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Exploring, Monitoring and Modeling the Deep Ocean Are Goals of New Research

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AUSTIN, Texas — A team led by scientists from The University of Texas at Austin is attempting “to boldly go where no man has gone before”: the Earth’s deepest oceans.

In the 1989 science fiction film “The Abyss,” a search and recovery team is tasked with finding a lost U.S. submarine that has vanished somewhere deep in uncharted waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Although the team’s discovery of an extraterrestrial species living on the ocean floor is imaginative, it did highlight how little we know about what may be present in the deepest parts of the Earth’s oceans.

Water covers more than 70% of the planet’s surface, but only 10% of the undersea world has been explored. Oceans provide about 90% of living space on the planet by volume. They also absorb more than 90% of the Earth’s radiative heat imbalance leading to ocean warming, and about a third of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions leading to ocean acidification.

Now, more than 30 years since the release of “The Abyss,” scientists have gained some new insights. For example, the deep ocean (below 200 meters, from the mesopelagic zone downward) could provide a vast repository for biodiversity — providing critical climate regulation and housing a wealth of hydrocarbon, mineral and genetic resources. Nevertheless, the deep ocean remains a mostly unknown realm of our planet. Deep-ocean habitats are under increasing pressure from climate change and human activities such as seafloor mining, fishing and contamination.

Through its “Accelerating Research through International Network-to-Network Collaborations” (AccelNet) program, the National Science Foundation is funding a team led by the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at UT Austin to implement a Deep-Ocean Observing Strategy (iDOOS). The initiative brings together U.S. and international networks engaged in deep-ocean observing, mapping, exploration, modeling, research and sustainable management to leverage each other’s efforts, knowledge and resources.

“By connecting deep-ocean observers across disciplines, expanding the observing community to include nontraditional partners, and linking data providers to users, iDOOS will enhance the deep-ocean capabilities of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) and target societal needs,” said project lead Patrick Heimbach, director of the Computational Research in Ice and Ocean Systems group at the Oden Institute and faculty member at the Jackson School of Geosciences.

IDOOS will address several of the stated Challenges of the IOC United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), in particular: the goal to “ensure a sustainable [deep] ocean observing system across all ocean basins that delivers accessible, timely, and actionable data and information to all users.”

One of the first programs to be endorsed by the U.N. Ocean Decade initiative, the initiative also tackles another key challenge set — engaging with a range of stakeholders to develop or contribute to a comprehensive ocean cyberinfrastructure that supports a digital-twin [deep] ocean, enabling applications from big data analytics to simulation-based science.

Through engagement with policymakers, regulators and science coordinators, iDOOS will raise awareness and support for deep-ocean science and bring science into critical decisions regarding climate, biodiversity and sustainability. It will foster a community of future leaders informed in deep-ocean observing, modeling, data science, sustainable development, and international law at a global level who are adept at communicating to regulators and policymakers, as well as to fellow scientists.

Heimbach and his research team at UT Austin will lead the project in partnership with experts from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and The University of Rhode Island