Far below the surface of the Arabian Sea, state-of-the-art robots probe the mysterious depths. For the first time in almost 50 years, they are collecting data from this turbulent and dangerous part of the world. But what they discover will go on to shock scientists around the globe – and it may even have dire consequences for the human race.
The Gulf of Oman – a strait of water that cuts through some of the most turbulent parts of the Middle East – has borne witness to countless shocking events over the years. From the Iraqi invasion of Iran that left half a million civilians dead to the bitter conflict in North-West Pakistan, it’s a region that’s often ravaged by political turmoil and war.
Now, however, a new horror has reared its head in the Middle East. And it could have a lasting impact on mankind all around the world. You see, in the warm waters of the Gulf of Oman – which borders Oman, Iran, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates – scientists have discovered a strange anomaly beneath the waves.
Beginning in 2015 a team of scientists from England’s University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Sultan Qaboos University in Oman began conducting research in the region, which connects the Strait of Hormuz to the Arabian Sea. And even though the Gulf of Oman has plenty of features of scientific interest, this was the first such study conducted in the region in nearly 50 years.
Previously, factors such as political conflicts and piracy had prevented scientists from accessing much of the Gulf of Oman. Recent advances in technology mean that things have changed in that regard, though. This time, the researchers were able to conduct a thorough survey of the region at little risk to themselves.
Led by the UEA’s Dr. Bastien Queste, the team used two special robots known as Seagliders to collect data from previously inaccessible parts of the region. These gliders are submarines operated by remote controls, and they were more than up to the task of scanning the depths of the Gulf of Oman – and relaying information back to the researchers, of course.
Capable of exploring depths of more than 3,000 feet, the robots are similar in size to a small person. They are far more effective than human divers, however, and the machines can remain in the ocean for months at a time. Furthermore, they are able to travel for thousands of miles in a single mission.
For eight months, then, two Seagliders were tasked with collecting data across the Gulf of Oman. Using satellite communications, they were able to build up a detailed picture of oxygen levels in this part of the Arabian Sea. Moreover, they also studied the systems that transfer the vital element from place to place.
Terrifyingly, what they found could have serious implications for the future of planet Earth. Beneath the surface, you see, they came across a vast area of ocean with one worrying characteristic: it contained barely any oxygen. And even though researchers had expected to find low levels of the element, they were still shocked by the scale of the problem.
Incredibly, the oxygen-free environment is thought to be roughly the same size as Florida: an area of approximately 65,750 square miles. And if these measurements are accurate, it means that the anomaly encompasses the vast majority of the Gulf of Oman, which clocks in at around 70,000 square miles. But what exactly does this tell us about the health of our oceans?
Well, according to experts, it doesn’t look too good. After all, beneath the surface, oxygen is vital to the fragile ecosystems that depend on it in order to survive. Now, though, scientists are discovering areas of the ocean where the element is scarcely present. And these regions – known as dead zones – are devoid of any kind of life and occur all around the world.
“Of course all fish, marine plants and other animals need oxygen, so they can’t survive there,” Dr. Queste explained in a press release from the University of East Anglia in 2018. He added, “It’s a real environmental problem, with dire consequences for humans too who rely on the oceans for food and employment.” And terrifyingly, it looks to be a global issue.
Yes, in waters off the coasts of North America, South America and Namibia – as well as in the Bay of Bengal – scientists have declared the existence of dead zones. It’s thought that some 95,000 square miles of the Earth’s oceans could be affected, in fact. But the Arabian Sea contains the biggest such zone that has been observed to date.
Apparently, it’s not the first time that this particular dead zone has been discovered. According to reports, the anomaly was first detected as far back as the 1960s. Then, three decades later, researchers were able to conduct further studies in the area. In the years since, however, experts have been unable to learn anything more about the region.
Since the study in the 1990s the geopolitical situation in the Gulf of Oman has grown worse, with attacks from Somali pirates increasing throughout the 2000s. Today, these armed criminals still pose a significant threat – as do the forces of the Iranian National Guard. And in such fraught circumstances, it has been rather difficult for researchers to gather the data that they need.
Now, the Seagliders have allowed researchers to gather more data from the volatile Gulf of Oman. But what they have found could be a cause for concern. In a study published in May 2018 in the journal Advancing Space and Earth Science, the team outlined the differences between past and present observations.
The study reported, “These instruments measured a strong decrease of oxygen in the oxygen minimum zone compared to pre-1990 values.” And not only that, but it also appears as though the anomaly itself is getting bigger. “Our research shows that the situation is actually worse than feared – and that the area of dead zone is vast and growing,” Dr. Queste explained in the press release. “The ocean is suffocating.”
