Deep Sea: Readings from the AbyssPublished by MAC on 2021-08-24
Source: New York Times, Literary Hub
“Isn’t the deep ocean supposed to be like a desert?”
Two relevant portrays of the deep sea were published recently, writes Robert Moor on The New York Times. One of them dramatically and pictorially argues the insanity of deep sea mining, while the second marvelously evokes the contradictory nature of the planet's largest cosmos, preponderously covered in eternal darkness.
BELOW THE EDGE OF DARKNESS, A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea, By Edith Widder | 353 pp. Random House.
THE BRILLIANT ABYSS, Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean, and the Looming Threat That Imperils It, By Helen Scales | 288 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press.
Several relatively small-scale simulated mining experiments have been conducted in the abyss, giving some clues as to the possible outcomes. The most ambitious, which started in 1989, took place in the Peru Basin off the Pacific coast of South America, where a team of German researchers selected a four-square-mile block of an abyssal nodule field (tiny compared to the size of future mines) and dragged a twenty-six-foot-wide plow harrow across it seventy-eight times. The plow didn’t remove the nodules but pushed them aside and buried them in the soft sediment. Scientists have been back at intervals to survey the site, and in 2015 an autonomous submersible photographed the whole area. The resulting photomosaic showed the plow tracks still clearly visible, crisscrossing the seabed, almost three decades later...
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The Wonders That Live at the Very Bottom of the Sea
New York Times
In the deep sea, it is always night and it is always snowing. A shower of so-called marine snow — made up of pale flecks of dead flesh, plants, sand, soot, dust and excreta — sifts down from the world above. When it strikes the seafloor, or when it is disturbed, it will sometimes light up, a phenomenon known, wonderfully, as “snow shine.” Vampire squids, umbrella-shaped beings with skin the color of persimmons, float around collecting this luminous substance into tiny snowballs, which they calmly eat. They are not alone in this habit. Most deep-sea creatures eat snow, or they eat the snow eaters.
Until fairly recently, it was widely believed that the deep seas were mostly devoid of life. For centuries, fishermen hauled in deep-sea trawling nets filled with slime, not knowing that these were carcasses. Some animals, adapted to the pressure of the deep, are so delicate that in lighter waters a mere wave of your hand could reduce them to shreds. The myth of the dead deep sea, known as the Abyssus Theory, was disproved by a series of dredging and trawling expeditions in the 19th century, including a German scientific expedition in 1898 that pulled up the first known vampire squid. But the misconception nevertheless lingered. In 1977, a geologist piloting a submersible near the mouth of a hydrothermal vent, and finding it swarming with creatures, asked the research crew up above, “Isn’t the deep ocean supposed to be like a desert?”
The naturalist William Beebe — the man who coined the phrase “marine snow” — famously made a series of early submersible expeditions, ultimately reaching a depth of a half-mile. He returned in a state of astonishment, carrying “the memory of living scenes in a world as strange as that of Mars.” In fact, it was far stranger. (Mars, being a largely dead planet, is by comparison dead boring.) Down there, many creatures are translucent; others are Vantablack. Some are delicate; others have shells of actual iron. Pale violet octopuses — which normally prefer solitude — gather for warmth in cuddle puddles numbering in the hundreds. Sperm-shaped creatures called giant larvaceans live within a self-constructed cloud of mucous many feet wide, equipped with gorgeously vaulted, wing-shaped chambers designed to filter out food. (Forget Calatrava; not even Calvino could imagine a house as mind-bendingly lovely as these giant gobs of goo.)
And nearly all of them — the fish, the squids, the shrimp — glow.
I know all this because, on a recent trip to Fire Island, I read a pair of new books about the deep sea. Lying on the hot sand, I plunged my head into the chilly darkness of an alien world. It was thrilling, and — for a variety of reasons — more than a little terrifying.
The first (and most gripping) book I read was “Below the Edge of Darkness,” by an oceanographer named Edith Widder. The title is derived from the suboceanic border of the Twilight Zone, where light is dim, and the Midnight Zone, where light is nil. (“I could never again use the word black with any conviction,” wrote Beebe, after reaching the edge of the Midnight Zone.) But darkness — in the optical, not maudlin, sense — is also the organizing theme of Widder’s memoir.
