Blue Economy adds another dimension to the deep sea

It’s only been recently that scientists have been able to research the deep sea and uncover some of the mysteries that lie in its depths. Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover, Harvey Smith Professor of Biological Oceanography and chair of the Division of Marine Science and Conservation at Duke University, is one of the scientists who has had the opportunity to go where few have gone before.

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“I’m an explorer at heart. I look at a map and think: where have we not been?” said Van Dover during an WEP On-Air interview at KAUST this past January.

Van Dover describes herself as a deep-sea ecologist, explorer, submarine pilot, and author. Her work has taken her across all the world’s oceans to depths as deep as 4,000 meters. “I grew up not far from the coast and I would see these animals that were different from me, like crabs,” she said. “I wanted to know why they had all those legs and how they used all those different shaped appendages. As I got older I kept thinking about deeper water and what creatures were out there.”

From Darkness to the Ocean’s Hot Springs

Just a few decades ago, the deep ocean was still an unexplored mystery. It was believed that the seafloor was all the same: dark, cold and uninhabited by any creatures. But with new technology, scientists like Van Dover have learned there is a whole new world in the depths.

“They discovered these hot springs on the seafloor which could be size of a football field, an auditorium or a small classroom,” Van Dover said. “They are little islands and surrounding them is a desert-like area.”

These hot springs are found in all the oceans with a seafloor spreading system. In order for a hot spring to exist, you need a combination of magma and seawater. In the areas where the ocean floor is spreading (such as at the mid-ocean ridges), the molten magna rises and superheats the cold ocean water around it which causes the hot springs.

The hot springs are similar to an oasis in the desert. Van Dover says she has found many new species within them and each species has different adaptations in order to survive. “Many live in extreme environments and in some cases, noxious chemicals, but they have worked out physiologies to prevent them from being killed by the toxic environments that they live in,” Van Dover explains. “You have to be a detective — a sleuth — to figure out what they are doing down there.”

Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover during her WEP On-Air interview

In her book, “The Octopus’s Garden”, she talks about the mysteries of the deep sea and some of her discoveries. One of her favorite creatures is giant tube worms. “Some people think they are ugly, but I can’t understand it. I think they are the most beautiful animals in the world,” she said. “Tube worms live in hot springs and have an exquisite design. They can be as tall as me and quite big around. The creatures have no mouth, and no digestive system. They live in close proximity of bacteria and are feeding off of that.”

The Emersion of The Blue Economy

The deep sea and the research around it is booming due to advances in technology. Engineers have figured how to get researchers down to the seafloor either using submarines, robots or remote controlled gadgets. Before, only a few countries had access to the seafloor, but Van Dover says it’s now easy to get an off-the-shelf vehicle that can take you down 4,000 feet.

While new technology is allowing scientists to learn more about the animals in the deep sea and the possible biological and mineral resources, it has also created a stir in non-scientific areas. Industries too are interested in what the seafloor offers and want develop “The Blue Economy.”

“In the deep sea, we think of The Blue Economy as trying to develop industries in water that is 4,000 or 5,000 meters deep. The principle interest right now is the minerals and the metals,” Van Dover explained.

Currently, the interest in this new economy is in mining, but industries are also investigating the genetic resources that could exist on the seafloor. The big question is whether we need to use these resources in the deep sea when we still have resources on land.

“Whether it will be environmentally sustainable and really blue — or really green — is still a question that needs to be answered,” Van Dover said. “More science needs to be done to understand what the impact would be on the sea environment and the animals that live there.”

There are three minerals that currently are of interest in the deep waters: Manganese nodules, cobalt crust and seafoam massive sulphide deposits formed by black smokers. These are a source of rare earth elements such as yttrium, dysprosium and terbium which are used in ICT hardware and renewable energy technologies. The primary metal of interest is copper.

No one is mining yet in the deep sea but two licenses have been issued. One is in the Red Sea and is in Papua New Guinea.