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UniGib scientist contributes to global deep-sea research project

Dr Awantha Dissanayake, Head of School Marine (Acting) at the University of Gibraltar, has contributed to an international decade-long project that aims to ensure a more sustainable future for the deep ocean.

The deep seas – vast expanses of water and seabed hidden more than 200 metres below the ocean surface to depths up to 11,000 metres – are recognised globally as an important frontier of science and discovery. But despite the fact they account for around 60% of Earth’s surface area, large areas remain completely unexplored, yet the habitats they support impact on the health of the entire planet.

Now an international team of scientists spanning 45 institutions in 17 countries has called for a dedicated decade-long programme of research to greatly advance discovery in these remote regions. The programme – which scientists have named Challenger 150 – will coincide with the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which runs from 2021-2030.

Dr Awantha Dissanayake stated:  ‘We are venturing further and farther into our oceans to satiate our hunger for resources. In order to utilise and extract resources hidden in the deep sea we must do so sustainably. Challenger 150 is a call to action seeking global cooperation in order to promote better understanding of our deep sea habitats and processes that support the health of the blue planet.’ Under the UN Ocean decade, we seek to capacity build and strengthen collaborations between developed and developing nations through a shared access of knowledge, resources and infrastructure.”

Dr Awantha Dissanayake has contributed to the Challenger 150 project

Challenger 150 will generate new geological, physical, biogeochemical, and biological data through a global cooperative of science and innovation, including the application of new technology. These data will be used to understand how changes in the deep sea impact the wider ocean and life on the planet.

Among its key areas of focus are to build greater capacity and diversity in the scientific community, acknowledging the fact that existing deep-sea research is conducted primarily by developed nations with access to resources and infrastructure.

The programme will use this new knowledge of the deep to support regional, national, and international decision-making on deep-sea issues such as mining, hydrocarbon extraction, fishing, climate mitigation, laying of fibre optic cables and conservation.

The international team presented the rationale behind the call for action in a comment article in Nature Ecology and Evolution, simultaneously publishing a detailed blueprint of how the actions can be best achieved in Frontiers in Marine Science.

Led by members of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) and the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR), the authorship reflects both the gender and geographical diversity such a programme demands, with authors from the six inhabited continents of the World.

They note that the UN Decade provides an unrivalled opportunity to unite the international science community to deliver a giant leap in our knowledge of the deep seas.

Image from the ocean floor at 1200m below sea level. Image courtesy of the NERC funded Deep Links Project – Plymouth University, Oxford University, JNCC, BGS

Kerry Howell, Professor of Deep-Sea Ecology at the University of Plymouth (UK) and lead author of the research publications, said: “The deep seas and seabed are increasingly being used by society, and they are seen as a potential future asset for the resources they possess. But managing these resources sustainably requires that we first understand deep-sea ecosystems and their role in our planet, its people and its atmosphere. Our vision is for a 10 year programme of science and discovery that is global in scale and targeted towards proving the science to inform decisions around deep-ocean use. We believe the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science provides the perfect opportunity to achieve that.”

Dr Ana Hilario, Researcher at the University of Aveiro (Portugal) and co-lead of the DOSI and SCOR Decade working groups added: “The Decade also provides the opportunity to build a long-term programme for training and capacity building in ocean sciences. With Challenger 150, we aim to train the next generation of deep-sea biologists and focus on training scientists from developing countries, but also early-stage scientists from all nations. Such training will create a network of enhanced capacity that will allow countries to exercise their full role in international discussions on the use of ocean resources within and outside of their national boundaries.”

This University’s MSc Marine Science and Climate Change programme, which is led by Dr Awantha Dissanayake, is proving popular with international students who want to study this specialist subject.