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Science

The Biggest Last Mystery on Earth

¡Viva la Science!

An octopus hides in the rocks in Welker Canyon.
Images courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition.
An octopus hides in the rocks in Welker Canyon.
I have no studies for you this week. No controlled randomized tests. No laboratory bedrooms or solar weather. I have only radiant, extraordinary images and videos in honor of one rather surprising fact: We barely know our own world at all.

A shrimp rests on octocoral in Hydrographer Canyon.
A shrimp rests on octocoral in Hydrographer Canyon.
Ocean covers just about everything on this planet. But we primates stick to land, and 95% of the ocean remains unexplored. It’s just sitting right thereeverywhereand we’ve never seen exactly what’s going on in its depths.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) aims to change all that. In July and August of this year, their Okeanos Explorer voyaged near the northeastern US along the Atlantic Continental Slope, where the submerged edge of the North American continent begins to drop off into deeper ocean.

Northeast US Canyons Expedition 2013

The Okeanos Explorer isn’t a research vessel. According to NOAA’s website, its “sole assignment is to systematically explore Earth’s largely unknown ocean.” That’s right: pure exploration. Ain’t it grand? Perhaps most thrillingly, at least for armchair scientists everywhere, the expedition tested a new remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that can go down to 6,000 meters (over 19,000 feet). It’s got six cameras, two of them high-def, and an elaborate lighting system. It can move and zoom and produce unutterably awesome (and thoroughly new) images that the team shared in real time with other scientists and with the public.

Just look at what it found. A world.

Anthomastus   coral in Oceanographer Canyon.
Anthomastus coral in Oceanographer Canyon.

You can explore more of the outlandish beauty for yourself on NOAA’s Photo and Video Log. And you totally should. This video of highlights from the expedition’s second leg is mesmerizingly worth the 20 minutes.

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Science

The Kinda Good News About Coral Peril

¡Viva la Science!

Springs underwater and the coral reefs that live near them sustain other species.
Elizabeth Crook
Springs underwater and the coral reefs that live near them sustain other species.
Rising carbon dioxide levels and oh boy, do we haz themlead to lower pH in our oceans. The lower the pH, the more acidic the water. Coral reefs, underwater structures notoriously unwilling to relocate, are stuck dealing with the result. A new paper shows that coral reefs that have been exposed to acidic waters are less dense and more fragile.

Marine scientist and paper co-author Adina Paytan points out that it could’ve been worse. “The good news is that they don't just die,” she says, in what one can only imagine to be a hollowly perky tone of voice. “They are able to grow and calcify, but they are not producing robust structures.”

Fortunately, what she’s not saying is that the whole wide world of coral has gone rickety. Scientists, being scientists, work hard to gather data that lets them make predictions about what will happen. In this case, the study focused on coral located near underwater springs off of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where the ocean water becomes naturally more acidic.

Vibrant coral community at submarine springs along the Caribbean Coast of Mexico.
Elizabeth Crook
Vibrant coral community at submarine springs along the Caribbean Coast of Mexico.

Because, though they can simulate conditions in a laboratory, scientists can’t be deliberately acidifying coral environments in the wild, now can they? By looking at a place where coral is already surviving in conditions of higher acidity, the paper’s authors found a site “where nature is already doing the experiments for us,” explains Don Rice, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences.

For Paytan, the results mix not-terrible news with a concise course of action. "We need to protect corals from other stressors, such as pollution and overfishing. If we can control those, the impact of ocean acidification might not be as bad."

Source: nsf.gov

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