The Salt Life

Exploring Earth’s oceans from top to bottom


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Photo Credits: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

Deep-sea microbes play an important role in some of the Earth’s most basic geochemical processes such as petroleum degradation and methane cycling. In some cases, the microbes feast on carbon in fluids flowing through permeable rock in the Earth’s crust. But scientists were unclear about how rapidly the microbes consumed their carbon meals.

A recent study at North Pond, a sampling site along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, showed the microbes are eating carbon at an impressive rate. Scientists calculated that the tiny organisms were eating just over 50 percent of the available carbon bubbling through an undersea aquifer. The findings could reshape the understanding of carbon cycling in the deep ocean.

Photo Credits: Steve Haddock

Found in all oceans, luminescent comb jellies are the sea’s vacuum cleaners. Unlike true jellyfish, these drifters lack stinging tentacles but they do possess adhesive cells to snare prey. Swarms can devour entire patches of freshly spawned fish eggs in just a few hours. To escape their own predators, the comb jelly “flaps its wings” to glide away.

Because comb jellies live in both shallow and deep waters, scientists can learn more about the genetic and physiological changes that power adaptations. By studying comb jellies living in the deep ocean for instance, scientists can learn how they have adapted to that environment’s extreme pressure.

Photo Credits: Patrick Cullis, NCAR/UCAR

Nearly 2 miles down and 100 miles off the coast of Costa Rica scientists snapped this image of a Muuscotopus resting on the manipulator arm of the submersible Alvin. The scientists came across dozens of individuals of what is likely a new species of octopus during a recent trip to the Dorado Outcrop.

That many octopuses in one area surprised the researchers because the “dinner-plate-sized” Muuscoctopus prefer to live alone rather than in groups. They also were intrigued that many of the octopuses were guarding egg clutches. The finding may offer new insights to deep-sea reproduction. The scientists made the discovery on their way to explore a hydrothermal system.

Photo Credits: IODP

This image, taken from the deck of the scientific drillship JOIDES Resolution, captures the moment when sediment from the seafloor is brought up through very long pipes known as cores. These particular cores contain sediment from the lost continent of Zealandia and hold answers to secrets kept for 60 million years.

Zealandia, nestled in the South Pacific, is now considered Earth’s seventh continent, but little is known about it as it lies more than two-thirds of a mile under the ocean’s surface. The research cruise collected more than 8,200 feet of sediment cores that are revealing the changes in Zealandia’s geography, volcanic activity and climate over time. The findings will help scientists develop computer models to predict future climate events.

As shown by this gallery, NSF’s support of marine science will continue to produce important discoveries and understanding of Earth’s vast oceans.

The images in this National Science Foundation gallery are copyrighted and may be used only for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial purposes. Credits must be provided.

Photo Credits: Elizabeth Caporelli, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Workers aboard the R/V Knorr recover an instrument-laden buoy that is part of the Pioneer Array, a network of moorings and autonomous underwater vehicles located in the coastal Atlantic Ocean. This collection of state-of-the-art sensors and robots allows scientists to study a range of coastal ocean dynamics at the edge of the continental shelf south of New England — the boundary where coastal waters meet the open ocean.

Because of the economic importance of New England’s coastal waters, scientists and fishermen are teaming up to share data to gain a more rapid picture of climate impacts on local marine life. The Pioneer Array is part of NSF’s Ocean Observatories Initiative, which includes 89 platforms carrying over 830 instruments providing data on the coastal and global ocean at several sites in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Photo Credits: Samuel Hulme

An ice wall rises next to the sandy seafloor at Explorer’s Cove, New Harbor, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. ROMEO, a remotely operated camera, allows scientists to observe inhabitants such as sea urchins, scallops and starfish, as well as microscopic organisms, that live in the sediment. Insights into the inner workings of this ecosystem will help researchers predict how changes like ocean acidification may impact the habitat in the future.

Photo Credits: Greta Shum (CC BY-2.0)

Powerful and beautiful, the Earth’s oceans cover just over 361 million square kilometers, or almost 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. They are one of the last frontiers of exploration on the planet. Since its inception, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has supported critical initiatives to learn about the world’s oceans. The following images highlight a few of the many research efforts underway to learn more about this precious resource.

Here, marine technician MacKenzie Haberman steps aside as waves rush into the Baltic Room of NSF’s Nathaniel B. Palmer during a cruise through the often stormy Southern Oceans Drake Passage. The Southern Ocean accounts for half the ocean’s uptake of carbon from the atmosphere and the majority of the heat uptake, despite comprising only 30 percent of the world’s ocean area. Studies of the Southern Ocean will allow scientists to assess this ocean’s impact on the Earth’s biosphere and climate.

To learn more, go to nsf.gov.

Photo Credits: Elizabeth D. Crook

After boring into this coral, a “Christmas tree” worm uses its feather-like tentacles to filter-feed microscopic creatures. Acidic ocean waters make it more difficult for corals to grow strong skeletons. In these cases, coral become vulnerable to colonization or destruction by other organisms.

A recent study of corals near the submarine springs on the Caribbean Coast of Mexico showed that seawater with a lower pH significantly lowers concentrations of carbonate ions, the building blocks corals need to grow skeletons. Their work then revealed that when the ocean grows more acidic, corals become more vulnerable to disruption and erosion.

Photo Credits: Stephanie Anderson and Susanne Menden-Deuer, University of Rhode Island

Marine plankton, like these kaleidoscopic wonders, are essential to the ecosystems that we rely on for food from the sea such as fisheries. In the U.S. Atlantic Ocean, the Northeast Shelf generates millions of dollars in fishing revenue. But scientists lack an understanding of how environmental changes in the Atlantic affect plankton food webs and fish stocks.

With a new series of instruments that continuously collect data and samples retrieved from the ocean, scientists are developing a more detailed understanding of how different pathways in the food web may shift with the seasons and environmental changes. These insights could help create new, science-based ways to maintain marine ecosystems.

Photo Credits: Erik Jepsen, UC San Diego

Waves activated the neon blue glow coming from a red tide just offshore from San Diego, California. The red tide was caused by blooming phytoplankton, some of which are known for their bioluminescent displays. At one point, the nighttime show stretched nearly 20 miles from La Jolla to Encinitas.

Samples from the tide allow scientists to learn more about the genetic and metabolic traits of the phytoplankton. Other sampling programs are providing details on the toxins that some phytoplankton produce. These sometimes get transferred to the food web, where they affect shellfish, fish, birds and other marine mammals.

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