Scientists call for decade of concerted effort to enhance understanding of deep seas

The deep seas – vast expanses of water and seabed hidden more than 200 metres below the ocean surface to depths up to 11,000 metres – are recognised globally as an important frontier of science and discovery.

But despite the fact they account for around 60% of Earth’s surface area, large areas remain completely unexplored, yet the habitats they support impact on the health of the entire planet.

Now an international team of scientists, spanning 45 institutions in 17 countries, has called for a dedicated decade-long programme of research to greatly advance discovery in these remote regions.

The programme – which scientists have named Challenger 150 – will coincide with the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which runs from 2021-2030.

Challenger 150 will generate new geological, physical, biogeochemical, and biological data through a global cooperative of science and innovation, including the application of new technology. These data will be used to understand how changes in the deep sea impact the wider ocean and life on the planet.

Among its key areas of focus are to build greater capacity and diversity in the scientific community, acknowledging the fact that existing deep-sea research is conducted primarily by developed nations with access to resources and infrastructure.

The programme will use this new knowledge of the deep to support regional, national, and international decision-making on deep-sea issues such as mining, hydrocarbon extraction, fishing, climate mitigation, laying of fibre optic cables and conservation.

The international team presented the rationale behind the call for action in a comment article in Nature Ecology and Evolution, simultaneously publishing a detailed blueprint of how the actions can be best achieved in Frontiers in Marine Science.

Led by members of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) and the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR), the authorship reflects both the gender and geographical diversity such a programme demands, with authors from the six inhabited continents of the World.

They note that the UN Decade provides an unrivalled opportunity to unite the international science community to deliver a giant leap in our knowledge of the deep seas.

Dr Ana Hilario, Researcher at the University of Aveiro (Portugal) and co-lead of the DOSI and SCOR Decade working groups, added:

“The Decade also provides the opportunity to build a long-term programme for training and capacity building in ocean sciences. With Challenger 150, we aim to train the next generation of deep-sea biologists and focus on training scientists from developing countries, but also early stage scientists from all nations. Such training will create a network of enhanced capacity that will allow countries to exercise their full role in international discussions on the use of ocean resources within and outside of their national boundaries.”

This press release covers two studies led by members of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) and the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR):

  • Howell, Hilario et al: A Decade to Study Deep-Sea Life is published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-01352-5.
  • Howell, Hilario et al: A blueprint for an inclusive, global deep-sea Ocean Decade field programme is published in Frontiers of Marine Science, DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2020.584861. This includes a series of detailed recommendations highlighting how the goals of the Challenger 150 programme could be achieved.

The Challenger 150 programme

The years 2022-2026 mark the 150th anniversary of the voyage of HMS Challenger. This ship left the UK in 1876 on a 4 year mission, circumnavigating the globe, mapping the seafloor, recording the global ocean temperature, and providing a first panoramic view of life in the deep seas.

The Challenger Deep – the deepest known point of the ocean – is named after it, as were a number of vessels in NASA’s space programmes.

However, whereas the original HMS Challenger crew was all-white and all-male, the Challenger 150 programme aims to harness its scientific sense of discovery through a modern-day, inclusive and representative spirit of collaboration.

Endorsed by the authors of the current studies, more information about Challenger 150 is available at https://challenger150.world.

HMS Challenger

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