A tomboy who dreamed of “swashbuckling” adventures, Widder broke her back climbing a tree around age 9. (She blames the frilly Sunday school dress her parents made her wear that day). In college, she decided to undergo surgery to repair her spine, but the operation went awry; for reasons unknown, her blood began clotting spontaneously, and she awoke “flipping around like a fish on a dock while hemorrhaging nearly everywhere.” She had to be resuscitated three times; at one point, she felt her mind leave her body. When she awoke again, blood had seeped into her eyeballs, and she was almost fully blind. During a long and painful convalescence, her sight gradually returned, and, with it, a newfound appreciation for the magic of light. “My obsession with bioluminescence grew out of my brush with blindness,” she writes. In truth, her path was somewhat less narratively satisfying; she originally set out to become a neurobiologist. But what began as a short stint in a lab studying bioluminescent dinoflagellates — a way to pass time and earn cash while her husband finished his degree — led to a career change and a lifelong fascination.
She grew to believe the phenomenon of “living light” is “the most important thing happening in the ocean.” And since the deep sea makes up more than 95 percent of the earth’s habitable space, in a sense, that also makes it the most important thing happening on the planet.
All kinds of creatures luminesce in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons. Light is used as a lure, a weapon, a warning, a deception, a beacon and a sexual turn-on. Individual bacteria probably evolved to glow because it minimizes the radiation from UV light, which can damage DNA; en masse, their glow helps attract predators. (Bacteria, unlike fish, want to end up in a gut.) Anglerfish grow light bulbs that dangle from their foreheads, which they use as bait. When threatened, sea cucumbers will shuck a glowing layer of skin, creating spectral apparitions of themselves as a decoy. Some species spray their attackers with a burst of glittering light — fire-breathing shrimp, fire-shooting squids, shining tubeshoulder fish. In the higher reaches of the deep sea, where there is nowhere to hide, many fish have evolved to emit blue light, a trait known as counterillumination. The most numerous vertebrate on earth, the bristlemouth fish, uses this trick to blend into the sea itself.
Widder originally used submersibles to reach the twilight zone. A few mishaps with leaky valves nearly killed her. (At a certain depth, a terrifying feedback loop sets in: The water streaming in makes the vessel heavier, which means the vessel sinks deeper, which means more water pressure, which means more water streams in, ad infinitum, until the vessel either implodes or the diver drowns.) She began experiencing suffocation nightmares; once she awoke to find herself clawing at the bottom of the bunk above her, convinced it was a coffin lid. “Lousy sleep. Keep having dreams of entrapment and drowning,” she stoically wrote in her diary. Understandably, she shifted some of her attention to developing cameras (“new technological eyes,” she calls them) and lures, which could dive in her stead.
Perhaps her most successful co-invention was a glowing synthetic jellyfish known as the “E-jelly.” Using this lifelike bait, she managed to capture the first video of a giant squid in its natural habitat (which she deems “the holy grail” of her field of research). Her description of these excursions, and the resulting discoveries, provides a thrilling blend of hard science and high adventure.
Widder’s voice is in turns jaunty, precise and nerdily quippy. She occasionally resorts to cliché (“At that depth, the tiniest leak could create a high-pressure jet that would cut through my flesh like a hot knife through butter”), and her jokes don’t always land. But often the prose glints. In one of my favorite passages in the book, she describes the mating rituals of the anglerfish, those toothy monsters with the dangling headlamps:
“The male anglerfish is much smaller than his female counterpart. He lacks a lure and has no teeth for consuming prey. For many anglerfish species, the male’s only hope for continued existence is as a gigolo. In the unimaginably immense black void of the deep sea, he must somehow locate a potential mate, either visually or by smell, and upon finding her, seal the relationship with an eternal kiss by latching on to her flank, where his flesh fuses with hers. Her bloodstream then grows into his body, providing him with sustenance, in return for which he provides sperm upon demand. This lifetime commitment may sound romantic, but it’s not all hearts, flowers and pillow talk. He’s a bloodsucker and a sperm bag, and she’s ugly and weighs half a million times more than he does.”
Where Widder unfortunately falls short is in the final pages of the book, where she briefly addresses environmental threats to the ocean. She hews to the old and, increasingly, outdated maxim that alarmism will cause the public to shut down rather than perk up. Given the pending cascade of catastrophes that climate change threatens to inflict on the oceans (perhaps nowhere more so than on the deep sea, which studies show will warm faster than the surface), her cheery contention that a combination of optimism, exploration and education will solve the ocean’s problems rings hollow.
Thankfully, another new book more than makes up for this shortfall. “The Brilliant Abyss,” Helen Scales’s sweeping survey of the seafloor, is brave enough to risk a darker and, in some ways, more satisfying tone.
