This expedition will explore the Atlantic abyss and possible future “Marine Conservation Zones” using the latest marine technology. The new techniques we are developing will help us understand the effects of climate change on the oceans and contribute to the protection of marine biodiversity.
The main piece of equipment will be the Autosub 6000. This is a computer controlled submarine and carries instruments to study the oceans and seabed. Autosub will be fitted with new cameras to survey both fish and the animals living in the deep ocean.
The deep-ocean environment is absolutely huge, the biggest habitat on Earth, so previous methods have only been able to see tiny sections of it. Because the Autosub can cover very large distances underwater this will enable us to survey much greater areas.
Previously we have relied on techniques such as trawling to collect information about how many deep-water animals there are and how they are distributed. This is incredibly difficult and means dragging a small net (around 8 m wide) on a long wire (several km) behind the ship. At abyssal depths the net is on the seafloor for hours, so the animals caught are all mixed up when the net comes back on board. This means that it isn’t possible to know exactly where each animal was on seabed or to match them to particular types of habitat or food. On land this sort of thing can often be done with satellite or aerial photography and is called “landscape ecology”. Using Autosub 6000 we hope to bring a similar approach to the ocean floor.
Although our work on this expedition is very hi-tech it builds on the long history of oceanographic expeditions. Our home and workplace for the expedition is the Royal Research Ship Discovery, 50 years old this year. This is part of a line of ships to bear this name including James Cook’s HMS Discovery and the RRS Discovery that took Scott and Shackleton to Antarctica. Our work also contributes to our long-term studies of the North Atlantic. These investigations are essential to understanding how the oceans work and how they are affected by human activity. One of the most exciting things happening now is the selection of Marine Conservation Zones and other protected areas around the UK. We will use the Autosub to survey some of these possible areas and test Autosub’s effectiveness as a possible means of monitoring them over time.
The expedition is led by the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, in collaboration with the University of Glasgow. Other participants are from the University of Southampton, University of Liverpool, Natural History Museum London, and National University of Ireland. For a full description of the ship’s party and other collaborators see People.
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