“The Arabian Sea is the largest and thickest dead zone in the world,” Dr. Queste continued in the press release. “But until now, no one really knew how bad the situation was, because piracy and conflicts in the area have made it too dangerous to collect data.” Thanks to the Seagliders, we now know more about what’s lurking in the Gulf of Oman – but just how worried should we be?
Well, according to scientists, dead zones occur naturally in the world’s oceans, usually at depths of between 650 and 2,600 feet. Both climate change and other environmental factors are thought to be making them far worse, though. “They are a disaster waiting to happen,” warned Dr. Queste.
Apparently, as the Earth’s temperature rises, the water in the planet’s oceans is also becoming warmer. And when that happens, it becomes less able to retain oxygen. Additionally, pollutants such as sewage and fertilizers are making their way into the seas, exacerbating the problem even further.
According to experts, dead zones aren’t just a problem for marine life, either. In fact, Dr. Queste was quick to point out that this phenomenon could also have “dire consequences” for mankind. So, with our dependence on the world’s oceans as a source of employment and food, these lifeless areas could spell disaster in the near future.
Furthermore, Dr. Queste explained how the existence of dead zones might actually be worsening the effects of climate change. According to scientists, the gas nitrogen is processed differently in environments that are low on oxygen. And when that happens, it kickstarts a chemical reaction that could spell disaster for our fragile environment.
“Another problem is that when oxygen is absent, the chemical cycling of nitrogen – a key nutrient for plant growth – changes dramatically,” Dr. Queste explained in the press release. “Nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide – is produced.” But while these risks have been understood for a number of years, it’s only recently that the scale of the problem in the Gulf of Oman has been revealed.
You see, before this recent study, researchers used digital tools in order to estimate how the dead zones of the world’s oceans might change over the years. And according to the 2018 paper, these had previously predicted a worrying trend. “Computer simulations of ocean oxygen show a decrease in oxygen over the next century and growing oxygen minimum zones,” it read.
With previous studies, however, their scope has been limited. “These simulations have a difficult time representing small but very important factors such as eddies, which impact how oxygen is transported,” the study continued. “It is difficult to predict what will happen in the biggest of the world’s oxygen minimum zones.” But now, with the help of the data collected by the Seagliders, researchers have been able to build up a clearer picture of what is going on.
According to the scientific paper, this new approach has allowed the team to study more than just the effects of eddies on the Gulf of Oman’s dead zone. “We then combined the Seaglider data with a very high-resolution computer simulation to determine how oxygen is spread around the northwestern Arabian Sea throughout different seasons and the monsoons,” it read.
Interestingly, researchers found that the Gulf of Oman’s dead zone actually varies in depth between the seasons. And as such, it creates a further challenge for sea life in the region. That’s because creatures such as fish that are unable to survive inside the oxygen-poor environment find themselves confined to a small area close to the surface.
So, can anything be done to halt the suffocation of our oceans? According to Dr. Queste, his data will be instrumental in managing the area in the coming years. But will that be enough to prevent an environmental disaster from occurring? Terrifyingly, we have little choice but to wait and see.
But the Arabian Sea isn’t the only place where the ocean’s oxygen levels have dropped terrifyingly low. Thousands of miles away, off the coast of the southern United States, another dead zone has been worrying experts for a number of years. And like its counterpart in the Gulf of Oman, it looks set to get even bigger.
For decades, researchers have been cataloging a dead zone that appears annually near the coastline of Texas and Louisiana. And in 2018 they estimated that the anomaly covered approximately 2,500 square miles. However, by the summer of 2019 it was predicted to grow to almost four times that size.
Here, the dead zone is caused by an interesting phenomenon that begins with the mighty Mississippi River. According to experts, more than 40 percent of the nation’s land ultimately drains into this vast basin. And along the way, the water picks up pollutants in the ground such as phosphorus and nitrogen.
Ultimately, this water – and all of its contaminants – are dumped out into the Gulf of Mexico. And there, the phosphorus and nitrogen encourage algae to form on the surface. After a while, these blooms die out and sink to the lower levels of the ocean, where they are eventually consumed by bacteria. In the process, they use up a lot of oxygen in an environment where the resource is already scarce.
As a result, the organisms that exist at the deeper levels of the ocean begin to suffocate. And while some creatures – such as crabs or larger fish – are able to swim away in search of more oxygen-rich waters, many cannot. For those left behind, then, the process means almost certain death.
