Friday, May 25, 2012

Hazards of remote exploration

Let's go underwater again today. Those are not sunken ruins you see above. That is a natural arch of lava photographed near one of 10 hydrothermal vents discovered in the Gulf of California by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Such odd formations "never lose their charm," says the team's senior scientist David Clague. The vents, known as "black smokers," were revealed by their characteristic chimney formations on sonar maps of the seafloor, so remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) were sent in to explore (slideshow here). We've become accustomed to the use of such submarines, but the BBC points out a hazard I hadn't even thought of: "Care must be taken not to spread deep-sea creatures around the world during exploration of the remote ocean floor." Consider the following cautionary tale:

Scientists using the famous Alvin submersible were studying lifeforms living around hydrothermal vents off the NW coast of the U.S. They gathered various specimens with the sampling tools at a depth of 2.7km. The support ship then carried Alvin to the Juan De Fuca Ridge 600km to the north to get more specimens. But when they left the 1st location, there were some creatures - limpets (Lepetodrilus gordensis) - hiding on the sub, possibly in the hose's suction sampler. When they sent Alvin down in the 2nd location, they inadvertently introduced the live stowaways to a new habitat. 
Such invasive species can wreak havoc on marine ecosystems by transferring competitors or disease. "Hydrothermal vents are the most extreme, specialised habitats you can get - they spew out acidic, metal-rich fluids. And we could be messing with them without even knowing about it," said participating researcher Janet Voight.
Previous posts mentioning invasive species:

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