Where is the highest mountain on Earth? How did life begin? Where do 90 per cent of earthquakes occur? The answers, of course, can be found in the vast tracts of the deep ocean, the least understood and explored parts of our planet, which make up by far the largest biome on Earth.
The total volume of deep ocean water – everything below 200 metres – is roughly one billion cubic kilometres. The surface area of the deep ocean seabed is more than ten times that of the moon. While the moon has been mapped to a resolution of seven metres, the best chart of the entire deep seabed can only show features larger than 4.8 kilometres across.
In The Brilliant Abyss, Helen Scales details the astounding leaps forward we’ve made in the past 20 years in understanding this previously ignored realm. She shares the excitement that advances in technology and hard scientific graft have delivered in a relatively short time span. As with her previous best-selling books, Scales has an uncanny ability to make complex science engaging and entertaining.
The first half of the book is a fascinating glimpse into an at times bizarre world inhabited by creatures such as blind, bone-eating worms with a stunning sense of smell that change their gender as circumstances demand or giant amphipods that cover themselves with an aluminium gel to survive the intense pressure that comes with living at the bottom of the deepest undersea trenches, more than 8,000 metres below the surface.
One crucial point she emphasises is that scientists are becoming increasingly aware of how important the links are between the deep and the rest of the planet and how interconnected are our life-support systems. From regulating global water temperatures, to capturing carbon, to kick-starting the food chain, we need healthy oceans to sustain our world.
She then details the threats that the deep ocean faces. We use it as a dustbin for our plastic detritus, pollute it with noise, dump toxic chemicals in it and rapaciously hunt its vast but fragile fish stocks. We have little understanding of the impact we’re having by heating it up and changing its chemical balance. And to compound matters, we’re now planning to pillage the seabed, mining it for rare metals. To conclude, she calls for a complete halt to our exploitation of the deep ocean except for scientific research. Otherwise, this really could be our final frontier.
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