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Beyond Challenger: a new age of deep-sea science and exploration

Discussion meeting

Location

The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG

Overview

Scientific discussion meeting organised by Dr Kerry Howell, Professor Paul Tyler, Dr Alan Jamieson and Dr Bhavani Narayanaswamy

A robotic arm of an ROV collecting a coral specimen from the deep-sea floor. Credit: Plymouth University, Cefas, NUIG and the Irish Marine Institute.

The deep-sea is the largest ecosystem on earth covering 60% of the planet’s surface. However, our fundamental knowledge of this ecosystem has been limited by the logistical challenges of conducting research in this environment. This meeting will explore how recent developments in autonomous and robotic technologies could bring about a step-change in deep-sea research, ultimately revolutionising understanding of global biodiversity.

The schedule of talks and speaker biographies are available below. Recorded audio of the presentations will be available on this page after the meeting has taken place.

Poster session

There will be a poster session at 17:00 on Monday 12 November. If you would like to apply to present a poster please submit your proposed title, abstract (not more than 200 words and in third person), author list, name of the proposed presenter and institution to the Scientific Programmes team with the subject heading "Beyond Challenger: poster abstract" no later than Friday 12 October 2018. Please note that places are limited and posters are selected at the scientific organiser's discretion. Poster abstracts will only be considered if the presenter is registered to attend the meeting.

Attending the event

This meeting is intended for researchers in relevant fields.

  • Free to attend
  • Limited places, advanced registration is essential
  • An optional lunch can be purchased during registration

An evening poster session and drinks reception will be held following the close of the meeting on 12 November. Whilst the posters are free to view for all registered participants, the corresponding optional drinks reception is ticketed. Drinks reception tickets can be purchased in advance during registration.

Enquiries: Contact the Scientific Programmes team.

Event organisers

Select an organiser for more information

Schedule of talks

12 November

09:00-12:15

Challenges in deep-sea ecology

4 talks Show detail Hide detail

Chairs

Professor Michael Rex, University of Massachusetts Boston, USA

09:05-09:30 Before HMS Challenger: from earlier expeditions to lobbying for the deep

Dr Jon Copley, University of Southampton, UK

Show speakers

09:30-10:00 What lives in the deep-sea? A not-so-ancient answer to an ancient question

Dr Adrian Glover, Natural History Museum, UK

Abstract

In the early days of deep-sea exploration, it was quite acceptable in the scientific community to wonder if any animals at all can live in the deep sea, and if they were there, what on earth they might look like. Ancient lineages of life that have long since gone extinct in our shallow seas? Giant monsters with peculiar adaptations to the cold and dark? Today these old-fashioned questions would probably not pass through a grant-awarding committee. Simply knowing what is there is not enough. Science demands numbers, functions, genomes, applications. But the simple truth is that every deep-sea biologist, waiting on the back deck of a ship for their samples to come up, or watching the screen of an ROV, still ponders these questions - with a remarkably open-mind as to what on earth they might find. It is a common refrain to hear that ‘most of the deep-sea is unexplored’. However, this is not entirely true. We do actually have rather a lot of samples and knowledge of the deep sea. The main issue is that those samples, and the treasures they hold, are not being described, archived and communicated in the comprehensive manner that so defined the Challenger expedition. In my talk, I will propose a 21st century approach to an old problem - what lives in the deep sea?

