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Scientists explore ‘Grand Canyon’ of the oceans

The deepest, darkest, most inhospitable place on Earth is the focus of a new £2 million research project involving University of St Andrews scientists.

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the ECOMAR project will explore the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a mountain range about the size of the Alps, located deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean. The research will be mainly concentrated around the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone, a giant canyon hundreds of miles long and about 20 miles wide that cuts through the mountain range and connects the two halves of the ocean.

Led by Professor Monty Priede, Director of Oceanlab at the University of Aberdeen, the consortium of researchers aims to determine the local, regional and global ecological impact of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as a physical structure. It will provide a comprehensive overview of how all forms of life interact and function in this environment. The researchers’ findings will feed into a global Census of Marine Life project.

Professor Priede said, “We are all very excited about ECOMAR. The Mid- Atlantic Ridge is a difficult place to carry out research of this nature, which is why there is so little known about it at present. One of the things we want to find out is what types of marine animals live on the two sides of the Ridge and how they are related. This should help us to ascertain if the mountain range acts as a barrier.”

The consortium includes Dr Andrew Brierley of the University of St Andrews’ School of Biology. St Andrews will receive nearly £300,000 of the grant which will fund a suite of equipment and two staff. Dr Brierley’s team will work from the boat, ‘The James Cook’, which is still under construction. The hull has been built in Poland and is now in transit to Norway for fitting out.

Dr Brierley said, “We will be using echosounders and nets to sample zooplankton. Zooplankton form a vital link in marine ecosystems between carbon fixation using sunlight by plants (phytoplankton) and predators such as commercially important fish. Zooplankton will likely be a key link between production at the sea surface over the mid-Atlantic ridge and life in the deep sea on the ridge”.

The consortium will also examine the variety and spread of species in the sub-polar front, the boundary between cold, fertile surface waters to the north of the gulf stream (which flows above the Charlie Gibbs Facture Zone) and the less productive warm water to the south. As well as investigating marine life, the researchers will be measuring the circulation of ocean currents and the extent of food, nutrients and carbon carried to the sea floor in ‘marine snow’ – the remains of dead plankton – and the carcasses of whales and fish.

Other areas of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge have been studied before, when swarms of deep-sea creatures were discovered thriving in the hot, toxic waters surrounding hydrothermal vents (underwater volcanoes that spew out plumes of sulphurous black smoke).

Said Professor Priede, “Scientists have been so excited by hydrothermal vents that the ecology in other areas of the Ridge has been neglected. We don’t know what we’ll find down there but we intend to address that neglect and fill in some of the knowledge gaps.”

The researchers will be aided in their quest by the use of advanced technology and equipment, including unmanned robotic vehicles, remote sensing from satellites and precise acoustic techniques. They will be sailing aboard the new Royal Research Ship James Cook as it embarks on one of its first research voyages.

ENDS

NOTES FOR EDITORS

· The ECOMAR project is funded through a consortium grant from NERC. It is the UK contribution to the international project MARECO, which in turn is part of the global project called Census of Marine Life. www.coml.org

· The research partners in the consortium are: Professor Monty Priede, University of Aberdeen; Professor Graham Shimmield, Scottish Association for Marine Science; Dr Rus Hoelzel, University of Durham; Dr Andrew Brierley, University of St Andrews; Dr David Billett, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton; Dr Peter Miller, Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

· The project will include a series of research cruises over three consecutive summers, starting in 2007.

· Oceanlab, at the University of Aberdeen, specialises in designing, building and operating autonomous research vehicles known as landers capable to diving to 6000m depth and have been used for exploration throughout the world’s oceans from the Arctic to Antarctic and in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea. Over 30 people now work in Oceanlab under the leadership of Professor Monty Priede.

· The Natural Environment Research Council is one of the UK’s eight Research Councils. It uses a budget of about £350m a year to fund and carry out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment. NERC trains the next generation of independent environmental scientists. It is addressing some of the key questions facing mankind, such as global warming, renewable energy and sustainable economic development. www.nerc.ac.uk

For more information contact:

Jennifer Phillips, Communication Officer, University of Aberdeen, 01224 273174

Marion O’Sullivan, Senior Press Officer, NERC, 01793 411727 or 07917 086369

Claire Grainger, Press Officer, University of St Andrews, 01334 462530 or 07730 415 015

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