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Taking the pulse of Atlantic ecosystems

Taking the pulse of Atlantic ecosystems

Taking the pulse of Atlantic ecosystems: major new international expedition sets sail

In July-August 2021, a team of marine scientists from the iAtlantic project will embark on a month-long expedition to investigate the ecosystems and natural processes in the deep sea around the Cabo Verde islands in the central Atlantic Ocean. This expedition – known as iMirabilis2 and led by the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO, CSIC) aboard the research vessel Sarmiento de Gamboa (UTM, CSIC) – is much more than a scientific mission: on board will be a cohort of early career scientists who will undergo hands-on, at-sea training in a range of cutting-edge techniques and skills that will equip them to be the expedition leaders of the future. Partnering with them back on shore around the Atlantic are other researchers and students who are not able to join the ship but will be supporting the mission and participating in training activities through virtual means.

Departing from Vigo in Galicia, northern Spain on 23 July, the expedition will spend a total of 6 weeks at sea, sailing south to the Cabo Verde region and returning to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands at the end of August.
The first leg of the expedition involves a week-long investigation of the seafloor geology along the Azores-Biscay Rise, a 3000m-high linear ridge lying approximately 700km west of the Iberian coastline. Led by colleagues from EMEPC, the Portuguese Task Group for the Extension of the Continental Shelf, this work will use the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Luso, a deep-sea robot, to collect data that will contribute to our understanding of how the Atlantic Ocean opened up over the past 75 million years, as well as discovering more about the ecosystems that inhabit this part of the ocean. A key element of this leg is training in the use of the ROV for geological and biological investigations. In parallel, a small team of Cabo Verde scientists from the NGO Projecto Vito will collect important observational data on seabird ecology.

After a short stop in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the expedition’s second leg focuses on the ecosystems and habitats in the deep-water area around the Cabo Verde islands. Using state-of-the-art instruments and equipment, the team on board will collect an array of data that will help scientists better understand the distribution of seafloor habitats and marine life around Cabo Verde. The autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Autosub6000 – the UK National Oceanography Centre’s robotic submarine that carries out pre-programmed survey missions independently of the ship – will be used to map areas of the seafloor using sonar and photography. Autosub6000 will also be equipped with NOC’s brand new instrument to sample environmental DNA from seawater, which will give us an unprecedented forensic view of the diversity of life in the ocean. The ROV Luso will be used to carry out more detailed investigations of particular ecosystems, and seafloor landers from Heriot-Watt University will be deployed to investigate how these ecosystems function – for example, looking at food chains and respiration rates. In addition, some scientific detective work using seafloor sediment samples will help reveal past environmental conditions in the deep ocean. This is necessary so we can identify environmental changes in the past, understand the drivers behind them, assess how those changes affected marine biodiversity and ecosystems, and determine what that means for Atlantic marine life in the future – all objectives of the iAtlantic research programme. The expedition will also contribute important new data to support the sustainable management of the seas around Cabo Verde, as marine biologist Rui Freitas (Atlantic Technical University, Cabo Verde) explains: “The Cabo Verde archipelago is considered a world marine biodiversity hotspot, but is facing threats such as pollution and the effects of climate change. iMirabilis2 is a very ambitious programme that will use advanced technologies to produce important new, detailed data from the Cabo Verde deep-sea area, which we currently know very little about.

Thanks to our dedicated and enthusiastic outreach team on board, the world of seagoing science will be opened up to those who have never been on a ship. Audiences worldwide can share the adventures of the scientists as they prepare for and undertake a range of experiments and investigations. Those joining the journey will learn about the equipment we use to sample the deep ocean, why we do it, what the data are used for, and how new discoveries and improved understanding can shape our approach to better managing human activities in the ocean.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made organising this expedition exceptionally challenging and plans have had to be significantly adjusted a number of times since the postponement of the original mission in 2020. However, the delays and challenges mean that the expedition team are more excited and enthusiastic than ever about their mission, as expedition leader Covadonga Orejas from the Spanish Institute of Oceanography explains. “Planning and organising such a complex oceanographic expedition during the pandemic has been challenging. However, the fantastic teamwork at national and international level has been really key to finally making this expedition a reality. The exciting prospect of exploring a relatively unknown area of the Atlantic and a collective enthusiasm to learn more about the deep-sea ecosystems off Cabo Verde have been the main driving forces in keeping the whole team motivated and committed to making this expedition happen.”

Follow the iMirabilis2 expedition here