Global Seamounts Project
Modeling complex ecosystem function on oceanic seamounts
The impetus for the Global Seamounts Project was a recognition that the work of the Census of Marine Life on Seamounts (CenSeam), a five-year field initiative carried out as part of the Census of Marine Life (CoML) (Stocks, et al, 2012), represented a major collective input from the seamount research community that could now be extended and more fully realized beyond what was feasible under the CoML.
New sampling and analytical methods including chemical sensors and gene sequencing technologies, coupled with the global capacity to configure and deploy MARV research vessels, was envisioned as a basis for more comprehensively realizing the original objectives of CenSeam, which included more complete understanding of biodiversity and spatial scales of population connectivity, of ecosystem dynamics, and the impacts of human disturbance, resource extraction and climate change.
The papers produced from CenSeam however suggested that extending current lines of research methods is not sufficient to reach an understanding of ecosystem function. A paper by Clark, et al, in 2012 stated:
“There are many aspects of seamount and deep-sea ecosystem structure and function that we do not understand, and which may in the long-term be critical for effective management. However, research is in many respects still at the stage of describing the composition and structure of seamount habitat and communities, and appreciating complex functional processes is still a long way in the future.”
The need for understanding complex function and behavior of seamount ecosystems led to the proposed incorporation of an integrated ecosystem modeling component to the project. The science of modeling complex, nonlinear systems, and the computing power required to process such models, is advancing rapidly. The principal constraint now for applying these advances to modeling oceanic systems is in acquiring the scope and resolution of environmental data required to populate them.
A two-pronged strategy was developed to link the field campaign of intensive multidisciplinary surveys on multiple seamounts more specifically with the scope and resolution of datasets that align with desired ecosystem modeling inputs. The resulting synthesis of field work with ecosystem modeling inputs and outputs is summarized in Figure 1 and shown in more detail in Figure 2. This approach is designed to accelerate our understanding of complex ecosystem function in seamounts from “a long way in the future” to within the next few years.
A series of virtual GSP workshops is planned for early 2021, beginning with the first GSP Biophysical Modeling Workshop to explore and select modeling frameworks for the project; see more about the GSP’s ecosystem modeling approach in Modeling Seamount Ecosystems in the GSP Project Highlights section here.
Figure 3 illustrates the alignment of the Field Campaign and Ecosystem Modeling effort over the duration of the project. The chart shows a proposed survey plan for eighteen seamounts, some surveyed multiple times across seasonal periods. An initial expedition to survey two additional seamounts, in part to assess and establish sampling and analytical methodologies and equipment, is proposed bringing the total number of proposed sample sites to twenty.
The GSP Working Group structure incorporating the disciplinary components of the project is shown in Figure 4.
GSP-Configured MARVs Enable Project Scope
Operational research vessel capacity for the project’s twenty expeditions will be met with MARV research vessels configured to support the project (Figures 5 - 7). Utilization of time-chartered, science-adapted MARV platforms for the GSP Field Campaign addresses a constraint the project would otherwise be faced with – the need to mobilize an intensively scheduled fleet of global class research vessels, some with overlapping schedules or simultaneously deployed in different ocean basins, capable of hosting large international science teams, multidisciplinary lab and workspace clusters, and deep-sea vehicle deployments.
Deep-Sea Sampling Systems
Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) will be a principal sampling and documentation modality for the GSP. The intensive ROV capacity requirements for the nearly continuous GSP Field Campaign will be met through an innovative partnership between Global Oceans and Oceaneering International, Inc. to build a series of ROV Science Modules that will integrate with, and convert to science platforms, any of Oceaneering’s global fleet of 250 globally-distributed Millennium® Plus and Magnum® Plus commercial ROVs rated to 3,000 or 4,000 meters (Figure 8). Operational specifications for these systems are shown in Figure 9.
The Global Oceans ROV Science Modules will provide both standardized and customizable sets of interchangeable sampling and documentation systems, including push cores, suction samplers, mini-box cores, storage systems for biological samples, biogeochemical sensors, Niskin bottles, and high-resolution video (Figure 10). ROVs from the Oceaneering offshore fleet will be project-mobilized by Global Oceans, modified with ROV Science Modules, and operated by Oceaneering’s team of science ROV pilots from the Global Explorer (GEX) ROV program.
Global Oceans will also provide dual 6000-meter ROV capacity for the GSP with the Magellan 725 ROV and Ocean Discovery ROV recently acquired from Oceaneering, to be re-built and upgraded over the next year into advanced science-dedicated deep-sea vehicles. The 6000-meter Ocean Explorer 6000 towed vehicle from Global Oceans will also be made available for the project for bathymetric mapping and visual documentation, including for developing geomorphic proxies for biodiversity (Figure 11); see more about this application in Geomorphic Proxies for Biodiversity on Seamounts in the GSP Project Highlights here.
Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and human-occupied submersibles will also be a part of the GSP and will also be a component of the project where they are beneficial or preferred to achieve the science plan.
Impact of the Global Seamounts Project
Utilizing the models developed by the GSP project, a second phase of the modeling project will also explore the development of an integrated behavioral model for seamounts, which we are calling an Integrated Seamount Ecosystem Model (ISEM). An ISEM would enable modeling a greater range of physical and biological variables, and their synergistic impact on the modeled system, which could align more comprehensively with multiple impact scenarios.
A survey of oceanic seamounts as extensive as is proposed by the Global Seamounts Project will also provide a legacy of detailed biophysical data on a range of seamount systems that will be fully mapped and documented as baselines for future monitoring. Surveyed sites may also provide a basis establishing Marine Protected Areas associated with these systems, supported by a better understanding of productivity, biodiversity, species endemism, extent of important biogenic habitats such as cold-water coral reefs, and whether individual seamounts surveyed are degraded or threatened.
Future opportunities to inform policies for protecting and sustainably managing seamounts in international waters will be enhanced by the development of international instruments under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), including the treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), a process that is now underway.
Project teams plan to engage with the policy community and global public during and after the project is completed, with the hope that a greater understanding of one of the largest biomes in the ocean will lead to a greater appreciation and capacity for conserving these remarkable ecosystems.
Stocks KI, Clark MR, Rowden AA, Consalvey M, Schlacher TA (2012) CenSeam, an International Program on Seamounts within the Census of Marine Life: Achievements and Lessons Learned. PLoS ONE 7(2): e32031. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0032031
Clark MR, Schlacher TA, Rowden AA, Stocks KI, Consalvey M (2012) Science Priorities for Seamounts: Research Links to conservation and Management. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29232. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029232.