by Stuart Cunningham
The Atlantic Ocean is a living soup full of nutrients feeding plankton, fishes, dolphins, whales and seabirds. And of course we exploit these ecosystems to feed our growing population. Less well known are the fantabulous beds of cold-water coral gardens growing all round the Atlantic Ocean. Think of the Great Barrier Reef in the Pacific Ocean formed from warm-water corals. Our Atlantic coral gardens grow in deeper, colder waters and are no less spectacular and valuable, and no less vulnerable than their better know tropical cousins.
The natural resources of the Atlantic have the potential to help support the growing needs of the human population. Fishing for new species, discovering chemicals for new medicines, identifying novel marine genetic resources, mining the seabed for minerals and of course drilling for oil. All of these will be more beneficial for society if they can be carried out sustainably. ATLAS is a European scientific research programme to study Atlantic Ocean coral ecosystems and will provide governments, industries and researchers with new scientific understanding helping to support sustainable use of Atlantic resources. Physicists, biologists, geochemists and geneticists from 24 Laboratories and Universities around Europe are all working together in this great scientific enterprise.
A most exciting area of research is that done at sea from Research Ships. Today a team of 20 scientists, students and technicians supported by 20 officers and crew are at sea on board the UK Royal Research Ship Discovery. We sailed from Southampton and will finish in Reykjavik, Iceland in a few weeks time.
One of the more challenging missions today is to deploy a series of moorings across the Rockall Trough (the area of the Atlantic Ocean west of Scotland). A mooring is a wire anchored to the sea-bed, kept vertical by floats and coming to within 50m of the sea-surface. Today we are deploying moorings that are 1.8 kilometers long. These moorings are a traditional way to put instruments in the ocean at the same locations and depths and over many years. Physicists use these to measure ocean circulation, temperature and salinity. We can then determine how ocean circulation is changing in time.
The exciting work today is to deploy on a mooring a Remote Access Sampler for capturing water samples. The water samples will be collected in 18 months time and analysed for a whole range of nutrients and chemicals. Combining data from our physical measurements with the chemistry measurements will give us a better understanding how the ocean circulation and the soup of nutrients together help support healthy coral gardens. Our goal is to help sustain these ecosystems for future generations.
A Trans-Atlantic assessment and deep-water ecosystem-based spatial management plan for Europe
Photos by Penny Holliday