea ecosystems. She's also been working with social scientists to address the question of economic impacts from lost and degraded ecosystem services, such as the potential for new medicines from deep-sea, biological resources. The symposium will also feature talks by experts Thomas Graedel, an industrial ecologist at Yale University, and Mark Hannington, a geologist at GEOMAR-Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research. Graedel will examine how the demand for metals might evolve in the next few decades. Hannington's talk will focus on estimates of the abundance of seafloor deposits targeted for mining. The symposium will be moderated by Mindy Todd, a radio producer and journalist at WCAI - The Cape & Islands NPR Station. Should We Mine the Seafloor? The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean's role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit http://www. .
News Article | December 15, 2016
The unique marine life was discovered around hydrothermal vents at a place called Longqi ('Dragon's Breath'), 2000 kilometres southeast of Madagascar and is described in the journal Scientific Reports. A research team, led by Dr Jon Copley, explored an area the size of a football stadium on the ocean floor, pinpointing the locations of more than a dozen mineral spires known as 'vent chimneys'. These spires, many of which rise more than two storeys above the seabed, are rich in copper and gold that is now attracting interest for future seafloor mining. However, the spires are also festooned with deep-sea animals, nourished by hot fluids gushing out of the vent chimneys. The team, which includes colleagues at the Natural History Museum in London and Newcastle University, carried out genetic comparisons with other species and populations elsewhere to show that several species at Longqi are not yet recorded from anywhere else in the world's oceans. The expedition, which took place in November 2011, provides a record of what lives on the ocean floor in the area, which is licensed for mineral exploration by the International Seabed Authority of the United Nations, before any mining surveys are carried out. The Longqi vents are the first known in the region and the expedition was the first to explore them using a deep-diving remotely operated vehicle (ROV). The deep-sea animals that are so far only known from Longqi include: a species of hairy-chested 'Hoff' crab, closely related to 'Hoff' crabs at Antarctic vents; two species of snail and a species of limpet; a species of scaleworm; and another species of deep-sea worm. Apart from one species of snail, which has been given the scientific name Gigantopelta aegis, most have not yet been formally described. "We can be certain that the new species we've found also live elsewhere in the southwest Indian Ocean, as they will have migrated here from other sites, but at the moment no-one really knows where, or how well-connected their populations are with those at Longqi," said Dr Copley. "Our results highlight the need to explore other hydrothermal vents in the southwest Indian Ocean and investigate the connectivity of their populations, before any impacts from mineral exploration activities and future deep-sea mining can be assessed." The scientists also found other species at Longqi that are known at other vents far away in other oceans. Another new species of scaleworm lives at vents on the East Scotia Ridge in the Antarctic, 6,000 kilometres away, while a species of ragworm live at vents in the eastern Pacific, more than 10,000 km away. "Finding these two species at Longqi shows that some vent animals may be more widely distributed across the oceans than we realised," added Dr Copley. Explore further: In hot and cold water: The private lives of 'Hoff' crabs revealed More information: J. T. Copley et al. Ecology and biogeography of megafauna and macrofauna at the first known deep-sea hydrothermal vents on the ultraslow-spreading Southwest Indian Ridge, Scientific Reports (2016). DOI: 10.1038/srep39158
News Article | December 15, 2016
Six new animal species have been identified at deep-sea vents beneath the Indian Ocean. The remote area is home to life not seen elsewhere in the world's oceans, yet has been earmarked for future mineral exploration. Hydrothermal vents form at locations where seawater meets magma. They are surrounded by a large number of organisms that are new to science. UK researchers explored an area of the Southwest Indian Ridge, which bisects the ocean between Africa and Antarctica, in 2011. Scientists at Southampton University revealed they had found many new creatures using a remote-operated underwater robot. They have now analysed samples from the site, known as Longqi, or "Dragon's Breath", and compared them with known species based on the animals' genetic make-up. The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, shows six animals new to science. Hydrothermal vents were first discovered in 1977. Since then, more than 400 new animal species have been discovered living around them across the world's oceans. "Hydrothermal vents form a network of marine life in the deep, and so far we've only glimpsed one node of the network in the south-west Indian Ocean," said Dr Jon Copley, who led the research. "Our results show that we need to explore this network much further, if we're going to understand the possible impacts of any future mining at hydrothermal vents in this region." Mining on the seabed is expected to be a growth area in the future. Contracts for seabed mining exploration and eventual mining in the high seas are granted to individual countries by the International Seabed Authority, an organisation created by the United Nations. Over one million sq km of ocean floor (400,000 sq miles) in the high seas of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans has been earmarked for exploration by at least 16 countries. A Chinese research vessel has been surveying the hydrothermal vents in the Southwest Indian Ridge for mineral deposits this year.
