Deep-sea expedition captures stunning images of creatures in the Pacific Ocean mining zone

By | April 2, 2024

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Old glass sponges. A Barbie pink sea pig strolling across the seabed. A transparent unimber floating in the depths.

These wonders are just a first snapshot of fantastic creatures discovered 5,000 meters below the surface of the Pacific Ocean in a pristine area earmarked as a site for deep-sea mining of crucial and rare metals. The natural resources are in high demand for use in solar panels, electric car batteries and other green technologies.

The 45-day expedition to the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, which took place on March 20, documented biodiversity in the abyssal plain. Using a remote-controlled vehicle, the team aboard the British research vessel James Cook photographed life in the deep sea and took samples for future research.

A Barbie pink sea pig strolls across the seabed.  - SMARTEX project/NERCA Barbie pink sea pig strolls across the seabed.  - SMARTEX project/NERC

A Barbie pink sea pig strolls across the seabed. – SMARTEX project/NERC

“We can assume that many of these species will be new to science. Sometimes they have been seen/observed/known before, but not collected or formally described,” says Regen Drennan, a postdoctoral marine biologist at the Natural History Museum in London.

“These specimens will be taken to NHM London to be identified and studied for years to come.”

The voyage was the second carried out by a British initiative known as the Seabed Mining and Resilience to Experimental Impact, or SMARTEX, project, involving the Natural History Museum, National Oceanography Centre, British Geological Survey and other institutions.

The US Geological Survey estimates that the Clarion-Clipperton Zone contains 21.1 billion dry tons of polymetallic nodules – containing more reserves of many critical metals than the reserves on land combined.

If deep-sea mining follows the same trajectory as offshore oil production, more than a third of these critical metals will come from deep-sea mines by 2065, the federal agency estimates.

Scientists believe that many of the life forms that call this environment home are unlikely to recover from the removal of the lumps and are calling for protection, according to the Natural History Museum.

Balancing biodiversity and industry

In international waters, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone is outside the jurisdiction of any country. The International Seabed Authority has issued seventeen exploration contracts under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, several countries, including the United Kingdom and France, have expressed caution and supported a moratorium or ban on deep-sea mining to protect marine ecosystems and preserve biodiversity.

According to a June 2023 study published in the journal Current Biology, there could be approximately 6,000 to 8,000 species waiting to be discovered in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone.

At extreme depths of the ocean there is no sunlight and temperatures are around 1.5 degrees Celsius, but life forms like this glass sponge thrive.  - NHMDeepSea Group/Natural History Museum, UKAt extreme depths of the ocean there is no sunlight and temperatures are around 1.5 degrees Celsius, but life forms like this glass sponge thrive.  - NHMDeepSea Group/Natural History Museum, UK

At extreme depths of the ocean there is no sunlight and temperatures are around 1.5 degrees Celsius, but life forms like this glass sponge thrive. – NHMDeepSea Group/Natural History Museum, UK

The pink amperima sea cucumber, nicknamed the ‘Barbie pig’, is one of the largest invertebrates living on the deep sea floor. Along with the transparent unicummber, the creature is a type of sea pig within the scientific family called Elpidiidae. The Barbie pig grazes on the small amounts of waste that descend from surface water to the seabed and are important for organic metabolism, explains Drennan, who was not directly involved in the expedition.

“Many species in this family have evolved long, sturdy legs that allow them to walk on the seafloor, and elongated mouthparts that allow them to select the detritus on which they feed,” Drennan said via email.

The expedition also captured images of elegant, bowl-shaped glass sponges, which are believed to have the longest lifespans of any creature on Earth: up to 15,000 years, although the expedition team does not know how old the sponges they photographed. .

Sea anemones, close relatives of jellyfish, “fulfill the role of large carnivores that sit on the deep-sea floor and catch small swimming animals with their tentacles,” she added.

Many of the life forms that live in these depths depend on the polymetallic nodules, which form very gradually through chemical processes that cause metals from the water to precipitate around shell fragments and shark teeth, according to the Natural History Museum.

Researchers estimate that it takes about 1 million years for these nodules to grow to just a few tens of millimeters in size. The largest known nodules are about 20 centimeters across, suggesting that these environments have remained virtually unchanged at the ocean floor for tens of millions of years.

A transparent deep-sea creature called a unicumber.  - NHMDeepSea Group/Natural History Museum, UKA transparent deep-sea creature called a unicumber.  - NHMDeepSea Group/Natural History Museum, UK

A transparent deep-sea creature called a unicumber. – NHMDeepSea Group/Natural History Museum, UK

Critics say noise can disrupt marine mammals such as whales and dolphins, while plumes of sediment, potentially containing toxic substances, stirred up by equipment on the seabed can spread and harm midwater ecosystems, recent research shows.

It’s also possible, these scientists warn, that deep-sea mining could disrupt the way carbon is stored in the ocean, contributing to the climate crisis.

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