Show speakers

10:00-10:30 Discussion

10:30-11:00 Coffee

11:00-11:20 End-to-end understanding of energy flow at hydrothermal vents

Dr William Reid, Newcastle University, UK

Abstract

Hydrothermal vents form ephemeral deep-sea habitats that occur along seafloor spreading centres and subduction zones as well as in association with volcanic seamounts. Diverse chemotrophic microbial communities form the base of the food web. These bacteria take advantage of redox disequilibria and a variety of carbon sources to gain “energy” for growth and cell maintenance. Ultimately, this chemosynthetic primary production supports localised, high metazoan biomass in relation to the surrounding deep-sea. Stable isotopes are often used by geochemists, microbiologists and ecologists to understand geochemical processes and “energy” flow through biological systems. Ecologists require an understanding of the basal and primary producer stable isotope dynamics in order to place in context the stable isotope values of metazoan consumers. However, there are often spatial and temporal mismatches in sample collection within many hydrothermal vent fields which hinder our understanding of trophic interactions and “energy” flow from the mantle to the consumer. There is currently a requirement for synthesis within the stable isotope literature that will identify key data gaps, which may bridge disciplines, to be filled. This will allow the development of multi-level isotopic landscapes or “isoscapes” over hydrothermal vent fields which will provide better understanding of the primary production utilised by consumers. Moving forward, these “isoscapes” need to work in parallel with the development of processed based models that will allow analysis and prediction of key biochemical processes that shape the “energy” landscape within hydrothermal vents.

Show speakers

11:20-11:45 Into the great wide open: plumbing ocean depths in the 21st century

Dr Paul Snelgrove, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada

Abstract

Expanding global interest in the extraction of living and non-living resources from Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction creates both opportunity and challenge. Opportunity for economic benefits from the deep sea juxtaposes challenges in sustainable use of the Earth’s largest, most pristine, and least known habitats. The deep ocean faces stressors from distant sources as climate change warms, acidifies and de-oxygenates deep waters in which microplastics and other human waste are now nearly ubiquitous. Fortunately, new technologies paired with developments in marine conservation and area-based management tools, such as marine protected areas (MPA), offer potential pathways to effective strategies for sustaining deep-sea ecosystems. Rapidly emerging technologies (genetics, imaging, sensors and observation platforms, data and modelling) can inform effective MPA design and management in deep-sea environments, drawing on new approaches to map habitats, evaluate their spatial extent and connectivity, and informing size and spacing elements. Collectively, these tools can help address the unique conservation issues for deep-sea biota (sparse data, low population size, many rare species, examples of late reproducers with limited fecundity) and ecosystems (lack of habitat maps, expansive habitat types interspersed with discrete and sometimes rare and specialized habitats) that require considerations beyond those that drive MPA design in terrestrial and coastal habitats. This discussion will draw from MPA examples in which we consider the need to include a 3D dimension in “protection” when addressing deep-sea ecosystems.

Show speakers

11:45-12:15 Discussion

12:15-13:15

Lunch

13:15-17:00

Recent advances in autonomous technology and artificial intelligence

4 talks Show detail Hide detail

Chairs

Dr Ana Hilario, CESAM, University of Aveiro, Portugal

13:15-13:45 High-resolution imaging in marine habitats using Autonomous Underwater Vehicles

Professor Stefan B Williams, University of Sydney, Australia

Abstract

This talk will describe insights gained from a decade of autonomous marine systems development at the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics. Over the course of this time, this group has developed and deployed numerous underwater vehicles and imaging platforms in support of applications in engineering science, marine ecology, archaeology and geoscience. The group has operated an Australia-wide benthic observing program designed to deliver precisely navigated, repeat imagery of the seafloor. This initiative makes extensive use of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) to collect high-resolution stereo imagery, multibeam sonar and water column measurements on an annual or semi-annual basis at sites around Australia, spanning the full latitudinal range of the continent from tropical reefs in the north to temperate regions in the south. The program has been very successful over the past decade, collecting millions of images of the seafloor around Australia and making these available to the scientific community through online data portals developed by the facility and affiliated groups. These observations are providing important insights into the dynamics of key ecological sites and their responses to changes in oceanographic conditions through time. The group has also contributed to expeditions to document coral bleaching, cyclone recovery, submerged neolithic settlement sites, ancient shipwrecks, methane seeps and deepwater hydrothermal vents. The talk will also consider how automated tools for working with this imagery have facilitated the resulting science outcomes and will explore opportunities to extend these techniques to the study of deep-sea science and exploration.

