The deep seas - vast expanses of water and seabed hidden more than 200 metres below the ocean surface to depths up to 11,000 metres - are recognised globally as an important frontier of science and discovery.
But despite the fact they account for around 60% of Earth’s surface area, large areas remain completely unexplored, yet the habitats they support impact on the health of the entire planet.
Now an international team of scientists spanning 45 institutions in 17 countries, including two researchers from Scotland, has called for a dedicated decade-long programme of research to greatly advance discovery in these remote regions.
The programme - which scientists have named Challenger 150 - will coincide with the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which runs from 2021-2030.
Challenger 150 will generate new geological, physical, biogeochemical, and biological data through a global cooperative of science and innovation, including the application of new technology. These data will be used to understand how changes in the deep sea impact the wider ocean and life on the planet.
Among its key areas of focus are to build greater capacity and diversity in the scientific community, acknowledging the fact that existing deep-sea research is conducted primarily by developed nations with access to resources and infrastructure.
The programme will use this new knowledge of the deep to support regional, national, and international decision-making on deep-sea issues such as mining, hydrocarbon extraction, fishing, climate mitigation, laying of fibre optic cables and conservation.
The international team presented the rationale behind the call for action in a comment article in Nature Ecology and Evolution, simultaneously publishing a detailed blueprint of how the actions can be best achieved in Frontiers in Marine Science.
Led by members of the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative (DOSI) and the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR), the authorship reflects both the gender and geographical diversity such a programme demands, with authors from the six inhabited continents of the world.
They note that the UN Decade provides an unrivalled opportunity to unite the international science community to deliver a giant leap in our knowledge of the deep seas.
The authors on the papers include Prof Bhavani Narayanaswamy at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Oban and Dr David Bailey from the University of Glasgow.
Dr Bailey, of the University of Glasgow Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, said: "The deep ocean is subject to many threats, including new industries such as deep-sea mining, and the ongoing impacts of fishing. Deep habitats and species are often highly vulnerable, but because they are not visible to most people they have never had the attention they need. I am proud to be associated with this vision for a future programme of research and education. I believe it will uncover many secrets of the deep ocean, bring them to a wide audience, and inspire the protection needed."
Professor Narayanaswamy said: "The deep sea is by far the largest ecosystem on planet earth with a plethora of species and a variety of different habitats. A truly global programme is required in order to not only learn more about this ecosystem and to put measures in place to manage it in a sustainable fashion, but to also train the next generation of researchers, the future custodians of the deep sea."
Kerry Howell, Professor of Deep-Sea Ecology at the University of Plymouth (UK) and lead author of the research publications, said: "The deep seas and seabed are increasingly being used by society, and they are seen as a potential future asset for the resources they possess. But managing these resources sustainably requires that we first understand deep-sea ecosystems and their role in our planet, its people and its atmosphere. Our vision is for a 10-year programme of science and discovery that is global in scale and targeted towards proving the science to inform decisions around deep-ocean use. We believe the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science provides the perfect opportunity to achieve that."