Schmidt Ocean Institute

Scientists Explore Mineral-Rich Seafloor, DDT Dump Sites; Discover Methane Seep, Whale Fall

Exploratory dives off California coast in waste dumping grounds and areas of potential mining will advance understanding of human impacts on deep-sea ecosystem

Marine scientists aboard Schmidt Ocean Institute's research vessel Falkor have completed a 12-day expedition off the coast of Southern California to survey the biodiversity of deep sea areas rich in minerals that are of interest to deep sea mining developers around the world.  

The expedition, which covered 5,310 square miles, explored nine deep sea sites, including the offshore site where possibly hundreds of thousands of barrels of toxic waste from the production of the insecticide DDT were dumped from 1947 to 1982.

With an underwater robot, the team of scientists from UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the United States Geological Survey collected sediment and biological samples around six barrels to understand potential ecological effects of the dump site and to determine the levels of DDT present in the ecosystem after more than 50 years. The site had been surveyed previously by scientists from UC Santa Barbara and Scripps on previous expeditions.

The goal of the Schmidt Ocean Institute expedition was to establish mineral and biological baselines in the area known as the Southern California Borderland, which has the potential for deep sea mining. The area contains rare earth marine minerals such as ferromanganese and phosphorite that are used in the manufacture of electronics, electric car batteries, solar panels, and other green technologies.

Scientists collected more than 300 samples of seafloor rocks, sediment, seawater, and marine invertebrates to better understand the ecology, mineral and microbial makeup of the relatively unexplored deep-sea system. In collecting samples, researchers also hope to evaluate the therapeutic or drug discovery potential of deep-sea microbes found in mineral-rich areas. 

Image of remotely operated vehicle
Research Vessel Falkor crew retrieve Remotely Operated Vehicle SuBastian back on to the ships' aft deck after a dive researching underwater aspects fo the California Borderland seamounts. Credit: Brady Lawrence/Schmidt Ocean Institute.

“We are just beginning to understand the valuable resources of our ocean ecosystem,” said Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Ocean Institute. “We can’t protect what we don’t know and understand, and the human impact on our ocean over the past 75 years has had a detrimental  effect on its health and on the many ocean systems that support life on land. We expect the knowledge gained from this expedition will inform policy, management and stewardship of the deep sea, so that episodes of dumping toxic waste, such as this one, will not happen again.” 

The 12 expedition dives were broadcast live to the public on Schmidt Ocean Institute’s social media channels. During one of the dives to explore the DDT site, scientists discovered a whale fall—the seafloor location where the remains of a whale come to rest. Scientists also identified a new area of methane seepage. Marine biologists consider both areas a focus of specialized research because of the unique habitat they create.

“Establishing ecological baselines in the deep sea allows us to track changes over time and better understand the consequences of human actions,” said chief scientist Lisa Levin, a professor of biological oceanography at Scripps Oceanography. “The DDT dump site provides evidence of a large human footprint in the deep ocean, but we are just starting to identify the effects on local marine communities.” 

The information the team collected at the DDT barrel disposal site will be compared to animals and microbes at more distant sites in order to assess the current concentrations and effects of DDT in the region. The samples will return to Scripps Oceanography where scientists will conduct further analysis and DNA sequencing.
 

About the Organizations

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year. For more information, visit www.scripps.ucsd.edu

Schmidt Ocean Institute was established in 2009 by Eric and Wendy Schmidt to advance oceanographic research through the development of innovative technologies, open sharing of information, and broad communication about ocean health. The mobile institute operates Falkor, a philanthropic research vessel that is made available to the international science community at no cost. For more information, visit www.schmidtocean.org.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at www.ucsd.edu.

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