The deep sea that Scales portrays is a largely unseen realm that is continually being plundered, often by people who have little notion of what they are destroying. Between the two writers, Scales is the more graceful storyteller, but Widder has (by far) the more compelling story to tell. Indeed, Scales’s conceit — of traveling aboard a research vessel for a couple of weeks in the Gulf of Mexico — feels a bit thin, and not just by comparison to Widder’s heroics. She never physically ventures into the abyss, as Widder did, and as a fellow science writer, James Nestor, did in his excellent 2014 book, “Deep.” (In one nape-tingling chapter, he describes traveling to a depth of 2,500 feet in “a homemade, unlicensed submarine” cobbled together by a New Jersey eccentric.) But for its shortcomings, “The Brilliant Abyss” has many virtues. Scales’s great gift is for transmuting our awe at the wonders of the deep sea into a kind of quiet rage that they could soon be no more.
In one of the book’s most appalling chapters, she describes the sad fate of the orange roughy, a remarkably slow-growing, deep-dwelling fish. Formerly known as the slimehead, the species was rebranded in the 1970s to better appeal to consumers. Demand spiked, and a “gold rush mentality” ensued. Trawl nets were dragged along the seafloor, hauling up not just roughies, but also the wreckage of coral reefs — “millennia-old, animal-grown forests” — which were tossed overboard as bycatch. Predictably, the fish population quickly collapsed, and they — and the ecosystems that were razed to catch them — have yet to return to their former vigor.
Scales excoriates not just the killers of the orange roughy, but the entire industry. Globally, she writes, deep-sea trawlers pull in profits of just $60 million a year, and yet they receive subsidies of $152 million. “If it costs so much, provides so little food, and reaps such huge ecological damage, the glaring question is, why trawl for fish in the deep at all?” Scales asks. Some have begun calling for a global ban on deep-sea trawling. Scales goes a step further. Looking into the future, where the mining of rare earth metals and the dumping of carbon in the deep sea promise to become lucrative (if destructive) industries, she urges us to err on the side of preservation: no deep-sea mining, fishing, oil drilling or extraction of any kind. The deep, she argues, is too vulnerable, and too crucial to the working of the planet to blindly ransack. (Among other things, the ocean acts as an enormous carbon sequestration device, one we are determinedly, if inadvertently, breaking.)
She concludes: “If industrialists and powerful states have their way, and the deep is opened up to them, then it raises the ironic and dismal prospect that the deep sea will become empty and lifeless, just as people once thought it was.”
Comparisons are often made between the deep sea and the cosmos. One obvious difference between the two is that the abyss below teems with life. Another is that, unlike the stars, the twinkling lights of the deep sea are hidden from view. “As soon as you stop thinking about it, the deep can so easily vanish out of mind,” Scales warns. She and Widder have worked hard to bring the abyss to light. It is our duty, as clumsy land-bound dwellers of a water planet, to look, and to remember.
Helen Scales on What’s at Stake For the Earth’s Biodiversity.
July 6, 2021
Walking through the docks in Southampton, Britain’s second-largest container port, I felt my sense of scale shifting and bending around me. Cranes stood like headless, metal giraffes against a backdrop of shipping containers neatly stacked like Lego blocks. A cargo ship moored at the eastern dock looked more like a colossal cliff face than a vessel capable of moving. Just across from Berth 44, from which the Titanic sailed, is the National Oceanography Centre, the largest ocean science institution in the United Kingdom.
I went through the glass entrance hall, under the mustachioed knight figurehead from the historic ship HMS Challenger, along the corridors and out into the back lot, where I stepped into a windowless shed. A tang of preserving alcohol hit my nostrils as the strip lights flickered on, revealing a modest-size room packed with shelves and glassware. I had come to see a collection of creatures that once roamed a much wider realm. Crammed on the shelves was a miscellany of animals from the abyss.
My guide was deep-sea biologist Daniel Jones, and together we snooped along the shelving, peering at the preserved creatures floating in jars. I spied five-pointed starfish, coiling snail shells, spiny crabs, and gangly sea spiders with their legs folded to fit in the jar. There were dumbo octopuses and piglet squid, both smaller than I expected, not much more than a handful, floating in their tiny captive ocean. I rummaged through the jars and found large coral polyps resembling flowers made of stone, bamboo corals with finely branching twigs, giant barnacles, plump, pink shrimp that looked fresh from the barbecue, and lots of sea cucumbers. There was Oneirophanta, “the one who appears in dreams,” a sea cucumber with a cloak of long, white tentacles and dozens of stubby tube feet, like nipples, for walking across the seabed. Some sea cucumbers were so big each one occupied its own large Kilner jar, and some preserved together looked like fistfuls of caterpillars.
