Extreme seafloor ecology: use of ROVs and AUVs to evaluate biodiversity and ecosystem function in the world’s most remote ecosystems
The seafloor deeper than 500 m covers most of the earth’s surface and harbors substantial biodiversity, evolutionary novelty and mineral resources. Evaluation of deep-sea biodiversity as well as human impacts from mining, oil drilling and climate change require use of robotic technologies including remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). This lecture will begin by describing the unusual, and challenging nature of deep-sea ecosystems. Then, drawing from our own research on climate change and species invasions in Antarctic ecosystems, studies of deep-sea whale-fall communities, and environmental baseline studies for manganese-nodule mining in the abyssal Pacific Ocean, I will highlight three topics: (1) challenges of working in the remote and extreme environments of the deep sea and polar oceans, (2) the types of seafloor data ideally collected with ROV/AUV technology to support deep-sea ecological research and environmental baseline studies , (3) examples of scientific discoveries and insights made possible through use of remote technology, and (4) the strengths and weaknesses of the ROV/AUV approach compared to direct human observations (e.g., via human occupied vehicles, or HOVs). Finally, I will summarize some of the continuing major challenges for use of remote technologies for basic research, environmental baseline studies, and deep-ocean observing systems in the earth’s most extreme environments.