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Mapping the Atlantic – EU, US and Canadian scientists take on the final frontier

Understanding the Atlantic Ocean requires cooperation between nations. Image Credit: Shutterstock
Understanding the Atlantic Ocean requires cooperation between nations. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The EU is teaming up with the US and Canada to make the first ever full map of an ocean floor, and they hope it will help to understand issues like climate change better.

'The ocean research community has no borders,' Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said during an event in Brussels on 16 April called The Atlantic - Our Shared resource. Making the Vision Reality.

In June, the Irish government’s RV Celtic Explorer, a 65.5-metre-long research vessel that has already mapped most of Ireland’s seabed, will cross from Newfoundland, Canada, to Galway, Ireland, taking eight kilometre transects right down to the ocean floor as it goes.

It's an example of science diplomacy as for the pilot voyage, scientists from the Marine Institute, Ireland, will be joined by a team made up of ocean mapping experts from the US, Canada and the EU.

The plan is that after this pilot voyage, the mapping will be extended to cover the whole ocean floor.

‘It’s never been done before, on any ocean,’ Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food, Marine and Defence, said during the event in Brussels.

The ship can scan as deep as eight to nine kilometres, which would almost reach the deepest point on earth – the 11 kilometre Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench.

The scientists on board the RV Celtic Explorer will use multibeam mapping systems to get an idea of what the ocean floor looks like. Soundwaves are emitted from the ship and a receiving device then creates a digital picture of the ocean floor based on the echo signals that return.

‘Instead of seeing the Atlantic Ocean as this barrier that divides us, why not look at it as a resource that pulls us together,’ said Minister Coveney.

‘When you combine the resources and the expertise and the technology in Europe, the US and Canada, and you put that together, actually we could develop a much more detailed understanding of the Atlantic environment quite quickly if we work together on it.’

‘Instead of seeing the Atlantic Ocean as this barrier that divides us, why not look at it as a resource that pulls us together.’

Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food, Marine and Defence, Simon Coveney

‘Instead of seeing the Atlantic Ocean as this barrier that divides us, why not look at it as a resource that pulls us together.’

Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food, Marine and Defence, Simon Coveney

Corals

So little is known about the deep sea that any number of results could be obtained. Thomas Furey, who coordinated the Irish National Seabed Mapping Survey programme and is heavily involved in the Atlantic mapping project, said that when they mapped the Irish seabed, they discovered deep water corals that had never been known to exist there before.

‘I was fortunate to be on the ship that mapped those in the first instance,’ he said.

Not only is seabed mapping important for discovering features like the corals, it’s also important for oil and gas mapping, for aquaculture, for fishing, for understanding spawning grounds and to understand the ecosystems in the sea depths.

The way the sea functions can have an effect on climate change. For example, the EU-funded EURO-BASIN project discovered that less carbon is being removed from the atmosphere by plankton due to factors like climate change, fisheries and habitat change.

‘We need to understand better the role of climate change and fisheries on the ecosystem,’ EURO-BASIN coordinator Professor Michael St. John said on the sidelines of the event in Brussels. ‘We’ve just touched the edge, there’s much more that needs to be done.’

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