Deep-sea expedition captures stunning images of creatures in Pacific mining zone

Antique glass sponges. A Barbie pink sea pig strolling along the seabed. A transparent unicumber floating in the depths.

These wonders are just an initial snapshot of fantastic creatures discovered 2,640 kilometers (1,640 miles) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean in a pristine area that is destined to be a site for deep-sea mining for rare and critical metals. Natural resources are in high demand for use in solar panels, electric car batteries and other green technologies, among other uses.

The 45-day expedition to the Clarion-Clipperton zone, which concluded on March 20, documented the biodiversity in the abyssal plain. Using a remotely operated vehicle, the team aboard the British research ship James Cook photographed life in the deep sea and collected samples for future studies.

“We can assume that many of these species will be new to science. Sometimes they have been seen/observed/known before, but not formally collected or described,” said Regen Drennan, a postdoctoral marine biologist at the Natural History Museum in London.

“These specimens will be taken to the NHM in London to be identified and studied over the coming years.”

The trip was the second undertaken by a UK initiative known as the Seabed Mining and Impact Resilience Experimental, or SMARTEX, project, involving the Natural History Museum, the National Oceanography Centre, the British Geological Survey and other institutions.

The United States Geological Survey estimates that there are 21.1 billion dry tons of polymetallic nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton zone, containing more reserves of many critical metals than the world’s land reserves combined.

If deep-sea mining follows the same trajectory as offshore oil production, more than a third of these critical metals will come from deep-sea mines by 2065, the federal agency estimated.

Scientists believe that many of the life forms that inhabit this environment are unlikely to recover from the removal of the nodules and are calling for protection, according to the Natural History Museum.

Weighing biodiversity and industry

In international waters, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone is beyond the jurisdiction of any country. The International Seabed Authority, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, has issued 17 exploration contracts. However, several countries, including the United Kingdom and France, have expressed caution and supported a moratorium or ban on deep-sea mining to safeguard marine ecosystems and conserve biodiversity.

Between 6,000 and 8,000 species could be waiting to be discovered in the Clarion-Clipperton zone, according to a June 2023 study published in the journal Current Biology.

A Barbie pink sea pig roams the seabed. (SMARTEX/NERC Project via CNN Newsource)

The pink amperima sea cucumber, nicknamed “Barbie pig,” is one of the largest invertebrates that live on the sea floor. Along with the transparent unicumberus, the creature is a type of sea pig within the scientific family called Elpidiidae. The Barbie pig feeds on small amounts of detritus that descends from surface waters to the seafloor and is important in terms of organic matter cycling, explained Drennan, who was not directly involved in the expedition.

“Many species in this family have developed long, robust legs that allow them to walk along the seafloor and elongated mouthparts to collect the detritus they feed on,” Drennan said by email.

The expedition also captured images of elegant, cup-shaped glass sponges, which are believed to have the longest lifespan of any creature on the planet: up to 15,000 years, although the expedition team does not know how old the sponges they photographed are. .

At the extreme depths of the ocean there is no sunlight and the temperature is around 1.5C, but life forms like this glass sponge thrive. (NHMDeepSea Group/Natural History Museum, UK via CNN Newsource)

Sea anemones, close relatives of jellyfish, “play the role of large carnivores that sit and wait at the bottom of the sea, catching small swimming animals with their tentacles,” he added.

Many of the life forms that live at these depths depend on polymetallic nodules, which form gradually through chemical processes that cause metals to precipitate from the water around shell fragments and shark teeth, according to the Natural History Museum.

Researchers estimate that it takes approximately 1 million years for these nodules to grow just tens of millimeters. The largest known nodules reach around 20 centimeters (8 in) across, suggesting that these environments have remained virtually unchanged on the ocean floor for tens of millions of years.

Critics say the noise could disturb marine mammals such as whales and dolphins, while plumes of sediment, potentially containing toxic compounds, kicked up by the equipment on the seafloor can spread, damaging midwater ecosystems. according to recent research.

It is also possible, these scientists warn, that deep-sea mining could alter the way carbon is stored in the ocean, contributing to the climate crisis.

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