Several years ago I participated in a forum and debate on the protection of marine biodiversity. One of the panelists suggested that the deep ocean would be an ideal location for depositing wastes and pollutants generated by coastal cities, particularly along the continental shelves. What bothered me about his assertion was the common belief at that time that the deep part of the ocean was viewed as a biological desert.
The truth is that these vast areas are largely unexplored, and that our understanding of deep ocean biodiversity is in its early stages. It is very difficult and expensive to engage in deep sea research. And yet whenever we have ventured into these dark, extreme regions, life has been found. In some cases, the discoveries made are amazing, completely altering the way in which we view the ocean and all life on earth.
At depths of several thousand feet it may appear too dark, too cold, and simply too harsh for anything to live. Yet, studies have shown that hundreds of species have adapted to these conditions. Many of these animals feed on small bits of organic matter that have drifted through the depths to settle at the bottom. In 1977 the submersible Alvin from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was used to make a remarkable discovery off the coast of the Galapagos Islands. At thousands of feet below the surface, the scientists found a series of undersea vents later called black smokers. Surrounding these vents was a large community of animals unknown to science including giant tube worms, crabs, and clams. These species survived through a process called chemosynthesis in which bacteria used the abundant hydrogen sulfide in the water, and converted it to usable energy. I find it ironic that the Galapagos Islands were also the source of much of Charles Darwin’s thinking as he developed his theory of natural selection to explain evolution on earth.
Most recently, scientists around the world are conducting a marine census of all life forms. Thousands of new species from the deep ocean have been identified. Some believe that there may be over a million species that have yet to be named. So it seems that our world is far more diverse and complicated than anyone previously thought. The open ocean should not be a candidate for the dumping of wastes from land. Instead, we need to control our consumption and develop alternative materials that minimize the impact on the marine environment.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.