“Some suggest we are going to end up with what are called slime oceans, which are basically dominated by jelly fish, sponges and bacterial mats.”
Understanding the Deep Sea
For most of us, our sea experiences end at the shore or on the surface of the ocean. But this is the world’s greatest unexplored, unstudied region, and ocean scientists from around the world are now conducting research with the world’s largest seafloor observatory, located here in the Pacific northwest. NEPTUNE Canada uses current technology and instruments to collect video footage and continuous data from the ocean floor, while scientists monitor this marine environment remotely from their world–wide offices. Rocketday worked with the NEPTUNE Canada team to create the visual design of the project’s website. We caught up with ocean scientist and associate director of the NEPTUNE Canada project, Dr. Mairi Best, shortly after its public launch.
What led you to study the ocean?
I was six months old when my grandmother would take me down to the beaches in Scotland. By the time I was four, I was nicknamed ‘Mairi Fish’ because they couldn’t keep me out of the water! As long as I can remember I’ve been totally fascinated by the ocean. I had some good advice when I was young, to follow the things that I was really passionate about. The oceans were very much front and centre in that, the natural world in general, traveling and languages. That whole combination ended up being a career in ocean science where I have been able to travel the world and study the sea.
Why is it important for us to better understand the ocean?
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Oceans make up 75% of the surface of the earth, but it’s important to understand that oceans make up 95% of living space on this planet. Of course it’s many interconnected ecosystems, and the more we look in the oceans we learn that it’s a very complex place that changes quite significantly from one place to another. We tend to treat the ocean as one big bathtub — it’s not.
I think that it’s important for us to develop an intuition about this environment, because it really is the engine of the planet. Moving our elemental cycles around, moving our heat budget and driving our atmosphere. A lot of the biogeochemical cycles are inherently drivers that effect us on land as well, and we need to know how societies’ actions might be interfering with those processes.
NEPTUNE collects a wide variety of data. What is NEPTUNE’s involvement in earthquake research?
The seismometers that we’ve installed on NEPTUNE Canada are really key because there is not much information from the ocean floor. On the west coast of North America earthquakes come when you’ve got one plate running into and going under another plate, called a subduction zone. Being able to have seismometers on both sides of that collision helps us look at what is it actually doing — where are the forces, and how they change before an earthquake. It’s still going to be tricky, but it might give us a better sense of when higher alert times are.
How is the ocean vulnerable to human activity?
We can effect the whole ocean in different ways. If we’re changing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, the ocean at the surface equilibrates with the atmosphere. Also, density of sea life happens in coastal areas and in the surface of the oceans, because that is where the energy and nutrients are to drive photosynthesis for the microscopic plants that feeds everything else — the base of the food chain. If we change the amount of nutrients coming in from the land, we can change that balance. And of course greater effluence and runoff from agricultural areas or deforested areas increases how much sediment is being washed into the ocean.
How much we extract from the ocean can have a big impact. We’ve been fishing down the food chain — taking out some of the top predators, then we fish out the medium–sized fish and the ecosystem gets upset. It’s not just that we’ve eaten up all the cod, it’s that the cod may have played a role and changed that whole ecosystem. Some suggest that we are going to end up with what are called slime oceans, which is basically dominated by jelly fish, sponges and bacterial mats.
How will an increased understanding of the deep ocean effect future generations?
It will help us make better decisions about how we live on this planet, in particular how we interact with the oceans. It will help us better understand what resources are possible from the oceans and how to actually look at the ocean from a farming perspective. We essentially behave as hunter–gathers and we need to look carefully at the ocean, so we can sustainably extract food. Something like NEPTUNE Canada gives an ability to be there all the time and build up that intuition about how the oceans work in a way that we can’t easily do otherwise.