According to experts, this dead zone typically forms around springtime, when the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are at their calmest. Apparently, this means that the fresh water from the Mississippi and the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean do not mix as much as they do in the winter months. And as a result, the deeper levels are not regularly rejuvenated with more oxygen-rich water from above.
Moreover, experts believe that higher temperatures also exacerbate the situation, with warmer water remaining on the surface. As summer turns to fall, the waters cool, and the layers begin to mix once more – effectively disrupting the dead zone. And at this time of year, weather conditions, including hurricanes, can also contribute to its dispersal.
In 2019 scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (N.O.A.A.) predicted that the Gulf of Mexico dead zone would be much larger than normal. In fact, only once since the 1980s would it have been bigger. And the reason why, it seems, could be down to the above-average rainfall which had plagued the region during that winter and spring. According to scientists, the abnormal weather had not only increased the amount of run-off making its way to the ocean, but it had also affected agricultural practices in the area.
Apparently, the weather was so bad in the spring of 2019 that crops such as soybean and corn remained unplanted. And as a result, all of the fertilizer that farmers had spread in preparation simply flowed straight into the river. Ultimately, it reached the Atlantic Ocean, where it contributed to the growing dead zone.
For the fishermen who ply their trade in the Gulf of Mexico, the dead zone is a major concern. As marine life attempts to flee the suffocating waters, they are forced to travel farther and farther from home in search of their catch. In fact, N.O.A.A. experts believe that the phenomenon currently costs the industry around $82 million every year.
And experts claim that – like the Gulf of Oman dead zone – this anomaly could be set to get even worse as temperatures around the world continue to rise. Meanwhile, researchers have recommended tackling the problem at the source. Louisiana State University’s Eugene Turner suggested that introducing farming practices such as reducing fertilizer and rotating crops, for example, could hopefully help ease the situation off the American coast.
But while this may be a solution, the cost of these practices has proved prohibitive for some farmers. And according to Don Parrish of the America Farm Bureau Federation, there is still much to be done. “Scientifically we can reduce the size,” he told National Geographic magazine in 2019, “but whether you can get there politically – that’s still a work in progress.”
However, there have been some positive developments in ocean research that suggest the future may not be quite so grim. For instance, one particularly exciting discovery just off the coast of South Carolina may just prove that the situation regarding the planet’s seas may have something of a silver lining.
Making up close to three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, our oceans give life to our blue planet. And not only do these vast expanses of water sustain every aspect of existence and influence our climates, but they are also a crucial part of global trade. Given the sheer collective size of Earth’s oceans, though, it’s perhaps no surprise that we still have much to learn about what lies underneath their depths.
Other incredible finds could follow in their wake, too, as it’s believed that in excess of 80 percent of the planet’s sprawling sub-aquatic world has yet to be investigated by humans. That’s partly why the Deep Search project was launched, as its aim is to discover once and for all what lies at the bottom of some of Earth’s waters.
And in August 2019 the Deep Search team made one of its most monumental discoveries to date while working around 150 miles from the South Carolina shoreline. You see, far below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, scientists found a previously unmonitored patch of practically pristine coral reef.
Scientifically speaking, coral reefs are sub-aquatic ecosystems that are made up of marine invertebrates known as corals. Most of these reefs are specifically comprised of stony corals that live in tightly-packed colonies of many singular but identical polyps. And these polyps emit calcium carbonate that solidifies into a tough substance to protect and support the corals.
Sometimes known as “underwater rainforests,” these reefs possess the most varied ecosystems to be found in our oceans. In fact, they’re thought to be the most biodiverse of all the Earth’s habitats, with at least one-quarter of marine species thought to rely on reefs for shelter or food.
These facts are even more extraordinary when you consider that coral reefs cover less than 1 percent of the planet’s surface and no more than 2 percent of the seafloor. But while these ecosystems may be small in the grand scheme of things, they nevertheless play an important role in the overall health of our planet.
Given their biodiversity, you see, coral reefs are able to feed millions of people. They also contain the source materials of vital medicines and form barriers against bad weather. And the reefs have even helped create jobs in the tourism and fishing sectors; indeed, it’s estimated that more than 25 percent of the planet’s low-scale fishing businesses use these areas as their hunting grounds.
Yet while coral exists across the world’s oceans – including in the cold climes near the Alaskan shore – reefs actually fare better in areas where temperatures are higher, depths are smaller and there’s plenty of sunlight. And, famously, the biggest example on Earth is the Great Barrier Reef, which extends for around 1,400 miles off the coast of Queensland in Australia.
