Science plumbs the depths

November 24, 1995

Industry is failing to fund strategic ocean research yet the unknown resources of the ocean will one day be essential, according to the director of the new Southampton Oceanography Centre.

John Shepherd said that unless resources are explored and environmental impact assessed there will be a "mad rush at the last minute" when land options become too costly.

Professor Shepherd, whose centre is now the main focus for global ocean research in the United Kingdom, cited the case of manganese nodules found on the ocean floor. "Sooner or later they are likely to become an exploitable resource. Industry is going to have to know where they are and what the environmental impact of an operation to exploit them would be, because clearly there would be a major disturbance."

Similarly, "there was a programme on deep sea disposal of radioactive waste and everyone has lost interest in it. But sooner or later it is going to have to be assessed against other options and at the moment we have no research programme. It is right and proper for people with an interest in this to be funding this research."

The centre, which cost Pounds 50 million to build, houses four research divisions from the Natural Environment Research Council, two departments of Southampton University and the NERC Research Vessel Service. The three UK research vessels sit in a dock overlooked by the building, which can house 450 permanent staff and 450 undergraduates. The building is vast and has been christened Alcatraz by locals because of its outside security and sinister chimneys. But inside it feels like heaven: airy, white, full of light and furnished in steel and marble.

Here researchers are trying to explore the many unknowns of the ocean. Some scientists, for example, are studying hydrothermal vents, recently discovered on the ocean bed. From these vents rush hot springs.

Around them live organisms adapted to huge temperatures and pressures - an ecosystem that is entirely separate from ours and does not rely on the sun's energy for life. Professor Shepherd says that life near the vents is surviving in such a "fantastically hostile environment" that it could be a source of enzymes for industrial processes on land.

Rachel Mills, a geochemist at the centre, says that all of the species are new to science. She is studying the mineral deposits that surround some vents and has travelled in a two-metre Russian submersible, lying for hours at 2C at a site known as Broken Spur, in the Atlantic.

She says the work is essential for understanding the interaction between the sea and the earth's crust. Until we can model these systems, which are sources of some chemicals and sinks for others, we will not understand the climate as a whole, she says.

The UK contribution to the World Ocean Circulation Experiment is also managed from the centre. Trevor Guyner, head of the James Rennell Division for Ocean Circulation, says that scientists are building up a description of the ocean from satellite data and ship work: "It's like a camera shutter open for seven years."

Professor Shepherd says: "The exciting thing we've discovered recently is that the circulation is variable on a decadal scale. Some of the decadal changes of climate are also being seen down to about 2,000 metres. We don't know what it means."

Professor Shepherd, who trained as a physicist and has worked in superconductivity, air pollution, radioactive waste disposal and fisheries management, claims that oceanography is held back by technology. "It's all remote-sensed: that means having a ship there and ships are expensive. We need to free ourselves from the constraints of ships and winches."

Researchers are currently working on new vehicles which can explore the ocean floor on their own, controlled from far away, to cut costs and increase the variety of data that can be collected.

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