NOAA looks for answers in the mysterious Mariana Trench

In a 69-day exploration of the deepest part of the Earth, NOAA wants the public to have a front row seat. 

A deep-sea anglerfish living within the pillow basalts. You can see its round lure in between its two eyes. This fish is an ambush predator that waits for prey to be attracted by the lure before rapidly capturing them in one gulp with their large mouths. Image courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is undertaking a three-month investigation of one of the most mysterious places on Earth: the Mariana Trench.

From April 20 to July 10, NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer, a former Navy ocean surveillance vessel repurposed for scientific research, is conducting three separate expeditions around the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument (MTMNM) and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a US commonwealth in the Pacific ocean. Through the 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas expedition, NOAA wants to collect more data on the area so they can better protect the deepest part of the planet.

“Despite decades of previous work in the region, much of the Monument and surrounding areas remain unexplored,” NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research says in a press release. “In the coming months, we expect to explore bottomfish habitats, new hydrothermal vent sponge communities, and seamounts, as well as subduction zone and trench areas.”

The Mariana Trench needs to be explored, says National Geographic, because the same adaptations that allow organisms to live in the Trench’s extreme conditions could also lead to breakthroughs in medicine and biotechnology. Rocks from the trench could lead to a better understanding of Earth’s plate tectonics, and the area’s frequent earthquakes and tsunamis. Additionally, scientists believe the trench’s mud volcanoes may have provided the perfect conditions for Earth’s first life to thrive.

But exploring the Mariana Trench is not easy. The trench's deepest portion, Challenger Deep, southwest of Guam, is seven miles beneath the ocean’s surface. To put this depth in perspective, even if Mount Everest were submerged to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, there would still be a mile of water between the mountain’s peak and the ocean’s surface. And at 16,000 pounds per square inch, the pressure at the bottom of the Mariana Trench is about 1,088 times that of sea level.

And because of these difficulties, new revelations about the area are still emerging. In March, for example, a team of researchers from the NOAA, the US Coast Guard and Oregon State University dropped a microphone the 36,200 feet down to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, only to discover that the area is actually extremely noisy, with sounds reverberating from whales, ships, and typhoons miles above the Trench.

To help the public better understand this natural wonder, NOAA is publishing photos and live video streams of their findings during the exploration. Thus far, NOAA has captured purple sea cucumbers, pillow lava, and a predatory jellyfish.

“This expedition provides extensive opportunities for the public to connect with the mission,” says NOAA. “The live video feeds are available to anyone online, providing the public with a front row seat to exploration activities and discoveries as they are made.”

The Trench was designated as a National Monument in 2009, “for the purpose of protecting objects of interest” such as hydrothermal vents, underwater volcanoes, and the many diverse species that call the area home.

The first leg of the 69-day expedition, which explored and mapped the southern half of MTMNM and CNMI, ends on Wednesday. The second leg of the mission, from May 20 to June 11, and the third leg of the mission, from June 17 to July 10, will both focus on the northern areas of the trench.

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