Space & Innovation

Extreme Life Found Deep Below Sea Floor

Microbial life is revealed by drilling in the world's biggest underground layer of water. Continue reading →

This might seem strange, but the biggest aquifer on the planet is actually underneath the floor of the world's oceans, with a liquid volume that amounts to 2 percent of the amount of water in the oceans themselves.

Scientists also say that the oceanic crustal aquifer, as it's called, is also one of the world's biggest ecosystems. It's believed to harbor a vast reservoir of microbial life that may exert a powerful, though not yet well-understood, effect upon the oceans above it.

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Researchers have had a difficult time probing the oceanic crustal aquifer, as it's called, since getting to the bottom of it requires drilling through layers of sediment until they hit rock. But now, a newly-published article in the journal Scientific Reports details the microbial life found in samples obtained by drilling up to 820 feet into the ocean floor, about 2.7 miles under the surface of the water in a portion of the Atlantic known as the North Pond.

"In many cases, we found the same general group (of bacteria) in the crustal aquifer and in bottom seawater, but different species within that group," Marine Biological Laboratory associate scientist Julie Huber said in a press release. That means distinct differences in potential microbial activity between the two sites, such as more carbon fixation in the aquifer."

Some of this life that's deep in the oceanic crustal aquifer may be isolated, due to reduced permeability as the cracks become filled with clay and minerals.

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It's the first study to describe the sub-seafloor microbial community in a "cold" crustal aquifer site that scientists had to drill deeply to reach. Previous studies focused on the hot, volcanic fluids at mid-ocean ridges and the sub-seafloor microbes that survive there.

The oceanic crust continually interacts with the ocean above it. Seawater runs through its rocky crevices, creating a dynamic aquifer through which the entire volume of the ocean circulates every 200,000 years.

The samples were obtained in 2011 by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program.

This is one of the ships from the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, an effort to probe the sea floor.

The ocean covers 71 percent of Earth's surface and over 90 percent of all the habitable space on the planet. As much as 80 percent of all life on Earth is estimated to live beneath the ocean's waves. For too long, though, the ocean has been regarded as both a limitless larder and a bottomless pit, from which too many fish and other species have been taken and into which too much pollution has been dumped. But not all the ocean news is bleak; around the world, a wide array of disparate efforts are underway to protect and renew the sea's vastness. Here is just a selection of the good news to come out of the ocean world in 2015.

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In March, the United Kingdom

announced its intention

to establish a marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific -- arguably most famous for being where the

mutineers of the Bounty

settled. Covering an area of 834,000 sq. km (322,000 square miles), it is the largest continuous marine reserve in the world.

In October, the Pacific Island nation of Palau

designated 80 percent of its territory

as a fully protected marine reserve, covering 500,000 sq. km (193,000 sq. mi.), an area slightly larger than California. That same month, Chile declared

an even larger sanctuary

around the Easter Islands.

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It’s been estimated that 90 percent of all seabirds have swallowed plastic at some time in their lives, and that by 2050, any bird found dead will have plastic in its stomach. One highly visible contributor to plastic pollution in the ocean is discarded plastic shopping bags; in response to concerns over their environmental impact, England

has introduced a charge

for their use, while in North America, states and municipalities -- from Montreal to Massachusetts -- are adding their names to

the list

of those that are banning them outright.

Many users may be all but unaware of the existence of microbeads -- tiny pieces of plastic that act as exfoliants -- in their soaps and cosmetics, but years of research have shown conclusively that they are a

major source of ocean pollution

worldwide. Which is why it is a big deal that the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month approved the “

Microbead Free Waters Act

” –- which, if also adopted by the Senate, would ban companies in the United States from making and selling products that contain them.

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Citing a “challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment,” Shell in September

announced

that it would be abandoning its plans to drill for oil offshore in Arctic Alaska for “the foreseeable future.” Analysts said the decision was linked to a variety of factors –- not least, low oil prices -- but environmentalists, who had conducted a number of inventive protests against Shell’s plans, declared victory.

The High Seas -- the 64 percent of the world’s ocean that lies beyond national jurisdiction -- are sometimes referred to as the ‘Wild West’ because of the lack of any overarching management system to regulate their use. That could be about to change, after the United Nations General Assembly formally committed to negotiate an international agreement to protect ocean life on the high seas. As The Pew Charitable Trusts cheered: “For the first time, instead of negotiating a treaty to manage the removal of marine life from the ocean, the United Nations will negotiate ways to protect it and keep it in the water.”

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It’s hard enough to protect fish and other marine wildlife from overfishing when that fishing is legal and regulated by quotas; it’s harder still to combat illegal and pirate fishing that operate outside the law. But there have been some successes in 2015: three crew from the illegal toothfishing vessel

Thunder

were convicted

in November after being subject to an INTERPOL Purple Notice. Working on evidence from Greenpeace, the Taiwanese government fined and suspended a vessel that had been conducting illegal shark fishing. And the United States

adopted

the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act, as a result of which it became the 14th country to ratify the U.N. port States Measures Agreement to combat illegal fishing.

The Dutch government

announced in September

that the waters surrounding the Caribbean islands of Bonaire and Saba are to become shark sanctuaries. Once implemented, all commercial shark fishing will be prohibited up to 200 nautical miles from each island, a combined total of 8,816 square miles (22,382 square kilometers). Collectively known as Yararai, they are the 11th and 12th shark sanctuaries to be established in the world.

Mexican authorities in April instituted an emergency two-year gill-netting ban in the northern Gulf of California, i

n a desperate attempt

to save the Gulf of California porpoise, or vaquita, which is the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Fewer than 100 vaquita remain, their population severely impacted largely as a result of being caught in nets set to catch fish such as totoaba. In December, the Society for Marine Mammalogy honored Mexican officials, including the country’s president, with its first-ever Conservation Merit Prize, in recognition of their efforts to protect the tiny porpoise.

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It will likely be many years before we have a sense of just how successful this month’s Paris Agreement on Climate Change will be, and whether countries will abide by the pledges they have made. But if it does indeed prove to be an important step in reducing fossil fuel emissions and thus global warming, it will likely wind up being the most significant action to protect the ocean in 2015. Twenty-two states

signed

a “Because the Ocean” declaration at the meeting signed a “Because the Ocean” declaration at the meeting.

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