What lies beneath?


In a few months, a team of Irish and British scientists will boldly go where no man has gone before – to the depths of the Atlantic ocean, writes LORNA SIGGINS, Marine Correspondent

WHAT SEA MONSTERS lurk in the pitch-black depths of the mid-Atlantic?

A team of Irish and British scientists will soon find out, and their efforts and discoveries will be filmed by National Geographic.

The 25-day trip will allow them to map a new ecosystem at the bottom of the Atlantic during an expedition described as “Jules Verne territory”, by NUI Galway researcher Patrick Collins, who will be part of this international effort.

The location isn’t quite 20,000 leagues under the sea, but almost 3,000m below sea level on latitude 45 degrees north. Here, halfway across the ocean, a new crust is forming as plates slowly pull apart on the mid-Atlantic ridge – a 16,000km (10,000 mile) long mountain chain curving from the Arctic to southern Africa.

And it’s here that a team of Irish and British scientists believe a previously uncharted hydrothermal vent ecosystem is home to plants and animals hitherto unknown to man, hence the possibility of “sea monsters” of a sort.

It is not every day that Irish marine scientists get a call from National Geographic, but then it’s not every day the State’s national marine research vessel, Celtic Explorer, is tasked for such a groundbreaking mission.

The first hint of previously undiscovered thermal vents at this location was noted by British scientists with the National Oceanography Centre at Southampton University. They picked up the signature of an underwater plume on the RRS James Cookat 45 degrees north in 2008. Further examination narrowed it down to a 2km by 2km area some 2,700m below.

Hydrothermal vents are cracks in the earth’s surface, usually in volcanically active areas at sea or on land in places. Enormous volumes of sea water pumping through the ocean floor are enriched with minerals from volcanic sources below the sea bed. The chimneys or “black smokers” the vents create are teeming with unique lifeforms specifically suited to this harsh environment. These complex communities cannot use the sun’s energy to create food sources so they thrive on “chemosynthesis” provided by the chemicals dissolved in vent fluids. The chemosynthetic, rather than photosynthetic, environment involves bacteria which develop a food chain independent of sunlight, says Dr Andy Wheeler of UCC. “It is, literally, an alien world.”

The new mid-Atlantic ridge system is unique, in that it may be located on the crest of a volcanic ridge and is at a much greater depth than two other known areas near the Azores and Iceland. Dr Wheeler has been appointed chief scientist on the Venture campaign, as the research mission is called, involving UCC, NUIG, the Geological Survey of Ireland and the University of Southampton.

“Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre approached us to see if we might provide the ship, and we put the team together from there and applied to the Marine Institute for ship time,” Dr Wheeler explains.

The 25-day voyage, which leaves Galway in July, has two aims: deployment of Holland 1, the Celtic Explorer’sremotely operated vehicle (ROV), 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 TV series, due for broadcast in 2012. Working with Dr Wheeler, an expert in cold water coral geology, 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 NUIG’s Patrick Collins, a biologist who has worked on a number of similar expeditions to study hydrothermal vent fauna, Dr Jon Copley, 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 expertise in cold water carbonate mounds.

Collins says it is probably 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 and some 500 new faunal species have been recorded in six biogeographical provinces charted to date.

“We are hoping this new region hosts yet another biogeographical province,” he says, as he opens up his laptop to display images of some black smokers and white smokers, and unusual creatures he has studied around vents off Papua New Guinea, including a new species of octopus which he discovered in the Benthoctopus genus.

The scientists are well aware that there will be commercial interest in their work, even though they will be working at a depth beyond most viable exploitation. Hydrothermal vent fields can contain significant mineral wealth – such as copper, gold, zinc and silver – and one company has already begun experimental mining of vents off Papua New Guinea. A Chinese government agency recently applied for an exploration licence for 1,000km of the southwest Indian ridge.

Dr Wheeler says that, although the area is in international waters, some 1,000 miles west of Ireland, the benefits will be immeasurable in terms of Ireland’s reputation. “This will showcase Ireland’s marine research on a global scale,with the help of National Geographic,” he says. “And if we happen to be over the area during a volcanic eruption, that should make for some even more interesting work.”

Name it!

IT MIGHT BE a relative of the giant squid that grabbed one of Capt Nemo’s crewmen on the futuristic submarine Nautilus, or it might resemble an organism never thought of by Jules Verne. Secondary school students are invited to use their imaginations and understanding of the sea to design their own deep sea thermal vent creature as part of the Venture campaign.

The competition, organised by Patrick Collins of NUIG’s Ryan Institute, has an unusual prize. Over the course of the 25-day cruise on the Celtic Explorer, the scientists on board will collect and identify many previously undiscovered plants and animals on the new hydrothermal vent system. One of these could bear the name of the contest winner.

“The hydrothermal vents on the mid-Atlantic ridge are an extremely important discovery, and one that we think people will be very excited about,” says Collins.

“We’d like to see carefully thought out illustrations along with a description of the creature’s habitat, diet, life and evolutionary history and whatever else the entrant thinks to be important. One lucky winner will have one of the new species we discover named after them. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!”

This competition is open to secondary school students across Ireland. Entries must contain at least one clearly labelled, hand-drawn or computer illustration with a separate A4 page (max 400 words) for the description. Entries should be posted to: Sarah Knight, Ryan Institute, Orbsen Building, NUI, Galway.

The deadline is June 15th, 2011. See ryaninstitute.ie