The undersea discovery of a large seep of methane in the North Atlantic may hold the key to learning a great deal about the underwater ecosystem.
Dr. Steve Ross, research professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington's Center for Marine Science, calls the ocean floor the last great frontier on Earth. His work into the depths of the Atlantic will help scientists better understand a wide variety of things about oceanic life and beyond.
Steve Ross is a Research Professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Marine Science. He has served as chief scientist on numerous cruises, including those using submersibles. His current work involves community assessment of unique deep-water habitats. He holds a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University.
Dr. Steve W. Ross - Methane Cold Seep Discovery
In deep waters of the North Atlantic, near Norfolk Canyon, our team discovered what may be the Atlantic’s, and maybe the world’s, largest methane seep. Here, large mussels and other creatures flourish on bacteria that use methane to make energy. This process, known as chemosynthesis forms the basis for life in these harsh environments. Methane gas erupting from the seafloor creates a unique ecosystem for sea cucumbers, crabs, and many fishes. Such ecosystems are the only ones known that can sustain life without energy from the sun, proving that sunlight is not critical for all life forms. Our studies contribute to our understanding how organisms survive in extreme conditions.
The discovery of this huge methane seep, plus several smaller ones, will help scientists better understand submarine geology and ecology. A large part of our project was also to explore some of the numerous submarine canyons off the mid-Atlantic coast. Complex technology has allowed us to document important deep-sea and canyon habitats that are otherwise unreachable. We used a remote-operated vehicle named Jason to navigate extreme depths, plunging down 5,200 feet, where we discovered the methane cold seep.
We are interested in these ecosystems because they concentrate biodiversity, and support deep-sea coral communities and new forms of life. This discovery also plays an important role in advancing scientific understanding of gas hydrates and methane that may provide future energy resources.
A vast amount of science will result from the finding of this methane seep and our canyon explorations. We know now that we might expect life to exist in almost any environment and some forms are not even dependent on the sun. Such amazing discoveries highlight that the Deep-Sea is probably the last great frontier on Earth. We have mountains of data to analyze, and we expect these data to yield yet more discoveries.