Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo by Chris Stone
Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo by Chris Stone

Marine scientists from UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the United States Geological Survey have completed a 12-day expedition off the coast of Southern California to survey the biodiversity of deep sea areas rich in minerals, it was announced Monday.

The expedition aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor, which covered 5,310 square miles, explored nine deep sea sites, including an 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 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 on the seafloor between Santa Catalina Island and the Palos Verdes Peninsula had been surveyed by scientists from UC Santa Barbara and Scripps on earlier 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 contains marine mineral types that have mineral resource potential in other regions of the global oceans and can be used for comparison. The area hosts ferromanganese crusts and phosphorites that can contain minerals and metals that are used in agriculture or 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.

“We are just beginning to understand the valuable resources of our ocean ecosystem,” said Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of the 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,” she said. “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 Lisa Levin, a professor of biological oceanography at Scripps Institution of 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 be returned to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography where scientists will conduct further analysis and DNA sequencing.

–City News Service