Exploring the Blue Economy

Cindy Lee Van Dover, Harvey Smith professor of biological oceanography and chair of the Division of Marine Science and Conservation at Duke University, speaks during a 2017 Winter Enrichment Program WEP On-Air interview in January.

Only recently have scientists been able to research the deep sea and uncover some of the mysteries that lie in its depths. Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover, Harvey Smith professor of biological oceanography and chair of the Division of Marine Science and Conservation at Duke University, is a scientist who has gone where few have gone before in the deep sea.

"I'm an explorer at heart. I look at a map and think: where have we not been?" said Van Dover during a 2017 Winter Enrichment Program (WEP) On-Air interview at KAUST in January.

Van Dover describes herself as a deep-sea ecologist, explorer, submarine pilot and author. Her work has taken her across all the world’s oceans to depths up to 4,000 meters.

“I grew up not far from the coast, and I would see the animals like crabs that were different from me,” she said. “I wanted to know why they had all those legs and how they used all those different shaped appendages. As I got older, I kept thinking about deeper water and what creatures were out there.”

From the darkness into the springs

Just a few decades ago, the deep ocean was still an unexplored mystery. Researchers believed the seafloor was all the same: dark, cold and uninhabited. But, with new technology, scientists like Van Dover found there is a whole new world in the depths.

“They discovered hot springs on the seafloor that could be the size of a football field, an auditorium or a small classroom,” Van Dover said. “They are little islands and surrounding them is a desert-like area.”

The hot springs are found in all the oceans with a seafloor spreading system. In order for a hot spring to exist, you need a combination of magma and seawater. In the areas where the ocean floor is spreading (such as at the mid-ocean ridges), the molten magna rises and superheats the cold ocean water around it, producing the hot springs.

The hot springs are similar to an oasis in the desert, with Van Dover noting she has found many new species living in them, and each species has different adaptations to survive.

“Many live in extreme environments, and in some cases in noxious chemicals, but they have worked out physiologies to prevent them from being killed by the toxic environments they live in,” she explained. “You have to be a detective to figure out what they are doing down there.”

In her book "The Octopus's Garden: Hydrothermal Vents and Other Mysteries of the Deep Sea," she talks about the mysteries of the deep sea and some of her discoveries. One of her favorite creatures is the giant tube worm.

“Some people think they are ugly, but I can’t understand this. I think they are the most beautiful animals in the world,” she said. “Tube worms live in hot springs and have an exquisite design. They can be as tall as me and quite big around. The creatures have no mouth and no digestive system. They live in close proximity to bacteria and are feeding off of them.”

A Blue Economy emerges

The deep sea and the research around it is booming due to advances in technology. Engineers have figured out how to get researchers down to the seafloor using submarines, robots or remote-controlled gadgets. And while new technology is allowing scientists to learn more about the organisms in the deep sea and the possible biological and mineral resources, it has also created a stir in non-scientific areas. Industries are interested in what the seafloor offers and want to develop the Blue Economy.

“In the deep sea, we think of the Blue Economy as trying to develop industries in water that is 4,000 or 5,000 meters deep. The principle interest right now is the minerals and the metals,” Van Dover said.


Mining in the deep

The current interest in this new economy is in mining, but industries are also investigating the genetic resources that could exist on the seafloor. The big question is whether we need to use these resources in the deep sea when we still have resources on land.

“Whether it will be environmentally sustainable and really blue—or really green—is still a question that needs to be answered,” Van Dover said. “More science needs to be done to understand what the impact would be on the sea environment and the animals that live there.”

Three minerals currently of interest in the deep waters are: manganese nodules, cobalt crust and massive sulphide deposits formed by black smokers at the seafloor. These are a source of rare earth elements such as yttrium, dysprosium and terbium, which are used in ICT hardware and renewable energy technologies. The primary metal of interest is copper.

No one is mining yet in the deep sea, but two licenses have been issued for the Red Sea and Papua New Guinea.