Bigelow Laboratory Project Endorsed by UN


An international deep-sea research network based at Bigelow Laboratory has recently been endorsed by the United Nations as an Ocean Decade Action. The project, led by Senior Research Scientist Beth Orcutt, is a global effort to accelerate scientific understanding of the environmental impacts of human activity on seafloor environments.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization announced in June that this is one of 63 efforts around the world endorsed as part of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. These projects address priority issues including marine pollution, management and restoration of marine ecosystems, and ocean-climate interactions.

“This endorsement says that what we aim to deliver is an important part of ocean science for sustainable development, and signals to potential supporters that our ideas have been vetted at a global level,” Orcutt said. “It will help us to attract additional partners, get our message to a larger and more diverse group of people, and enable additional participants to benefit from the programming that we can provide.”

In 2021, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences was awarded $2 million by the National Science Foundation for the five-year Crustal Ocean Biosphere Research Accelerator, or COBRA. The project aims to identify the potential environmental costs of deep-sea activities and connect diverse science and policy experts in industry, academia, and private institutes to guide responsible use of these fragile ecosystems.

The deep seafloor covers two-thirds of Earth’s surface area. While humans have only explored a tiny fraction of it, it has been a source of remarkable discoveries. It is home to complex networks of environmentally important organisms, from microbes to fish, that exist miles below the ocean surface in underwater canyons and mountain chains.

The region also has vast potential for industry. It is a prospective source of valuable metals that are used in many modern electronics. As demand for these finite resources has increased, countries around the world are eyeing the seafloor with increased interest. Some also see the region as a stable place to store carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere where it accelerates global warming.

“Deep-sea mining and subseafloor carbon sequestration may be tools to help humanity to minimize climate change, but their potential impacts to deep-sea ecosystems are poorly understood,” said Orcutt. “The COBRA project will accelerate our understanding of these potential impacts by bringing together key players to coordinate efforts, generate knowledge, and inform strategic decision making that will affect oceans around the world.”

Orcutt said that COBRA’s scientific research aligns with the goals of the UN Ocean Decade, and it directly contributes to many challenges the initiative has set to sustainably to empower people to make positive changes to the ocean. It also supports the UN’s goals to ensure equitable development and access to knowledge and technology across all aspects of ocean science.

The project aims to share knowledge by promoting new techniques that help speed assessment of deep-sea ecosystems through leadership training programs that foster scientific collaboration, diversity, equity, and inclusivity. Recently, it wrapped up the first master class on deep-sea expedition leadership. The training included 12 early career participants from around the world.

Photo courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust NA134 & NOAA Ocean Exploration.