One species in particular I was curious to behold in the flesh after seeing photographs of its intriguing form in the wild abyss. Nicknamed the gummy squirrel (and officially called Psychropotes longicauda), this six-inch-long sea cucumber has a translucent lemon-yellow body with an unusual appendage sprouting from its rear end that looks like a squirrel’s tail. “I don’t think you’re going to like it,” Jones said, pulling a jar off a shelf and showing me a pallid, shapeless blob. The animal in the jar was certainly no longer beautiful, although still useful; DNA taken from snippets of preserved specimens has helped show there are in fact numerous species that look rather alike but are nevertheless genetically distinct.
Up in Jones’s office, I saw arranged along a bookcase a selection of black lumpy rocks. One was the size and texture of a large head of broccoli; some looked like nuggets of coal, and some were smooth, disk-shaped pebbles. Jones passed me a fist-sized chunk, and for a moment it felt wrong. It was far too heavy for its size, like the rock my grandmother found long ago in her garden that my family has always thought might be a meteorite. Jones’s rocks didn’t fall from space but grew right where they were, lying on the deep seabed.
At the heart of each rock is a tooth dropped by a shark millions of years ago or a chip of whale ear bone or some other small, hard fragment. As eons passed, waterborne minerals and metals settled in thin layers onto the solid nucleus, in the way a pearl forms, and the rocks gradually became bigger and heavier.
I remember being told in high school science classes about these rocky nodules that lie on the abyssal plains and how one day they could be mined for metals inside them. Back then, the image I held in my mind was of a blank flatland of oozy mud and rocks, not a place where marvelous things live and grow, including bright yellow sea cucumbers with tails.
The first time these deep-sea rocks were trawled up from the abyss was in the mid-nineteenth century, by the British scientists on board HMS Challenger as they circled the planet and learned so much about the oceans. The abyssal nodules were put on display to the public and treated like exotic curiosities, as if they had come from outer space. Not until much later did people begin to ponder the weighty metals inside them and wonder whether it might be worth going back to gather more.
As I write this, midway through 2020, no commercial mines are operating on the deep seafloor. But there is a possibility that by the time you read this, the first mines will have opened or at least been given the go-ahead.
In the past few years, mining corporations have been making plans to mine nodules several miles beneath the sea surface and across thousands of square miles of the abyss. What they’re after is the metals that lie inside those rocks. Though composed roughly of 30 percent manganese, a metal that’s not in great demand, the rocks also contain traces of other, more desirable elements, such as nickel, copper, and cobalt.
Besides abyssal nodules, two other targets have come into view for aspiring deep-sea miners. Some operations plan to mine seamounts. In a way similar to the layering of the nodules, metal-rich crusts settle onto the tops and flanks of these underwater mountains. It takes millions of years for a finger-thick layer to form, yet it would probably take only hours for those deposits to be drilled and scraped away by mining machinery and dispatched to the surface. Mining corporations also have plans to knock down and demolish the chimneys of hydrothermal vents. As scorching fluids collide with cold seawater, quickly cooling and precipitating, they deposit a mix of metals, such as iron, lead, zinc, silver, and gold.
The proposed mining ventures bear the hallmarks of extractivism, a centuries-old economic model commonly associated with colonialism and latterly with transnational corporations that extract natural raw materials for export. The goal is to mine a resource on a one-shot basis, then move on elsewhere and repeat. This has traditionally included such practices as gold and gem pit mining, mountain-top removal for coal, and clear-felling of old-growth forests. Central to the model are so-called sacrifice zones, those places that would inevitably be destroyed in the name of economic gain. Huge swaths of the deep sea—hundreds of square miles per mine per year—are in line to become such sacrificial zones.
There are, no doubt, mineral riches to be found in the deep, and many people are in favor of cashing them in now, but numerous peer-reviewed research papers warn of the dangers of doing so. At this point, what the science is saying—loud and clear—is that the deep-sea mining industry would pose dangerous risks to biodiversity and the environment, on timescales and intensities that cannot yet be fully quantified but could be catastrophic and permanent.
