Irish marine expedition to map new ecosystem

 

IRISH SCIENTISTS are about to embark on one of the most challenging research expeditions undertaken by the State’s research ship, Celtic Explorer.

National Geographic has booked berths on the ship to record the expedition, led by Dr Andy Wheeler of University College Cork, and involving marine scientists from NUI Galway, the Geological Survey of Ireland and the University of Southampton. The ship is due to leave Galway docks today.

The 25-day voyage 1,000 miles (1,610km) west of Ireland intends to venture into Jules Verne territory by mapping an entire new ecosystem on the Atlantic sea floor.

The biological structure was first detected by British scientists three years ago, in an area some 3,000m (9,800ft) below the surface at a latitude of 45 degrees north.

The new ecosystem is located on the mid-Atlantic ridge, a 16,000km-long mountain range extending from the Arctic to southern Africa, about halfway between Iceland and the Azores.

Hydrothermal vents are fissures or cracks in the Earth’s surface, usually found in volcanically active areas at sea, or on land in places like Yellowstone National Park in North America.

BBC’s Blue Planet illustrated how enormous volumes of sea water pumping through the ocean floor are enriched with minerals from volcanic sources.

The chimneys or “black smokers” that the vents create teem with life and these complex communities thrive on the chemosynthesis provided by the chemicals dissolved in vent fluids. The chemosynthetic environment involves bacteria which develop a food chain independent of sunlight.

The mission has two objectives: deployment of Holland 1, the Celtic Explorer’s remotely operated vehicle, to film the hydrothermal system; and a separate examination of the cold-water coral Moira Mound reefs already designated as a special area of conservation on the Porcupine Seabight.

National Geographic intends to have a team on board to record the mission for its Oceanus television series, scheduled for broadcast in 2012.

NUIG biologist Patrick Collins, who has worked on a number of similar projects to study hydrothermal vent fauna, describes it as the “most technically challenging marine research ever undertaken by Ireland”.

It is only 30 years since hydrothermal vents were first discovered in the eastern Pacific. Moreover, some 500 new faunal species have been recorded in six biogeographical provinces charted to date.

As part of the expedition, secondary school students were invited to design their own deep sea creature and describe its habitat, diet, life and evolutionary history. The winner, who will be announced in September after the ship returns, may have one of the new species at the vents named after him or her.

Working with expedition chief scientist Dr Wheeler and Mr Collins will be Dr Bramley Murton, principal scientific officer at Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre; Prof John Gamble, a UCC geology professor and expert in volcanology; Dr Jens Carlsson, senior research fellow at UCC and adjunct assistant professor at Duke University marine laboratory in north Carolina; and Prof John Benzie, UCC professor of marine molecular biodiversity.

Also participating will be Dr Jon Copley, a Southampton University lecturer who has studied the structure and dynamics of chemosynthetic communities; Prof Tom Cross of UCC, a marine biologist whose major research interests are in molecular genetics and fish culture; and Dr Boris Dorschel, UCC marine geologist with a specific expertise in cold water carbonate mounds.