Prow of the ship

Written by

Uncovering the mysteries of the deep

minutes reading time

The health of the world’s oceans might be high on the political agenda, but how do we maintain their wellbeing with so much still unknown about them? Edinburgh researchers have been instrumental in a major project that has shone a light into the depths of the Atlantic.

With a staggering 80 per cent of the planet’s oceans still unexplored, it’s often been said that we know less about the sea floor than we do about the surface of the moon. With concerns growing about the far-reaching impacts of climate change, and possible knock-on effects for millions of people around the world, greater understanding of the oceans and the challenges they face is vital.

Over the past four years, an international team of scientists has ventured deep into uncharted waters to shed light on some of the Atlantic Ocean’s many mysteries. Having now drawn to a close, researchers involved in the ATLAS project – the most in-depth assessment of deep Atlantic ecosystems ever undertaken – are reflecting on its achievements, and considering how its lasting legacy could continue to aid efforts to understand and safeguard the ocean.

The aim of ATLAS, which brought together more than 80 researchers from 25 institutions, was to improve understanding of ocean dynamics, deep-sea biodiversity and how Atlantic ecosystems function. It also sought to gain new insights into the potential impact and implications of climate change on the deep ocean.

The project, involving researchers from 12 countries bordering the Atlantic, was co-ordinated from Edinburgh by Professor Murray Roberts, the University’s Chair in Applied Marine Biology and Ecology.

“Very little is known about deep-ocean ecosystems, their roles as reservoirs of biodiversity and genetic resources, or their health under future scenarios of climate change and human exploitation,” he said. “Over the past four years, ATLAS has shone a light on this hidden world, generating a wealth of knowledge that will help support preservation efforts and ensure sustainable use of the ocean.”

Fieldwork onboard Amundsen
Fieldwork onboard the Amundsen

Beneath the waves

ATLAS, which was supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, was hugely successful in advancing the scientific community’s understanding of the Atlantic and the unprecedented pressures facing it as a consequence of climate change.

Among many landmark discoveries was the identification of 12 previously unknown deep-sea species, including new types of corals, molluscs and sea mosses. The team also found that ocean warming, acidification and decreasing food supplies could, by the end of the century, dramatically alter the availability and location of suitable habitats for key cold-water corals and commercially important deep-sea fish.

Many of these advances in scientific knowledge were made possible by more than 40 expeditions undertaken by members of the ATLAS team. Researchers travelled to all corners of the Atlantic, exploring areas including the Azores, a seamount in waters off Africa’s west coast and a stretch of ocean between Shetland and the Faroe Islands.

Dr Johanne Vad, a postdoctoral researcher from the School of GeoSciences, took part in a ten-day expedition through the Davis Strait – one of the northern reaches of the Atlantic, located between Greenland and Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic.

I took part in an expedition aboard the icebreaker and Arctic Ocean research vessel CCGS Amundsen, where I was carrying out work to better understand deep-sea sponges, which are an important part of sea-floor ecosystems,” she says. “We monitored conditions on the sea floor by analysing samples and using tripod-like instruments, called benthic landers, that are kitted out with a range of instruments. The aim of that was to help us figure out why the sponges are found in some areas of the Davis Strait and not others.”

Rock lobster
American lobster and squat lobster at Baltimore Canyon in the Atlantic

Emerging from the ocean

The ATLAS team published more than 120 peer-reviewed publications during the project, including research papers in high-impact journals such as Nature and Science, and is on track to publish more than 200 papers in the near future. In tandem with their scientific endeavours, from the outset researchers sought to bring about lasting, positive impacts by informing policymakers, training students and engaging with the public.

“If ever there was an overarching statement about ATLAS, it’s that the project has really ramped up our understanding of the deep Atlantic,” says Dr Lea-Anne Henry, a Chancellor’s Fellow in Marine Ecosystems, who played a leading role in the project.

The team organised a programme of science-policy panels offering face-to-face opportunities to inform and engage with policymakers, including members of the European Parliament and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Key findings from ATLAS were showcased on several occasions at the United Nations and are leading to new designations of candidate marine protected areas. Working with maritime industries, the team also developed a range of tools to help ensure management decisions take into account sustainability and impacts on vulnerable ecosystems.

Student experience and training was also a key focus of the project, with a number of PhD students fully funded to carry out their doctoral studies as part of ATLAS. Masters students completed research projects with ATLAS and participated in weekend masterclass events on ocean governance, while a number of undergraduates performed analysis with ATLAS researchers that led to their inclusion as authors on peer-reviewed papers.

“I’ve never seen research and teaching as separate aspects of our work, because so much more can be achieved when the two go hand-in-hand,” Professor Murray Roberts. “That ethos was central to our approach. We wanted undergraduates joining the Masters and PhD students to become part of the ATLAS family. In so many ways, the real legacy of projects like ATLAS is through the people who move forward in their careers with the expertise and international networks to tackle the challenges of climate change, habitat loss and species extinction.

“As we look forward to the pivotal negotiations at the Climate COP26 in Glasgow and celebrate the launch of the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development it’s vital we remember that, and do all we can to sustain and build opportunities for people across all societies to get involved – this is a major part of our new iAtlantic project.”

Making a splash

Alongside the team’s work on policy engagement and opportunities for students, a huge amount of effort went into the public outreach aspects of ATLAS. Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh were partners in ATLAS and led development of educational resources that tied into Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, engaging with thousands of school-aged children and their families.

“Outreach and public engagement were central pillars of ATLAS,” says Dr Lea-Anne Henry. “Demonstrating to members of the public – particularly young people – how human activities and changing environmental conditions are affecting the oceans is critical to help balance future societal needs and environmental sustainability. Dynamic Earth will soon open a new oceans gallery exploring the history of deep-sea research, and it will use findings from ATLAS to illustrate how people research the deep ocean today.”

The team was always determined that, in order to bring the most benefits, ATLAS could not exist in isolation. As researchers embark on iAtlantic to explore yet further into uncharted areas of the Atlantic, the lasting impacts of ATLAS – its scientific discoveries and wider contributions to policy-making, student training and public awareness – will ensure that its influence will continue to make waves for years to come.

Image credit: Ship and people working onboard – Alex Ingle; Lobster – Steve Ross