Terrestrial mining regulations often require that biodiversity loss, ideally, should be avoided or minimized; lost populations should somehow be replaced afterward or even replenished elsewhere. In the deep, avoiding the loss of biodiversity would be impossible, for the obvious reason that seabed mines would directly demolish species and habitats. Losses away from the mining sites could perhaps be minimized by controlling where the sediment plumes drift, with some kind of baffle around mining machinery and by designing machines that trample less heavily across the abyss. Impacts could also be reduced by setting aside substantial portions of the abyss as no-mining zones.
Replacing lost species in the deep is near impossible. The theory of remediation suggests that animals and plants can be reintroduced to a mined site once operations have finished to help kick-start the ecosystem’s recovery, for instance by replanting a felled forest with saplings grown elsewhere. The costs of doing something like this in the deep would be astronomical and could well cause more harm than good. It’s difficult to imagine how thousand-year-old corals plucked from healthy seamount ecosystems and fixed to the sides of mined mounts would survive, or how tube worms in their thousands would be glued, one by one, in places where hydrothermal vent fluids still pour through the seabed.
The strategy of offsetting is also problematic in the deep sea. This involves attempting to cancel out the destruction of an ecosystem by protecting and restoring a similar ecosystem somewhere else. As scientists are increasingly discovering, shuffling bargaining chips in this way is not a reliable option for the deep sea. For instance, studies show that no two hydrothermal vent ecosystems are alike; each contains its own unique assemblage of species, depending on the mix of geological and chemical conditions; so, protecting one vent field is no guarantee species will be saved from destruction at another.
Some have proposed that mining the deep could be offset by restoring coral reefs in shallow waters, by way of an ecological apology to the planet. This does, however, assume there is some equivalency of species, an Iridogorgia deep-sea coral traded, for example, for a tropical Acropora. Moreover, this approach to accounting for a net benefit to global biodiversity is so ambiguous as to be scientifically meaningless.
The apparently unavoidable loss of biodiversity from seabed mines casts serious doubt over whether it is possible to sustainably mine the deep. The stakes soar even higher when we look at the possible impacts on the planet as a whole. Plans for mining the seabed are accelerating, and at the same time our awareness is growing of how the deep sea plays a critical role in regulating the earth’s life-support systems.
Numerous deep-sea experts advise that seabed mining has the potential to worsen the climate crisis. Stores of carbon in the abyss could get disrupted by mining activities that churn up delicate microbial communities that have taken millions of years to evolve. It’s also not clear how vent mining would upset chemosynthetic microbes that mop up methane that bubbles through the seabed. Released to the atmosphere, methane becomes a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Whether mined vents would burp more methane is another unresolved matter.
With all of this in mind, if the International Seabed Authority (the United Nation’s body charged with overseeing the exploitation and protection of the seabed) gives commercial mines permission to open before the full impacts of mining are well understood, it risks tragically failing in its responsibilities to safeguard life in the abyss—not to mention threatening the rest of the planet.
Troubles stirred up by scraping over the abyss extend beyond visible animals. Another team of researchers visited the Peru Basin and made some fresh seabed tracks to compare to the decades-old scars. In this part of the abyss, the seabed is covered in a thin layer of sediments that acts like an intricately structured living skin, crawling with microbes. This microscopic community processes the raw organic matter that falls from above as marine snow, incorporating this carbon into the seabed ecosystem. When this delicate skin was experimentally turned over, the microbes were thrown into disarray; immediately half were lost. In the older tracks, thirty years later, the abundance of microbes was still at least 30 percent lower than in undisturbed areas. The study, published in 2020, predicted that microbial life and carbon flux in the seabed would take at least fifty years to return to normal, strengthening concerns over the climate impacts of seabed mining.
A few other mining-simulation studies have been carried out, all with worrying outcomes for biodiversity, but they all share one important shortcoming—they are academic trials, not industrial enterprises. The impacts of full-scale mining would likely be far worse than anything they have shown. In 2022 and 2023 scientists and miners plan to study what happens as prototype mining machines of the designs that would be used in commercial-scale mining are deployed. However, the time frames for exploitation and good science do not necessarily match. Scientists will need time to reach conclusions, and it remains to be seen whether officials at the International Seabed Authority will be patient and wait for the science to properly assess the impacts before deciding whether or not mines should go ahead. There is a tangible sense within the scientific community of the unstoppable momentum of an industry backed by powerful lobbies against which scientists can’t do battle.
“Even if we found unicorns living on the seafloor,” says Daniel Jones, of the British National Oceanography Centre, “I don’t think it would necessarily stop mining.”
Adapted from The Brilliant Abyss by Helen Scales. Used with the permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. Copyright © 2021 by Helen Scales.