Seafloor processes

The bottom of the ocean is dark all of the time, is nearly freezing, and the pressure of the water above pushes down with a force of up to 16,452 psi in the deepest part. Without sunlight, much of the food on the seafloor comes from particles of dead plant and animal matter that trickles down from above.

It is difficult to access the deep seafloor, but we are rewarded greatly when we explore this seemingly inhospitable realm. Life in the deep is weird and wonderful. Some fish evolve giant gills to take in as much oxygen as possible.  Some have tiny bodies and move slow, minimizing their energy needs since food is so scarce. Entire biological communities rely on chemicals seeping from within the earth (instead of sunlight) to produce energy. Corals, sea stars, sponges, and crabs decorate a sometimes desolate-looking terrain of sediment and rocks.

The landscape of the deep-sea is ever-changing. Canyons have sediment tumbling down their steep walls, volcanoes erupt with flowing lava, and chimneys spew black or white “smoke,” made from the seawater’s interaction with magma beneath the earth’s crust. Gases rise to the surface in bubbles, or are frozen in place by the extreme low temperature and high pressure. Tectonic plates move against each other, causing underwater earthquakes.

It is one of MBARI’s fundamental missions to use and create sophisticated technology to study the deep ocean. We use remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that are capable of diving to depths of 4,000 meters (about 2.5 miles). These ROVs are fitted with different tools depending on what is being sampled. Researchers studying biology use tools that can gently collect animals from the seafloor, and soft-sediment push-cores to get information about the conditions of the seafloor. Geologists use vibracores to sample deeper into the mud and rocks, and strong containers for collecting lava and other rock. Chemists use laser Raman systems to study the compositions of gases emanating from the seafloor, and specialized tools for imaging bubbles.

We use other technologies to study the seafloor as well. We have autonomous vehicles specializing in high-resolution mapping, enabling us to clearly see different features of the seafloor, and track changes over time. We also use a benthic rover, sediment traps, and deep-sea camera systems. These stay at sea for long stretches of time, and observe the activity of benthic animal communities, and measure how much organic matter reaches the seafloor to support these communities.

Biology and ecology

The Benthic Biology Lab looks at the habitats and lives of deep-sea organisms. The cold, dark, deep sea is relatively unexplored, so much of our research aims to discover what is there and how it lives.

Climate change in extreme environments

Our lab group uses autonomous instrumentation to study ecological responses of marine communities in extreme environments to changes in climate and carbon cycling.

Geological Changes Group

Submarine canyons are considered to be a major conduit for sediment transport from the continent into the deep sea. Under the direction of Charlie Paull we have begun to study the canyon using multiple techniques used to understand these dynamic processes.

Revealing the secrets of Sur Ridge

MBARI researchers are leveraging groundbreaking technologies to shed new light on Sur Ridge, a large underwater geologic feature that is a hotspot for marine life.

Submarine volcanoes

Volcanic events and deposits in the ocean are largely concealed from view and more difficult to sample than volcanoes on land. The submarine volcanism group studies processes that form and modify volcanoes in the sea.


Upper-ocean systems
Acoustical ocean ecology
Acoustic instruments
Acoustic fingerprinting
Acoustic community ecology
Acoustics in the news
Biological oceanography
Global modes of sea surface temperature
Krill hotspots in the California Current
Nitrate supply estimates in upwelling systems
Chemical sensors
Chemical data
Land/Ocean Biogeochemical Observatory in Elkhorn Slough
Listing of floats
SOCCOM float visualization
Periodic table of elements in the ocean
Biogeochemical-Argo Report
Profiling float
Interdisciplinary field experiments
Ecogenomic Sensing
Genomic sensors
Field experiments
Harmful algal blooms (HABs)
Water quality
Environmental Sample Processor (ESP)
ESP Web Portal
In the news
Ocean observing system
Midwater research
Midwater ecology
Deep-sea squids and octopuses
Food web dynamics
Midwater time series
Respiration studies
Zooplankton biodiversity
Seafloor processes
Revealing the secrets of Sur Ridge
Exploring Sur Ridge’s coral gardens
Life at Sur Ridge
Mapping Sur Ridge
Biology and ecology
Effects of humans
Ocean acidification, warming, deoxygenation
Lost shipping container study
Effects of upwelling
Faunal patterns
Previous research
Technology development
High-CO2 / low-pH ocean
Benthic respirometer system
Climate change in extreme environments
Station M: A long-term observatory on the abyssal seafloor
Station M long-term time series
Monitoring instrumentation suite
Sargasso Sea research
Antarctic research
Geological changes
Arctic Shelf Edge
Continental Margins and Canyon Dynamics
Coordinated Canyon Experiment
CCE instruments
CCE repeat mapping data
Monterey Canyon: A Grand Canyon beneath the waves
Submarine volcanoes
Mid-ocean ridges
Magmatic processes
Volcanic processes
Explosive eruptions
Hydrothermal systems
Back arc spreading ridges
Near-ridge seamounts
Continental margin seamounts
Non-hot-spot linear chains
Eclectic seamounts topics
Margin processes
Hydrates and seeps
California borderland
Hot spot research
Hot-spot plumes
Magmatic processes
Volcanic processes
Explosive eruptions
Volcanic hazards
Hydrothermal systems
Flexural arch
Coral reefs
ReefGrow software
Eclectic topics
Submarine volcanism cruises
Volcanoes resources
Areas of study
Bioluminescence: Living light in the deep sea
Microscopic biology research
Open ocean biology research
Seafloor biology research
Automated chemical sensors
Methane in the seafloor
Volcanoes and seamounts
Hydrothermal vents
Methane in the seafloor
Submarine canyons
Earthquakes and landslides
Ocean acidification
Physical oceanography and climate change
Ocean circulation and algal blooms
Ocean cycles and climate change
Past research
Molecular ecology
Molecular systematics
SIMZ Project
Bone-eating worms
Gene flow and dispersal
Molecular-ecology expeditions
Ocean chemistry of greenhouse gases
Emerging science of a high CO2/low pH ocean