How little is known about our ocean is a fact many agree on, however scientists are actively working to bridge the gap between the unknown and discovery. Right now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Exploration and Research (NOAA OER) began the third cruise of their current research expedition. Aboard the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) Deep Discoverer and Seirios, scientists are well on their way to meeting their goals for this trip. The area undergoing daily exploration is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and the Marianas Trench National Monument (MTMNM) in the western Pacific. The latter area is under NOAA’s protection, based on inferences that there may be unique features within its depths. Gathering baseline data and learning more about what these areas contain will enable effective conservation initiatives.
The first two legs of this expedition focused on bathymetric mapping of the southern half of the Islands, followed by a mapping exploration of the northern portion of the area. The research team will continue to map the northern region. Scientists from around the world, representing a variety of expertise, will participate in ROV dives via telepresence technology. This technology allows scientists to watch the ROVs’ video feeds and communicate their input to the crew aboard the Okeanos Explorer in real time. On each dive, a select number of samples are collected- these items are either dominant in the area, new to science, expand a species’ range, or could contribute to a current research interest. Geological samples will help scientists better understand plate tectonic forces that have shaped the Earth. Meanwhile, biological data will be put towards understanding how organisms adapt to their unique, deep-sea environments, and also provide a survey of resources that could potentially be harvested in the CNMI.
The region around the Marianas Trench is known for its extreme variance in geology, which creates countless habitats for the biology that has evolved to survive in what many consider to be one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet. Already, the team has discovered massive outcroppings of serpentine rock, a species of sea star thought to be extinct, and unprecedented biodiversity; explored various seamounts and ridges; and investigated hydrothermal vents, along with coral and sponge gardens. This does not include the mud volcanism and chemosynthetic life that will hopefully come to light in the remaining portion of the expedition leg. After more knowledge is gathered on the life adorning this region, NOAA will be equipped to take the steps to manage it sustainably.
Another goal of NOAA’s expedition is to foster public interest in ocean exploration and research. The expedition will end on July 10, 2016, and until then, the public will have numerous opportunities to participate in the ROV dives in real time. Three different camera streams are available online, including the perspectives of the ROVs Deep Discoverer and Seirios. The dialogue between scientists and crew aboard the Okeanos Explorer and other international experts participating in the cruise also streams live online. More information on the missions can be found here. The regions around the Marianas Trench are only a minute portion of the ocean, however with all that is yet to be discovered, it could affect today’s science in colossal ways.
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*Images courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas.