- The ATLAS Project spent almost five years exploring the deep north Atlantic
- Underwater robots found 12 new species, including fish, mollusks and coral
- A moss-like animal was seen in an undersea volcano off the coast of Spain
- Some 35 species were observed in areas where they were previously unknown
- Slowing currents and increased ocean acidity caused by climate change threaten these complex ecosystems
- After four-and-a-half years, the world's largest deep-sea exploration mission has identified at least 12 new species of marine life, including a new kind of coral.
More than 80 scientists and student volunteers, representing disciplines ranging from marine biology to ocean chemistry. from 13 nations took part in the $11 million project.In addition to new lifeforms, the team discovered species living in areas where they were previously unknown, as well as evidence of climate change's devastating impact on the world's oceans.
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Because they're so inaccessible, little is known about the deepest parts of the oceans.
'We have better maps of the surface of the Moon and Mars than of the sea floor,' ATLAS Project ocean chemist George Wolff told the BBC'So whenever you go to the deep ocean, you find something new — not just individual species but entire ecosystems.'
The original plan was to map the deep Atlantic off the coasts of the US, Canada and Europe, and venture out into international waters.
Instead, the team ended up focusing their gaze on 12 specific sites in the deep northern Atlantic.
A former Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker, the Amundsen, was refitted as an arctic research vessel and served as a floating base of operations for missions in Scotland, Iceland, Spain, England, .
Their stops included the Bay of Biscay, Rockall Bank, the Gulf of Cadiz, Alboran Sea, Reykjanes Ridge and Mingulay Reef.
Because they were exploring depths that would crush human divers, underwater robots were deployed and were able to reach regions never before explored.
Among their discoveries were mollusks, fish, sponges and a new kind of coral growth, Epizoanthus martinsae, which lives on black corals more than 1,300 feet beneath the surface.
Microporella funbio, a bryozoan — or sedentary animal resembling moss — was located in an undersea mud volcano off the coast of Spain.
In addition, 35 known species were found in areas they had never been observed before.
In the Azores, ATLAS researchers observed a field of hydrothermal vents, sea-floor hot springs that are home to complex marine communities.
They're rare outposts of biological productivity in the vast deep but they are threatened by global warming.
The ATLAS team found evidence that greenhouse gasses are contributing to rising temperatures, slowing currents and increased ocean acidity, which threaten delicate coral reefs.
'Their skeletons are getting more porous as that slightly acidic sea water corrodes and damages their skeleton, Roberts told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
'It's almost like an osteoporosis. They've become more brittle, more vulnerable to breaking.'
He predicted that, over the next century, many deep-sea habitats will collapse.
Marine biologist Murray Roberts, who led the project, told the BBC the networks formed by sponges or deep-ocean corals form 'cities' in the deep sea.
'They support life. So really important fish use these places as spawning grounds,' he said.
'If those cities are damaged by destructive human uses, those fish have nowhere to spawn and the function of those whole ecosystems is lost for future generations.
The ATLAS project has already generated 110 peer-reviewed research studies, with nearly 100 more expected soon.
A new enterprise exploring the southern Atlantic is expected to start soon, Science Alert reports, and is expected to conclude in 2023.