News Article | October 6, 2016
The deep sea is the most mysterious realm on Earth, and remains virtually untouched by human activity. But this vast wilderness may soon experience a rude awakening. Over one million square kilometers of ocean floor, between 800 and 6,000 meters deep, have been earmarked for exploration by mining companies. While seabed mining has occurred at shallower locations within national borders, it has never been conducted in deep international waters before. Unlike the offshore oil industry, which has been drilling in underwater environments for decades (with sometimes devastating consequences), the machinery required to mine gold, zinc, nickel, copper, manganese, and other valuable minerals from the deep sea is only now reaching maturation. It may be less than a year before this type of industrial extraction kicks off, and vessels are already prospecting to get a sense of their potential yield. Now, you can track these ships online with Deep Sea Mining Watch, a web tool launched on Wednesday at the Dreamforce software conference in San Francisco. It's the first public platform that allows users to directly follow the movements and distribution of these vessels, according to Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative and a marine biology professor at UC Santa Barbara. "Our philosophy is just serving up information, trying to make it more accessible, and letting people know exactly where and what is happening with this industry in the oceans," McCauley told me over the phone. The tool's dataset is generated by automatic identification system (AIS) trackers that ships are required to carry to prevent collisions with other ocean traffic. McCauley and his team previously used this method for a project called Global Fishing Watch, which uses AIS trackers to monitor fishing vessels around the world, in part to ensure that they don't exploit protected areas. "Everyone behaves more responsibly when they have a tracker attached to them," he noted. For Deep Sea Mining Watch, the team developed new parameters to sift for signs of ocean prospectors in a dozen regions across Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. READ MORE: The Underwater Industrial Revolution Is Driving Ocean Life to Extinction "You can have a fishing vessel that can be pretty small, but you can't have a small mining vessel," he explained. "We started searching for big vessels that are doing particular kinds of mining and prospecting-associated behavior. That's how we pull them out of the billions of data points about all vessels that are floating around on the ocean." The map illustrates the growth of this emerging industry. For instance, this graphic from the new tool displays claimed regions stretching 4,500 kilometers across the equatorial Pacific Ocean, a distance roughly equivalent to the diameter of the continental United States. Even ocean experts like McCauley were surprised at how actively the seabed is being probed for minerals, now that companies have developed the technologies necessary to extract them. "I thought, 'wow it's actually happening and these vessels are out there searching around inside their claims'," he told me. "I think that same epiphany, or that same kind of connection to the reality of this, is what we're hoping to inspire for anybody who jumps on the tool. It's not the material of The Abyss, or science fiction. This is something that we're able to do." The question is: Should we do it, and if so, to what extent? The intimidating 300-ton bulk cutters that mining companies plan to drive through these undisturbed regions will no doubt tap into a wealth of new resources, but they will also disrupt delicate seafloor ecosystems that we know next to nothing about. "These are often very ancient, very slow-growing ecosystems," McCauley pointed out. "Species are found there and nowhere else on the planet, and many of the species are just getting discovered. So, the prospect that you are going to grind a road on that space and then roll one of these 300-ton robots over the top of it and suck it all out—that makes a few alarm bells go off in terms of what the impact would be." Indeed, these hulking machines would not only be disrupting life in their direct path. They are also expected to create a lot of noise pollution, while kicking up plumes of sediment that could choke out organisms in higher escalons of the water column. They might even contribute to climate change by disturbing normal carbon storage processes in the ocean. Some companies have acknowledged the potential environmental costs of seabed mineral extraction, including Nautilus Minerals, the industry's main trailblazer, which is headquartered in Toronto. But Nautilus CEO Mike Johnston has argued that it would be more damaging to continue mining solely on land than to open up this new frontier. "Growing copper demand requires our industry to look at more sustainable ways to meet this demand," Johnston said in a statement. "As showcased in Earth Economics' Report, seafloor mining has the potential to not only provide economic benefits within the communities nearest to the operations while minimizing the impact of copper mining, it also has the potential to change the physical nature of the mining industry for the better." The Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority,an intergovernmental organization established in 1982 by the United Nations, is responsible for balancing the interests of the mining industry with environmentalists and advocacy groups. "It is a brand new legal space and technological space," McCauley told me. "The International Seabed Authority has been writing the rules literally as they go forward because we have never mined in the oceans, and we are figuring out how to do it." To that point, tools like Deep Sea Mining Watch will play an essential role for public activism about seabed mining and its consequences. "I think it will at least make people want to engage more with the question when you see and learn about the slow life history and the unique species that are being discovered," McCauley said. Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.
News Article | December 16, 2016
A new species of hairy-chested "Hoff" crab is among six new creatures found at the Longqi hydrothermal vents(Credit: University of Southampton) The Hoff may be known for patrolling Los Angeles beaches, and now his namesake, a new type of hairy-chested "Hoff" crab is among six new species that have been discovered living in the bizarre landscape around hydrothermal vents deep in the Indian Ocean. About 2,000 km (1,243 miles) southeast of Madagascar lies Longqi, meaning "Dragon's Breath." The area earns its name from the hydrothermal vents it is home to, and as the fissures belch heated water into the ocean, structures called "vent chimneys" are formed. Towering up to two storys above the ocean floor, these spires offer attractive housing for local sea life, including some never seen anywhere else. This expedition, involving scientists from the University of Southampton, Newcastle University and the London Natural History Museum, used a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) to map out an area the size of a stadium back in November 2011. In doing so, the team discovered six species, genetically distinct from any other recorded animals. Among the discoveries are two new types of sea snail, a limpet, a scaleworm, a deep-sea worm and a second species of what's informally known as a "Hoff" crab, due to its hairy-chested resemblance to a certain Baywatch star. One of the snails has been scientifically named Gigantopelta aegis, but the others are yet to be formally described and named. "We can be certain that the new species we've found also live elsewhere in the southwest Indian Ocean, as they will have migrated here from other sites, but at the moment no one really knows where, or how well-connected their populations are with those at Longqi," says Dr Jon Copley, who led the team. Of course, other known species were also found to call Longqi home, including a type of scaleworm found on the East Scotia Ridge, Antarctica, and ragworms seen in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Finding these same creatures, thousands of kilometers apart, suggests that vent-dwelling animals are more widespread than scientists previously realized. Sadly, the fascinating landscapes of Longqi may not be so pristine for long. The expedition that discovered the new creatures was part of an early operation to study the ecology of the area, "prior to possible anthropogenic disturbances." Such disturbances are likely to come in the form of deep-sea mining: the International Seabed Authority of the United Nations has already licensed the Longqi region out for eventual mining. Those vent chimneys are rich in gold and copper, after all.