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13:45-14:15 Whole site multi-resolution photogrammetric surveys of deep-sea vents and cold seeps

Dr Blair Thornton, University of Southampton, UK

Abstract

There are many applications in marine science and monitoring that require high-resolution images of the seafloor to be obtained. However, the resolution of underwater observations are often at a trade-off with the extent over which they can be made, and this limits their usefulness in non-uniform seafloor environments where the distribution of features varies over spatial scales much larger than the footprint that can be observed, for example in a single image frame. This talk will describe recent efforts to address scale relevance in seafloor imaging applications by using autonomous underwater vehicles instrumented with systems that can image the seafloor from different altitudes, and build multi-hectare 3D visual reconstructions of the seafloor with resolutions with sufficiently high-resolution where needed. This allows continuous wide-area, multi-resolution 3D reconstructions of the seafloor to be generated, allowing patterns to be explored and interpreted over a large range of spatial scales that would not otherwise be possible. This approach will be described giving examples of data recently obtained in deep-sea hydrothermal vent and gas hydrate fields.

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14:15-14:45 Discussion

14:45-15:15 Tea

15:15-15:45 An overview of recent developments in artificial intelligence and its potential applications to deep-sea exploration

Professor Jeremy Wyatt, University of Birmingham, UK
Dr Mohan Sridharan, University of Birmingham, UK

Abstract

AI in general and machine learning in particular have created a great deal of recent interest, not to mention hyperbole. In this talk, Jeremy Wyatt and Mohan Sridharan will give a whistle-stop tour of the current state of AI. The speakers shall describe fundamental algorithmic advances in perception, reasoning, manipulation and learning. The emphasis will be on the nature and properties of algorithms that may have utility in deep-sea exploration. Although the speakers are not currently working on AUVs, they will discuss some case studies from their own work and that of others. The talk will also cover the obvious challenges in practical deployment and some ways that these challenges may be overcome.

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15:45-16:15 Sampling our oceans and issues of taxonomic identification

Dr Philip Culverhouse, Plymouth University, UK

Abstract

A severe bottleneck exists in the ecological study of our oceans and seas. This has arisen because net-sampling, having been the mainstay of biological oceanographers for over a century, has not provided sufficient data of the distributions, dynamics and populations of important taxa to answer questions posed by researchers today and in the future. In the last decade or so, in-situ, towed or ship-based imaging instruments have been developed that potentially may be able to address the shortfall. These instruments can, and will, provide denser spatial and temporal sampling that is more cost-effective than is possible with net sampling. However, there is problem. We do not have enough skilled people to identify the video and photographic hauls from the water.

Artificial Intelligence has been mooted as the solution, automating identification using the latest ideas in Deep Learning. However, to be successful in using computers to automate taxonomic identification of organisms, the machines will have to learn from the vast literature that describes our natural world. Deep learning is beginning to revolutionise computer-based visual recognition, but it must be tied to natural language and the descriptions that people make in the scientific literature to be able make the transition from laboratory-sized machine classifiers to globally useful tools. We must integrate the existing taxonomic knowledge that is written and drawn with emerging AI tools. Culverhouse will explore this issue.

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16:15-16:45 Discussion

13 November

09:00-09:30

The application of new technology to deep-sea ecological research

4 talks Show detail Hide detail

Chairs

Dr Christopher R German MBE, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA

09:00-09:30 Remotely Operated Vehicles: taking us to new depths in ocean exploration, science and communication

Dr Diva Amon, Natural History Museum, UK

Abstract

Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) have been an essential part of the deep-sea tool kit since the 1980s. They act as our scientific eyes, ears and hands in a world where we cannot easily venture. ROVs have revolutionised our ability to perform tasks previously considered near impossible in the deep ocean, including the high-resolution mapping and imaging of a variety of communities and habitats, the collection of delicate specimens or detailed environmental data, and the deployment and recovery of experiments with incredible care. With ROV technology continuously evolving, we are taking deep-sea ecological research to new depths. Recent uses include the observation of bioluminescence using unique light and camera configurations, the collection of high-resolution imagery to create mosaics of vulnerable marine ecosystems such as hydrothermal vents and coral gardens, the undertaking of crucial baseline surveys to better inform the environmental management of areas where deep-sea mining may occur, and the collection of previously unknown species for thorough morphological and molecular assessment adding to our knowledge of biodiversity. Additionally, ROVs, combined with telepresence technology, have enabled a global network of scientists to work more effectively and collaboratively within and across disciplines, as well as to share the deep ocean with a wider audience. With immersive technology on the horizon, the use of ROVs is certain to diversify in the near future.

