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Exploring deep sea coral reefs

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Conservation

Lophelia coral

Researchers will study slow-growing Lophelia coral reefs when they embark on the first of four new deep sea studies in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Researchers will begin delving into the mysteries of deep sea coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean, in an effort to better understand and protect these rich ocean ecosystems.

A team of international scientists have today embarked on the first of four major cruises in the Atlantic, travelling to study the Lophelia coral reefs off the coast of Florida's Cape Canaveral in the US.

"This year we are mounting an unprecedented effort to gain valuable data about one of the most amazing marine habitats in United States waters," said chief scientist Steve Ross, from the University of North Carolina.

"Deep sea coral reefs are oases in the deep ocean, a province that was thought to be less diverse than shallower waters," he said.

"It is more difficult for marine life to find food and habitat the deeper you go…[but] the deep water reefs provide huge biodiversity, which is required for a healthy ocean."

Reefs located deeper than 1000 feet are considered deep water reefs, and it is only in the last 10 years that seafloor mapping technology has allowed researchers to find and properly study them.

While the cold, deep water where these unique coral reefs live has so far sheltered them from the temperature increase and high levels of pollutants that have affected reefs in shallow waters, this may change in the future.

Deep water reefs are particularly vulnerable to bottom trawling and ocean acidification, for example. Increasing acidification associated with increasing carbon dioxide absorbed by seawater reduces the amount of calcium carbonate needed by animals like corals to create skeletons.

"What we are finding is that we not only didn't know how much habitat was down there, but that there were a lot of hidden new species that nobody knew about," Ross said.

"The deep water reefs are irreplaceable. Once destroyed, it may be impossible for them to re-establish themselves."

One degree of warming in the deep ocean may mean the water temperature stays elevated for decades before the heat can be released, Ross said. And because the corals are old and slow growing, they may never recover from the damage - and "if they do it could take hundreds or thousands of years."

The information and samples collected during the research cruise will assist in conservation and management efforts, and may see the reefs in question come under formal protection by America's South Atlantic Fishery Management Council - becoming the largest protected reef system in the Atlantic.

The surveys may also prove valuable data regarding the climate record, as the calcareous skeletons of corals have properties that allow scientists to chemically measure environmental changes over time.

They may give the researchers a several thousand year record of environmental changes, such as ocean temperatures and productivity, volcanic activity and dust storms.

The scientists will also study habitat distribution and the composition of deep water communities. Previous trips to the deep sea coral reefs in the Atlantic have yielded valuable scientific information, including the discovery of several new species of marine life.

Daily logs from the scientists on the research expedition can be viewed HERE.