Unfortunately, though, even the Great Barrier Reef isn’t immune to the greatest threats that face colonies of coral today. One of the biggest problems surrounding the reefs is what’s known as coral bleaching. This phenomenon is caused by rising ocean temperatures that are, in turn, a symptom of climate change.
Other dangers to the world’s coral reefs include excessive fishing and the acidification of seawater. A rise in ocean levels of phosphorus and nitrogen is also having a negative effect on these ecosystems, as is the sunscreen that has been deposited in our oceans.
Sadly, then, coral reefs are in decline across the globe. Indeed, in some places, species of the marine invertebrates have died out almost completely, while in other locations reefs have shrunk dramatically when compared to the vibrant ecosystems that they once were. And as a result, the race is on to protect and revitalize these precious habitats before they’re lost forever.
Most worryingly of all, half of the world’s coral has disappeared over the past three decades alone. And should the trend continue until our coral reefs disappear, the effects could be catastrophic. Billions of marine species would be damaged, for instance, as would global trade.
In addition, the destruction of coral reefs would send the global fishing industry – an employer of close to 40 million people – into disarray. We would also lose many medicines that rely upon the ingredients found in these environments. And the disruption that the eradication of these ecosystems would have on both biodiversity and the food chain would likely cause a vast number of other issues.
Then there’s coral reefs’ role as natural coastal flood defenses. In total, reefs safeguard over 200 million people from the forces of the oceans as they offset approximately 97 percent of a wave’s power. And constructing replacements that offer a similar degree of shelter would be a very costly affair, commanding a price of around $2.5 million for just a single mile.
With all that in mind, then, we must act to save our reefs. And, fortunately, some work is at least being done to investigate the state of the biggest bodies of water on our planet. Most notably, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) has focused solely on sub-aquatic exploration. Thanks to the OER, in fact, we’re learning more about our oceans than ever before.
The OER’s primary goal is to venture off the beaten track and explore parts of the ocean that have previously been ignored. The organization uses cutting-edge technology to map the ocean floor, for instance. And with the data that the OER gathers, it establishes new lines of scientific inquiry in order to better understand the ocean environment.
Then, in August 2018, scientists working on the OER’s Deep Search mission made one of their most important discoveries so far. This program was initially established to explore the deep-water environments found off the coast of the U.S. in the south and middle of the Atlantic. But as the project’s team members descended beneath the ocean’s surface, little did they know what they would find lying below.
In particular, this incredible find was made by researchers on board the Okeanos Explorer. After they had left Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in August 2018, you see, the team had been delving beneath the surface by utilizing a tool called Alvin – a submersible that’s capable of carrying humans into the depths below.
And although he was unaware of exactly what lay at the bottom of the ocean, in August 2018 the team’s lead scientist Erik Cordes nonetheless told HuffPost that he had good feelings about the Deep Search mission. Cordes, who works at Temple University in Philadelphia, revealed, “I know we’re going to find something that no one’s ever seen before… Those are the moments that I love.”
It seems that Cordes’ optimism wasn’t completely unfounded, either, as just a week after his prediction, the Deep Search team uncovered something astonishing near to the South Carolina shoreline. There, around 2,500 feet underwater, lay a previously undiscovered coral reef.
That said, the existence of the reef had first been revealed in May and June 2018 following a high-tech mapping exercise. The Okeanos Explorer crew had themselves uncovered this information after a series of peaks were seen across the ocean floor. And just by looking at these features, Deep Search scientists were almost convinced that they’d discovered coral.
Furthermore, given the data from these newly constructed maps, the researchers suspected that there was a significant quantity of coral below the water. It appeared, in fact, that the reef stretched for 85 linear miles – or maybe even more – off America’s East Coast. “This is a huge feature,” Cordes told HuffPost in 2018. “It’s incredible that it stayed hidden off the U.S. East Coast for so long.”
Then the coral reef’s existence was later confirmed following two submersible dives. On board Alvin were Cordes, coral scientist Cathy McFadden and submersible pilot Bruce Strickrott, who together successfully retrieved samples of wide variety of coral. And after seeing the reef with his own eyes, Cordes described the discovery as “unbelievable.”
Cordes was particularly struck by the amount of Lophelia pertusa that was present at the location. You see, while this stony species of coral is common in the Gulf of Mexico – another place where Cordes had previously conducted research – he’d never seen anything to the extent of the colonies of Lophelia near South Carolina. “[There were] just mountains of it,” Cordes told HuffPost. “We couldn’t find a place that didn’t have corals.”