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09:30-10:00 Use of autonomous vehicles to understand abyssal ecology

Dr Jennifer Durden, University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA

Abstract

Our understanding of deep-sea ecosystems has been shaped by the technology used to observe it. In the era of the HMS Challenger, concepts of deep-sea benthic community structure and dynamics were established based on samples from trawls and dredges. While these tools are still in use today, technological developments have shifted the observation of the deep sea towards remotely-operated and autonomous platforms coupled with modern sensors, cameras, lighting, data storage and batteries. The combination of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) with seabed photography has substantially increased our presence in the deep-sea environment in two main ways: by increasing the seabed area observed, and lowering the organism detection size threshold. Habitats are investigated more thoroughly (and quantitatively), and more habitats (and transitions between them) are examined, leading to improved understanding of processes and spatial relationships with scale. The impacts of this technology use are characterised by the change to our understanding of low-density abyssal communities: more morphotypes and higher densities are found, biomass estimates are significantly higher, and altered community structures are revealed. AUVs and marine photography have been applied in landscape-scale community ecology studies, with implications for assessing anthropogenic impacts and designating marine protected areas. Thus, their use has improved and increased qualitative and quantitative observation, and fundamentally altered our understanding of these environments and the processes occurring there. Some suggest that this step change in understanding ushers in a ‘new golden age of discovery’.

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10:00-10:30 Discussion

10:30-11:00 Coffee

11:00-11:30 Advances in ecogenomic technologies in marine environments

Dr Julie Robidart, National Oceanography Centre, UK

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11:30-12:00 Challenges and progress in the application of artificial intelligence to taxon identification in sea-floor imagery

Dr Kerry Howell, Plymouth University, UK

Abstract

Scientific research in the deep sea has always been limited by available technology. However, the development of new robotic and autonomous technology is significantly enhancing our ability to study this environment. Currently, modern underwater sampling tools, particularly Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV), are able to collect vast image datasets, but cannot bypass the bottleneck formed by manual image annotation. Artificial intelligence (AI) and Computer Vision (CV) can be a faster, more consistent, cost effective and a sharable alternative to manual annotation. However, they are subject to a number of challenges that inhibit growth in their use. These are: 1) lack of standardisation in taxon identification between reference datasets that could be used to train CV algorithms, 2) lack of understanding by ecologists in the application and expected performance of existing open-source CV algorithms, 3) poor performance of CV with some taxa. Examples of progress being made in each of these areas is outlined. To address challenge 1 an international project to develop a single reference catalogue used in the identification of taxa from imagery is presented. To address challenge 2 the results of a study that applied CV to identification of taxa from seafloor imagery obtained from the UK’s AUV Autosub6000 is presented; and finally to address challenge 3 results from a novel investigation into the use of hyperspectral imagery in taxon discrimination is presented.

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12:00-12:30 Discussion

12:30-13:30

Lunch

13:30-14:00

Future deep-sea ecology

4 talks Show detail Hide detail

Chairs

Dr Maria Baker, University of Southampton, UK

13:30-14:00 The challenge of exploring and protecting deep-sea ecosystems

Professor Roberto Danovaro, Polytechnic University of Marche and Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, Italy

