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'Marine snow' drifts buoy life on ocean floor

"This is a dramatic improvement in our ability to understand where life can be found underwater," said researcher Henry Ruhl.

By Brooks Hays
New maps of the sea floor in North Atlantic reveal distribution of "marine snow." Photo by isoga/Shutterstock
New maps of the sea floor in North Atlantic reveal distribution of "marine snow." Photo by isoga/Shutterstock

SOUTHAMPTON, England, Sept. 29 (UPI) -- New maps charted using sonar sensors on Autosub6000 have revealed the importance of "marine snow" to the distribution of biomass on the ocean floor.

Marine snow is combination of algal plankton, plankton refuge and other forms of biological waste. It serves as the anchor of food chains at the bottom of the ocean. Where marine snow accumulates, marine life gathers.

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Until now, mapping the ocean floor's terrain, as well as distribution of marine snow and biomass, has proven difficult. That's changing thanks to sonar images captured by the remote-controlled submersible Autosub6000.

In a recent survey of Porcupine Abyssal Plain in the North Atlantic, the submarine traveled nearly 100 miles, plotting the distribution of marine snow. The submarine also charted the sea floor's topography as well as concentrations of animal life.

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The data shows both marine snow and marine biomass are more heavily concentrated along submarine hillsides. Drifting marine snow accumulates at higher elevations, attracting a higher concentration of deep sea lifeforms.

"The autonomy and automation technology we used allowed us to quantify a much larger area in a much quicker time than would have been possible by hand-measuring and counting each clump of marine snow," Kirsty Morris, a scientist at the National Oceanography Centre in England, explained in a news release.

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"This is a dramatic improvement in our ability to understand where life can be found underwater, made possible by a step change in the scale and resolution of the maps that Autosub6000 could create," added NOC researcher Henry Ruhl.

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The new research was published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

"The finding from this study ... is important because there are approximately 25 million abyssal hills and seamounts -- they are thought to be the most common landform on the planet," Ruhl concluded.

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