After Mars, it is probably the most enigmatic place that Humanity has never set foot on: the deep sea. Symbolically named Challenger 150, in reference to the deepest point on the planet (Challenger Deep), a new program with scientists from all over the world aims to bring to the surface the knowledge that is still hidden in the depths of the oceans.
At the helm, the Portuguese biologist Ana Hilário, from the Center for Environmental and Sea Studies (CESAM) at the University of Aveiro (UA), wants to take a big dive for Humanity and make the Challenger 150 a reference in the Decade of United Nations Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.
“The deep sea [vastas extensões de água e fundos marinhos entre os 200 e os 11000 metros abaixo da superfície do oceano] is recognized globally as an important frontier of science and discovery ”, points out marine biologist Ana Hilário, coordinator of Challenger 150 alongside Kerry Howell, a researcher at the University of Plymouth (United Kingdom) and a specialist in Deep Sea Ecology.
Although the deep sea represents about 60 percent of the Earth's surface, points out the AU researcher, “A large part remains completely unexplored and humanity knows very little about its habitats and how they contribute to the health of the entire planet”.
To fill this gap, Ana Hilário and Kerry Howell joined a team of scientists from 45 institutions in 17 countries around them that proposes a 10-year research program dedicated to the study of the deep sea. From Portugal, in addition to the AU team, scientists from CIIMAR (University of Porto), Okeanos (University of the Azores) and CIMA (University of Algarve) also contributed to the design of the program.
The Challenger 150 – the year 2022 marks the 150th anniversary of the expedition of the HMS Challenger ship that circumnavigated the globe, mapping the seabed, recording the global temperature of the ocean, and providing the first perspective of life in the deep sea – will coincide with the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which runs from 2021 to 2030.
“One of the main objectives of the Challenger 150 is to train and increase diversity within the scientific community, as currently research in the deep ocean is conducted mainly by developed nations with sufficient financial resources and access to oceanographic infrastructure”, explains the Portuguese biologist.
This program, scientists hope, will also generate more geological, physical, biogeochemical and biological data through innovation and the application of new technologies, and use this data to understand how changes in the deep sea affect the entire marine environment and life in the planet. This new knowledge will be used to support decision-making at regional, national and international levels on issues such as mining in the ocean floor, fisheries and biodiversity conservation, as well as climate policy.
More and better collaboration and knowledge
But the Challenger 150's deep sea dive will only be possible through international cooperation. So the program's researchers today publish an appeal in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution while simultaneously publishing a detailed outline of the Challenger 150 in the magazine Frontiers in Marine Science.
Led by members of the international networks Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) and Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR), the list of authors of the two articles includes scientists from developed, emerging and developing countries from six of the seven continents. Scientists claim that the Decade announced by the UN provides a unique opportunity to unite the international scientific community to make a giant leap in our knowledge of the depths of the ocean.
“Our vision is that, within 10 years, any decision that may have an impact on the deep sea, in any form, will be made based on solid scientific knowledge of the oceans”, points out Kerry Howell. For this to be achieved, stresses the British researcher, “There is a need for international consensus and collaboration”.
Ana Hilário predicts that "The Decade provides the opportunity to build a long-term training program for human resources in ocean sciences". With the Challenger 150, “we aim to train the next generation of deep sea biologists. We will focus on training scientists from developing countries, but also from young scientists from all nations, including Portugal ”.
Such training, he believes, "will create a reinforced network that will allow countries to fully exercise their role in international debates on the use of marine resources within and outside their national borders".