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Tuesday
Feb272018

Ever Heard of Underwater  Oceans?

flickr | Tim GeerIt’s a well-known belief that we know more about the moon than we do our own oceans. Vast areas of it are unexplored, untouched and, for all we know, uninhabited. This means that every time we discover something new it’s exciting and that discovering new things is happening continuously. Blue Planet 2 proved this. So, on in that spirit, ever heard of underwater oceans?

This might bring to mind the famous ‘underwater waterfall’ in Mauritius. While this is not strictly true, it is a fun talking point. Thanks to the lay-out of the island and surrounding bays, aerial shots have shown us what many thought to be a waterfall that was acting in a typically waterfall way, albeit under the surface. Research into this anomaly soon found it to be a natural optical illusion however. Waves breaking on the shoreline, combined with a funnel-effect with the tides and currents created this phenomenon. It’s a cool image for sure. However, the underwater-water we have in mind here takes it one step further.

flickr | NOAA Photo LibrarySome years ago, underwater pools of salty brine were discovered in a few places around the world, playing home to all sorts of previously undiscovered marine life. The brines pools had tide lines, shorelines, waves, ripples and animals swimming in and out of the surface. All activities you would usually associate with the ocean’s surface but these were at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Research into these strange habitats revealed them to be brine pools. Brine is essentially water with a HUGE salt level, making it far denser than ordinary sea water and creating a layer of brine beneath the normal surrounding seawater. Think of it as a two layer cake or lasagne, the top layer being normal sea water and the bottom being the brine. The look of them is THAT distinguished.

These pools were found to be caused by all sorts of things. Some were formed by volcanic vents in the earth’s crust that gave off hugely dense streams of boiling water mixed with sulphur and other minerals that then mixed with the surrounding sea water, cooled and settled one the ocean’s bed. These vents, too, are a recent discovery, with all sorts of marine life found here too, in one of the most hostile environments on the planet.

Hostile is a good word to describe these underwater reservoirs, some of which stretch for hundreds of square kilometres. While they support extensive life, they’re also a deadly trap. Small fish, crustaceans and invertebrates feed on the nutrients provided by the pool, but straying too close or diving too deep into them can suffocate these animals as the density of the liquid and overwhelming salt makes it difficult to swim through and makes oxygen levels far smaller.

Back to Blue Planet 2, the teams filming the series discovered just such a pool at the bottom of Antarctic waters, somewhere as yet unexplored. Down in the freezing and crushing darkness in the waters surrounding the most unfriendly environment on land, sprawling life was found surrounding these underwater ravines. That theory about us knowing more about the moon, put into full effect it seems.

flickr | NOAA Ocean Exploration & ResearchSo what does it mean for science? What benefit is there to us discovering these things? Well, beyond the ideological human feeling of just urging to discover and learn as much of possible, learning about creatures living comfortably in such conditions is important to study in the hope of understanding more what it requires to live there and beyond that, what it would require for us to live there.

For example, understanding these principles could be the key to understanding how to sustain colonies of mankind on other planets, where atmosphere, gravity and relation to a star might result in similar conditions to these brine pools at the depths of our own ocean. Both are lacking in oxygen, both are under huge pressure and both may not feel the effects of sunlight the way life at the surface does. It was once thought that ALL life on earth was dependent on sunlight, now we’re learning of places where that’s not directly true, it could lead us to understanding how we too can live like that. Isn’t THAT worth discovering?

Brine pools at the bottom of the ocean aren’t just cool, or a shiny new discovery worthy front page coverage in National Geographic, they could help us understand how to preserve our own species if we ever need or decide to leave Earth.

By Guy Bezant - Online Content Editor

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