The flat, muddy deep ocean floor—known as the abyssal plain—is one of the largest and least known habitats on this planet. It covers more than 50 percent of Earth’s surface and plays a critical role in the carbon cycle. For 30 years, MBARI Senior Scientist Ken Smith and his colleagues have studied deep-sea communities at a research site called Station M, located 4,000 meters (2.5 miles) below the ocean’s surface and 291 kilometers (181 miles) off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.
Doing deep-sea research is incredibly challenging, time-consuming, and sometimes dangerous. For this reason, MBARI strives to build and deploy robots that help scientists better understand the changes taking place in our ocean. At Station M, Smith and his colleagues rely upon satellites, human-occupied vehicles, such as Alvin, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), a seafloor rover, seafloor landers, coring devices, fish traps, sediment traps, respirometers (which measure oxygen consumption), current meters, and time-lapse cameras to study abyssal ecosystems.
Over the past 30 years, Smith and his team have constructed a truly unique underwater observatory that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a full year without servicing. Building a robotic observatory is challenging under normal circumstances; imagine doing it 4,000 meters underwater!
The results of their research have dramatically changed marine biologists’ perceptions of life in the deep sea and our understanding of climate change. Data collected at Station M show that the deep sea is far from static—physical conditions and biological communities can change dramatically over timescales ranging from days to decades.
Ultimately, this work highlights that persistent, long-term, time-series observations are critical for furthering our understanding of carbon cycling between the surface waters and the deep sea. With more companies looking to extract resources from the abyssal plain, these data also give scientists valuable insights into “baseline conditions” in deep-sea areas now under consideration for industrial development or deep-sea mining.