Abstract

Empirical and theoretical studies suggest that biodiversity regulates ecosystems’ functions, which are responsible for the production of goods and services for human wellbeing. A recent study conducted across a wide range of deep-sea ecosystems revealed that the functioning of the largest ecosystem on Earth is positively and exponentially related to biodiversity of benthic fauna. Such relationships suggest that a minor biodiversity loss could have dramatic consequences on ecosystem functions and services (including nutrient regeneration, biomass production, C storage, food webs). However, all biological components in deep-sea ecosystems are intimately linked, and larger organisms are tightly dependent upon either bottom-up and top-down ecological interactions, symbiotic relationships and by the role and functions of the microbial components. Here, thanks to the new tools offered by molecular analyses and massive sequencing, we explored these microbial-macrobial interactions and their role in the biodiversity-ecosystem functioning relationships. The results presented here indicate that if we want to ensure the long-term sustainability of ecosystem services in the deep sea, we need to better explore the relationships between microbial components and larger organisms. The knowledge of these interactions will expand our ability to preserve deep-sea ecosystem functioning and services, and to identify the factors potentially increasing the vulnerability of deep-sea ecosystems to biodiversity loss and the impact of global change.

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14:00-14:30 Nekton XL Catlin deep-ocean survey and the potential of non-government funded deep-sea exploration

Professor Alex Rogers, University of Oxford, UK

Abstract

The Nekton Foundation’s mission is to gather data to accelerate ocean governance. In 2016 the Nekton Foundation undertook its first mission, the XL Catlin Deep-Ocean Survey. The aim was to explore the shallow water and mesophotic ecosystems of Bermuda as well as the waters of the Sargasso Sea. Two vessels were involved in the mission, a private vessel called the Baseline Explorer and the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Hudson. New data were gathered in Bermuda using a combination of SCUBA divers, Technical divers and sumersibles (Triton 1000/2s). Findings have included confirmation of the rariphotic zone in the Caribbean, the discovery of the deepest lionfish and a previously undocumented diversity of macro algae in the rariphotic zone. The CCGS Hudson undertook oceanographic cross-sections of the Sargasso Sea as well as some benthic work on the Canadian margin and a seamount. Some of the challenges of organising expeditions on a private basis are discussed. 

Nekton will undertake its next mission in the Indian Ocean in March 2019. REV Ocean is a new Foundation founded by the Norwegian billionaire Kjell Inge Rokke. They are currently constructing a new 182 meter long research vessel to be launched at the end 2020/start 2021. The vessel will be equipped with ROVs, submersibles and a full range of oceanographic sampling equipment as well as a 40 seater lecture theatre and 40+ berths for scientists. The use of this vessel and other privately-funded research vessels for a global mission will be discussed.

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14:30-15:00 Discussion

15:00-15:30 Tea

15:30-16:00 Planning and executing a round-the-world deep sea expedition: experience from the 5-Deeps

Dr Alan Jamieson, Newcastle University, UK

Abstract

The deepest part of the world’s oceans, the hadal zone, (6000 to 11,000 metres deep) has in recent years has seen a renaissance in basic exploration. This biozone accounts for 45% of the total ocean depth range and comprises a disjunct array of subduction trenches. Recent research has in large been supported by technological advances that have made this otherwise largely inaccessible frontier accessible. While a new generation of ‘Hadal-landers’ are now common place, various attempts to expand ultra-deep exploration beyond baited systems have often been short lived (e.g. ROVs, HOVs).

In the spirit of the HMS Challenger Expedition, a new round the world deep-sea expedition is underway.  The 5-Deeps Expedition is the first expedition to attempt to send a human to the deepest point in each of the Earth’s five oceans in a submersible: Arctic, Antarctic, Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Ocean, as well as explore another 7 deep areas. The expedition will run for at least 13 months, starting in August 2018 and will travel nearly 60,000 kilometers around the globe on the Deep Submergence Support Vessel (DSSV) Pressure Drop. The dives will be undertaken using the newly designed and constructed 2-man submersible, DSV Limiting Factor, aided by three science landers. Large areas of hadal sea floor will be mapped using a new high resolution multibeam echo sounder mounted on the Pressure Drop. This is an opportunity to hear first-hand about the recently announced expedition including the planning, execution, logistics and other considerations for going beyond Challenger on other such endeavours.

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16:00-17:00 Panel discussion/overview

Beyond Challenger: a new age of deep-sea science and exploration

12 - 13 November 2018

The Royal Society, London 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK
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