Researchers to explore ‘lost world’ beneath Caribbean

September 1st, 2008 - 5:33 pm ICT by IANS  

London, Sep 1 (IANS) Scientists are set to explore the world’s deepest undersea volcanoes and find out what lives in a ‘lost world’ five kilometres beneath the Caribbean.The team of researchers led by Jon Copley of University of Southampton’s School of Ocean and Earth Science, will explore the Cayman Trough, which lies between Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

This rift in the Caribbean seafloor plunges to a depth of more than 5,000 metres. It contains the world’s deepest chain of undersea volcanoes, which have yet to be explored.

The researchers are planning two expeditions over the next three years using the UK’s newest research ship, RRS James Cook. From the ship, the team will send the UK’s remotely-operated vehicle Isis and a new British robot submarine called Autosub6000 into the abyss.

The team will look for new geological features and new species of marine life in the rift on the seafloor. Geologist Bramley Murton will use a whale-friendly sonar system to map the undersea volcanoes in unprecedented detail to understand their formation.

At the same time, oceanographer Kate Stansfield will study the deep ocean currents in the Cayman Trough for the first time and geochemist Doug Connelly will hunt for volcanic vents on the ocean floor.

These volcanic vents are home to exotic deep-sea creatures that will be studied by marine biologists Copley and Paul Tyler.

“The Cayman Trough may be a ‘lost world’ that will give us the missing piece in a global puzzle of deep-sea life,” said Copley.

Volcanic vents in the Atlantic are home to swarms of blind shrimp and beds of unusual mussels. But similar deep-sea vents in the eastern Pacific are inhabited by bizarre metre-long tubeworms.

The researchers hope to find out whether creatures living in the Cayman Trough are related to those in the Pacific or the Atlantic - or completely different to both.

“The deep ocean is the largest ecosystem on our planet, so we need to understand its patterns of life,” said Copley. “Deep-sea exploration has also given us new cancer treatments and better fibre-optic cables for the internet, both thanks to deep-sea creatures.”

Working at depths of more than five kilometres will take the UK’s deep-diving vehicles close to their limits. Isis is the UK’s deepest diving remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) reaching depths of 6,500 metres. The team will control Isis from their research ship to film the ocean floor and collect samples with its robotic arms.

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