Photo Credit: Tracy Wright Cordova
Endless mountain ranges, deep trenches, volcanic ridges and a stunning biodiversity. All of that can be found in the deep-sea. Common misconception paints it as desolate abyss. It is a part of our world that we could not live without. Yet we destroy it without even noticing because we know so little about it. Dr. Jonatha Giddens, National Geographic Explorer and lead scientist for the deep-sea research program, regularly dives into the deep-sea to assess its health and biodiversity. Into The Wild spoke with Dr. Giddens about her research, how the deep-sea’s ecosystem health and biodiversity are threatened by human activities and what we can do to protect it, as well as her experience visiting the deep ocean.
Into The Wild: Can you, please, describe in a few sentences what you do on the Deep-ocean Dropcam program?
Dr. Jonatha Giddens: As a National Geographic Explorer and Fellow with the Exploration Technology Lab, I am the lead scientist for the deep-sea research program. Using the Deep-ocean Dropcam, which is an oceanographic research instrument developed by the lab to image the deep-sea, we are creating a global dataset to better understand deep-ocean ecosystems. Specifically, with video footage from the cameras, which have been deployed at 30 locations (and counting), I am mapping biodiversity in the deep-sea, and statistically modeling the relationships between biodiversity and the environment. This research is designed to help us better understand the ecological processes and human impacts that drive patterns in biodiversity in order to inform management and conservation of the deep ocean.
Have you been able to assess some indicators of deep-sea health yet?
Yes, I am working with biodiversity indices as an indicator of deep-sea health. By understanding biodiversity patterns, and quantifying the relationship between biological communities and the environment in which they live, we can identify areas for protection, and begin to predict how communities may change in the future.
There is much that we do not know about the deep-sea ecology. What is it that we do know about it for certain?
The deep-sea comprises 93% of habitable space, by volume, on the planet. Yet, only about 5% of the deep-ocean has been explored. We do know that it’s a very extreme environment (with crushing pressures, extreme cold, and no solar light, for example). It is often pictured as a desolate abyss, but actually the world’s longest mountain ranges and deepest trenches are in the deep ocean, as well as a great diversity of seascapes including volcanic ridges, cold seeps, and brine pools.
Photo Credit: Nekton Mission
How important is the deep-sea ecosystem for our planet?
The deep-sea is central to the functioning of our planet as a whole system. Most of the ocean is deep, and the ocean is most of our planet. The ocean provides a large proportion of the air that we breathe, absorbs our carbon output, cycles nutrients, and provides resources such as food and medicine. All in all, the ocean, including the deep-sea, makes our planet habitable. However, to continue to provide all of these services, ocean ecosystems need to be in an intact state.
Are the deep-sea ecosystem's health and biodiversity affected by human behavior and climate change?
Absolutely yes, the deep-sea is not immune to our human impacts. Our human footprint reaches to these places before we have even been there to study them in their natural state. For example, on a recent expedition to the deepest part of the ocean, plastic waste was found there. We are changing the environment before even understanding how the ecosystem functions.
Climate change affects the deep ocean. What happens above water effects below water because it is all connected through the great water cycles. Oxygen is being depleted in the ocean, carbon is increasing making it more acidic – all of these changes make it difficult for life to thrive there.
On top of that, unsustainable fishing practices, such as bottom trawling which is like clear-cutting a forest, destroys habitats, further threatening biodiversity on the planet.
Do we know or can you say something about the extent of that effect?
We know that across the globe, species are going extinct 1,000 times faster than normal, and some of the key factors contributing to species extinction, including in the deep-sea, are habitat loss, pollution, overexploitation, and climate change. In the past century, we've lost 90% of the large fish in the ocean. What’s more, plastics are now found not just in the surface sun-lit layers, but also throughout the water column and in the deepest, most remote parts of the ocean. Even the tiniest of sea creatures, at the base of the food-web, are found to ingest micro-plastics.
Photo Credit Dropcam illustration: National Geographic Exploration Technology Lab
What can we do to protect the deep ocean ecosystem?
On an individual and community level, we can avoid single use plastic, and reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible, which means not just reducing burning of fossil fuels, but also carefully choosing the food that we eat to have the smallest impact. In particular for the deep-sea, that means choosing sustainably caught seafood. On a global level we can urge our governments and policy makers to support the Campaign for Nature, which is committed to protecting 30% of the earth’s wild places by 2030. This is the minimum number that science says needs to be protected in order to save ourselves and the planet. Currently, only 15% of land, and 7% of the ocean, is protected. You can find out more about the campaign and how you can help at www.campaignfornature.org.
Much of the deep-sea data that our lab has collected was done as part of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas expeditions to help create marine protected areas. We need to protect entire ocean ecosystems, from the surface to the deep-sea.
Now on a more personal level: You have been exploring the deep ocean with a submarine. How does it feel like?
It feels great! I love to be surrounded on all sides by blue, even under my feet. It’s funny because in some situations I am one to feel quite claustrophobic, such as in a car in traffic. The sub, though physically a small space, does not feel enclosing at all – it feels quite expansive because we get to see in almost 360 degrees, the wide blue ocean. Floating there, you can really feel weightless. It must be the blue surrounding and the ability to move in 360 degrees, like flying, that makes it feel so special. The creatures that we are likely to see depend on the depth that we go. I love watching the light and even the biological communities change as we descend. Animals such as sharks, jacks, and groupers can be very curious (or territorial) and come check out the sub.
What fascinates you about the deep ocean?
I’m fascinated by the diversity of life forms that live in the deep, and the wide variety of habitats including huge mountain ranges and volcanic ridges. What’s more – so much of the deep-sea is yet to be discovered, hidden behind a liquid surface! So far, the discoveries have turned on its head what humans previously thought were defining limits to life, such as ecosystems that thrive without sunlight, and in extreme environments. I’m fascinated by what is yet to be discovered there.
Photo Credit: Tracy Wright Cordova
You regularly post updates including your own drawings of your deep-sea explorations and expeditions on the National Geographic’s Into the Deep - Open Explorer site. What was the most impressing thing you have ever tried to bring to paper (or witnessed) in the deep sea?
On a recent dive in the Seychelles, the pilot Robert showed me a special feature of the rock formations that he predicted would be at 100 meters depth. Sure enough, at 100 meters, we saw a discontinuity, which he said was the beach line 12,000 years ago. As we approached a rock overhang, I could just feel the passage of deep-time, feeling this moment as one in a very long progression in the cycles of the earth. How small our human lives are compared to the cycles of this great planet. The dry earth, a small thin stage that we play the drama of our lives out on, slowly disappears into the ocean and is buried and renewed there. That is where we came from (it is thought that life originated in the ocean) and that is where we are going. We are a part of the ocean’s magnificent beauty.
So much human history is preserved in the sea, in the ships that have sank all through ocean-going history. The cycles of the earth and climates changing are all preserved as a record in the sea. I tried to capture that experience on paper with a drawing, and also in journal-writing. There is so much more we can experience and express by bringing art into our scientific work. Science is, at its foundation, a creative process, filled with inspiration and ‘a-ha!’ moments. Art, science, and technology together can help us to not only go further to explore the earth’s extreme environments, but also bring back and share what we have found there to help us all feel connected to the beauty that is nature.
Want to keep up with Jonatha Giddens research? Read her live updates on The Deep Ocean Dropcam or follow her on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.