Discovering the deep Atlantic Ocean

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We know more about the Moon than about life in the deep ocean of our planet Earth. A landmark EU project – the Horizon 2020 ATLAS project - started sailing four years ago to tackle some of those gaps and study the Atlantic Ocean’s vast depths.

More than 80 researchers from countries bordering the North Atlantic have participated in 45 research expeditions making a step change in our knowledge on North Atlantic deep-sea ecosystems. ATLAS  has led to the discovery of new species, offered greater insights into deep-sea biodiversity and improved our understanding of the damaging impacts of climate change. It has also had clear impact in terms of ocean research collaboration between the EU, Canada and the US is and has provided governments and industry with tools to help ensure the ocean’s resources are used more sustainably.

As ATLAS arrives to port, with an impressive worldwide media coverage on ABC News Australia, BBC and EuroNews and in over 140 articles from more than 30 countries, a new Horizon 2020 projectiATLANTIC – has already started sailing, building on ATLAS work and expanding to the South Atlantic.

New discoveries

ATLAS has discovered 12 new deep-sea species and more than 30 seabed communities and greatly advanced the state-of-the-art of deep-sea ecology and therefore our understanding of deep-sea ecosystems.

Researchers say the sea mosses, molluscs and corals have previously gone undetected because so much of the seafloor has yet to be explored. Part of the research has focused on cold water corals that live up to 400 metres below the surface of the oceans.

Ecosystems at risk

But deep-sea ecosystems are under high risk. ATLAS showed that large-scale Atlantic Ocean circulation – called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation - has slowed down exceptionally over the last 150 years due to climate change.  

Findings also suggest that ocean warming, acidification, and decreased food supply could drastically alter the availability and location of suitable habitats for habitat-forming cold-water corals and commercially important deep-sea fish by 2100.

Making a difference in ocean governance policies

The project achieved impressive results in terms of translating scientific findings into informed ocean resource management and fed into major international and EU marine policies.

For example, ATLAS developed a new method of identifying biodiversity hotspots in the deep sea. Indeed, identifying Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems is the first step towards protecting their diversity and thanks to ATLAS research several areas have received conservation or biological significance status, such as the Luso hydrothermal field in the Azores declared as a Marine Protected Area.

ATLAS also contributed to the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, developed indicators for the assessment of Good Environmental Status (GES) in support to the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), developed a conservation planning tool to propose a network of conservation areas at the North-Atlantic scale and presented its work during the UN’s negotiations for a new treaty to manage biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction.

ATLAS illustrates that – with a vision right from the start for a science-policy interface – a research project can inform on-going national, European and global policy processes, as done by them, which is perhaps one of the hardest objectives to achieve in research projects.  ATLAS legacy will continue beyond the end of the project and already now ATLAS research’s results form a basis for more robust management and exploitation plans to guide sustainable blue growth in Atlantic Waters.

Society and education

People and societal impact have also been at the heart of ATLAS. On the one hand by training early career marine scientists and the professionals of the future and, on the other, by developing truly innovative ocean literacy and educational material (including  augmented reality colouring sheets and deep ocean remote vehicle simulations) for schools, educators and the general public, raising awareness on the importance of the ocean to humankind.

ATLAS material has also been used by UK schools during the Covid-19 lockdown, at times when it has been understood how important science is for our everyday life.

Diving into the future

The €10.6 million Horizon 2020 iAtlantic project, which began in 2019, is building on the pioneering work of ATLAS by using the latest technologies to assess the ocean’s health across the full span of the Atlantic Ocean, and helping governments create policies to better protect it. iAtlantic will complete an integrated assessment of deep and open ocean Atlantic ecosystems in space and time, extending ocean cooperation to the Southern Atlantic, teaming up with Brazil, Argentina and South Africa; by integrating capacity building with research objectives, it aims to create a newly empowered and networked community of researchers and policy makers across the entire Atlantic basin.

Background information

Picture: Corals are the foundations of the cities of the deep, providing shelter and food for many species. Copyright - Ifremer. 

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