Lophelia pertusa is a variety of coral that can be found in cold waters. And while the species is known to live at depths of anywhere from around 250 feet to 10,000 feet below the surface, it’s primarily seen thriving at between 700 and 3,250 feet beneath sea level – distances that sunlight is unable to reach. In particular, Lophelia pertusa is known to grow in the North Atlantic waters, the Alboran Sea and the Caribbean Sea.
And during the summer of 2018, Cordes and his colleagues on board the Okeanos Explorer studied a large number of these deep-sea mounds – all of them abundant with coral. The living organisms were often found above large rubble piles, with these heaps actually made up of previous generations of coral on which new organisms were thriving.
Then, over the years, these masses had grown closer together to form a ridge around 300 feet in height. In fact, the mounds covered more ground than the Deep Search team could have ever predicted. And given the sheer scale of the structures, it was possible that corals had actually been there for hundreds of thousands of years.
Furthermore, the discovery came as a big surprise to Sandra Brooke, who is a coral ecologist from Florida State University. After exploring the area on a dive herself, she would go on to describe the sight of the reef as “incredible” when talking to HuffPost.
Why was Brooke so amazed at the discovery? Well, although Lophelia coral had previously been found near North Carolina and Florida, it hadn’t been known to survive at depths of beyond 2,000 feet. It wasn’t just the location of the coral that stunned experts, either; the reefs were also further offshore than is typical.
Plus, the discovery of the coral came at a critical time from a political point of view. More specifically, the find had emerged shortly after President Donald Trump had announced his intentions of expanding offshore drilling in the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Trump put the proposed plan forward along with Ryan Zinke, his interior secretary, in January 2019. And if it’s to go ahead, it will make nine-tenths of the coastal waters under U.S. jurisdiction vulnerable to such procedures.
While announcing the intended oil drilling expansion, Zinke promised to “strike the right balance to protect… coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American energy dominance.” There’s hope, though, that the Deep Search coral discovery may have some impact on subsequent drilling developments.
Cordes has at least made his own position on the matter clear, as according to HuffPost he has stressed the need to protect the newfound Atlantic coral reef from offshore developments. The scientist has witnessed for himself how sea life interacts with the ecosystem, and it seems that he is in little doubt of its importance in the wider ocean habitat.
Now, following the discovery of the South Carolina coral, Deep Search scientists plan to devote years to further exploration of the area. In particular, as coral reefs generally teem with diversity, the researchers would likely investigate which communities of creatures rely on the intricate natural environment for sustenance.
And the significance of the Atlantic coral was briefly discussed by the Deep Search team in a video posted on the official OER YouTube channel in August 2018. In the clip, Cordes recalls of the discovery, “It was coral rubble for as far as the eye could see and live coral up on top. A cover of live coral I’ve only seen in a couple of places. It’s a lot of living, growing reef.”
Cordes continues, “So, now that we know this is here… the possibilities for where Lophelia could be forming reefs are now bigger than they used to be. That’s a real fundamental change in how we do exploration. It’s brand new. This is really different to anything we’ve seen before.”
One way in which the North Carolina coral reef differed from other sites that Cordes had uncovered during his career were the conditions in which it existed. “The temperature profile is really weird here,” he says in the YouTube video. “And in a lot of ways, that suggests to us that there are a lot more connections to shallow water than we would expect at 700 meters [2,296 feet].”
Indeed, despite the depth of the coral reef, it was in no way isolated from the rest of the ocean’s ecosystems. “All those waters are mixed,” Cordes explains. “Everything that’s happening up at the surface is very quickly being translated to 700 meters. We see swordfish swimming all over them, you know. There are these big fish coming down to interact with these habitats.”
So while there’s still so much to learn about deep-sea coral populations in the Atlantic, the discovery of such an unspoiled ecosystem is an exciting one. Ultimately, you see, it may help scientists better understand how reefs operate and help save these unique and important habitats for generations to come.
In the YouTube video, Cordes speaks briefly about such work, saying, “The ultimate goal of Deep Search is to be able to inform the management agencies about the importance of this habitat. Then they can protect them… [and] limit as much as possible the human impacts in what are still relatively pristine coral reefs.”
And just at a time when coral reefs across the world are under threat, the discovery of a new, relatively healthy example is something very special indeed. Cordes likes to think so, anyway. “You know, there aren’t many [pristine coral reefs] left on Earth, and we just found a really big one,” he says. “This is huge. This is a really big finding. I’m thrilled.”