Taking the pulse of Atlantic ecosystems: major new international expedition sets sail

Andrew Sweetman
Research vessel Sarmiento de Gamboa in port in Vigo. Image credit © Nuno Vasco Rodrigues / CSIC / iMirabilis2.

Climate change and its impact on oceanic ecosystems is to be studied as part of a scientific voyage launching next week.

Professor Andrew Sweetman from the Lyell Centre at Heriot-Watt University, is co-chief scientist on the iMirabilis2 expedition, which will explore a relatively unknown deep-sea ecosystem near to the Cabo Verde Island in the Atlantic Ocean.

Led by the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO, CSIC) aboard the research vessel Sarmiento de Gamboa (UTM, CSIC), the month-long trip will see an international team of marine scientists use state-of-the-art technology and survey techniques to shed fresh light on the health of marine ecosystems.

As climate change is predicted to reduce the food supply to the deep sea in future, studying the Cabo Verde deep-sea region will help us to identify how deep-sea ecosystems in more food-rich settings may change with climate change.

Professor Andrew Sweetman

Professor Sweetman says iMirablis2 is expected to deliver a ‘census’ on the local marine life as well as assess ecosystem processes at the seafloor in an area of the Atlantic that receives very little food.

Professor Sweetman, who will be leading the seafloor lander operations, explains: “As climate change is predicted to reduce the food supply to the deep sea in future, studying the Cabo Verde deep-sea region will help us to identify how deep-sea ecosystems in more food-rich settings may change with climate change.

“Climate change models predict that deep-sea regions may experience an increase in temperature (1-4oC) in the next 80 years. 

“This cruise will also allow us to undertake the first multiple stressor experiments where the quality of the food is reduced and temperature is increased, which should provide a window into the types of seafloor ecosystem responses we may see in future.”

iMirablis2 is more than a scientific mission with a cohort of early career scientists on board who will undergo hands-on, at-sea training in a range of cutting-edge techniques and skills that will equip them to be the expedition leaders of the future. Partnering with them back on shore around the Atlantic are other researchers and students who are not able to join the ship but will be supporting the mission and participating in training activities through virtual means.

iMirabillis2 is part of the iAtlantic project that, through a consortium of international scientists and environmental organisations, is monitoring the overall health of the Atlantic Ocean including its temperature, acidity and oxygen levels.

Professor Murray Roberts, iAtlantic Project Coordinator, says: ““We only care about things we know and understand. The deep sea and open ocean covers most of the planet yet remains the least known and understood of all environments on Earth. iAtlantic is taking the pulse of deep and open ocean Atlantic ecosystems. Every day we learn more about how intricate and interconnected these ecosystems are and through iMirabilis2 we have an exciting opportunity to share the deep Atlantic with people across the world. By sharing this understanding and bringing the latest science to policy discussions we can work quickly to better manage human activities – and given the multiple stresses of climatic change we have to work fast to make sure all human activities in the ocean are sustainable.”

The team depart from Vigo in Galicia in northern Spain on 23 July with the expedition scheduled to spend a total six weeks at sea, sailing south to the Cabo Verde region and returning to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands at the end of August.

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Craig McManamon