The Deep Sea Frontier
Over half of the European territory is under the sea, and much of this territory is deep sea, beyond the edge of the continental shelf deeper than 200 m water depth. The deep sea outstrips the terrestrial environment, not only in terms of volume but also in terms of biodiversity and biomass. Within this area, deep-sea fisheries and oil and gas exploration and production are moving steadily into deeper water, while emerging industries such as blue biotechnology – obtaining useful products through the exploitation of deep-sea genetic biodiversity – have great potential for the future. Naturally occurring marine geohazards, like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, submarine landslides and the tsunamis that they generate can have catastrophic consequences. The deep sea sequesters a large fraction of the anthropogenic carbon emissions, thereby mitigating climate change, but as a consequence suffer increased acidity which may affect ecosystem structure. Modern ocean sciences must therefore take into account and contribute to the debate on societal, legal and policy aspects. This point is recognized in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive for Europe which requires more co-ordinated research to underpin the objectives of sustainable exploitation in the oceans.
The Lisbon Agenda sets out the European Union’s strategy for competitiveness, growth and employment. Therefore, a key driver of research and development in the deep sea over the next few years will be to fulfil the vision, in the marine context, that the European Union will become, ‘ the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion, and respect for the environment’. The Maritime Policy for the European Union clearly articulates that it will fully contribute to the Lisbon Agenda by exploiting the economic potential of the oceans and seas in harmony with the marine environment. This requires research to better understand the effects of climate change, improve the competitiveness of European maritime industry, and improve the groundwork for the implementation of an ecosystem-based management approach that will ensure environmentally sustainable economic development on a regional basis. Research underpinning the development of new sustainable management policies and practices, experience of sustainable exploitation of offshore resources, and the knowledge capital these represent, will create opportunities for Europe to provide leadership in the global economy.
Understanding how deep sea ecosystems and biogeochemical processes will respond to climate change will require increased attention in the near future. Changes in fluxes between the water column, the seafloor and the sub-seafloor and how they might modulate climate change or vary due to it will need to be predicted. Tipping points where an incremental change can yield at some point to a significant and rapid regime shift (biological, biogeochemical or physical processes) will need to be identified. How subseafloor processes affect the seafloor and the water column will also need to be investigated. Only with the provision of a sound knowledge base will an ecologically sustainable exploitation of the deep sea be adequately planned and monitored. The biodiversity and genetic connectivity of deep sea communities are areas that will also need to be explored. Finally, a better understanding of submarine geo-hazards, their response to climate change and the threat they pose to coastal locations will be necessary.
Tools and techniques
The hostile nature of the deep sea environment requires solutions of a similar level of complexity facing space research, sophisticated technological solutions and a multidisciplinary approach. The number of existing and planned large deep-sea infrastructure projects will be drivers of new surveys, maintenance, monitoring and reduced environmental impact of engineering products and methodologies. The provision of information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure for cabled observatories and sub-sea platforms will similarly drive innovation in mass data storage and processing, sensors and autonomous platform technologies. Key components will include access to surface support ships and research vessels, deep-sea vehicles and associated equipment; improved high resolution mapping and imaging of the seabed and the subsurface; advanced sampling technologies for rocks, sediments, fluids, fauna and microbes; in situ measurements for key oceanographic, geological and biogeochemical parameters; access to drilling facilities for a variety of scientific tasks, including borehole monitoring; sustained in situ observation and monitoring, including repeated high-resolution surveys, continuous measurements, and event-triggered sampling and analyses; global databases and sample archives; paleoceanographic proxies to complete the brief instrumental records in the deep ocean on climatic time scales.
Europe is a leading player on the world stage in deep sea research. Building on past impressive achievements and consolidating Europe's position will require further integration and investment in deep sea research.