Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads

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#StevesLibrary: The Brilliant Abyss

This may be one of the newest books I’ve reviewed in a while, as The Brilliant Abyss was published only earlier on this year. I was lucky enough to pick up my copy second-hand in a charity shop, which I assume must have been an unwanted gift as it had never been read. I’ve been aware of Helen Scales’ writing for a while, I read Spirals in Times back in 2017, but I may re-read it before reviewing it here as it has been some time! From memory, Scales’ writing style is extremely accessible whilst being both packed full of interesting information, and passion. I certainly found this again in The Brilliant Abyss, which was a very pleasant read, despite the somewhat depressing topic (we’ll come to that later). As many authors and scientists have pointed out over the years, the sea tends to be out of sight and out of mind. This is especially true for the deep ocean, which was thought to be lifeless until the latter half of the 20th century. This fact blows my mind. The scientific community, assumed that because the abyss is dark and somewhat sterile compared to the surface waters, that it must be too hostile for life. If biology has taught me anything, it’s not to undersell life. As we all know, life finds a way! The discovery of black smokers were discovered in 1979, it was a revelation, here was a whole ecosystem that was independent from the sun. Until that point, it was assumed that all ecosystems were connected to the sun, via photosynthesis in one form or another. Again, life found a way and catapulted the potential for life-forms of other planets, in similar environments into the consciousness of scientists.

Having recently read The Deep by Alex Rogers, I was pleased at how different the two books are. My worry was, is that would be near carbon copies, with two scientists working on similar areas of research converging on many of the same thoughts. However, Scales has managed to give The Brilliant Abyss a character of it’s own, which is one of the pleasures of reading it. I’m not a marine biologist, yet I felt that doesn’t matter. I was still able to understand everything Scales mentioned, and why it was important. This is especially vital, given the overall message of the book, which is that deep sea life is under threat from the actions of humankind. In the time since life in the deep was discovered, technology has advanced so much that autonomous vehicles can be sent below the waves to map the abyss and document it’s wildlife, bringing back specimens for scientists to study. It is an unbelievable hostile environment to explore, which is evident by the fact that we’ve mapped the entire surface of a number of planets and our moon, but we haven’t been able to do the same for the sea floor (at least to the same resolution). All of that water, acts as a huge barrier to us, but it also provides a vast richness of habitats for frugal species to evolve and colonise. It is very likely that life first evolved in an environment much like the deep ocean, yet, we’re in a constant battle to save it.

One of the biggest threats to the deep, is deep sea mining. It’s no surprise to anyone that electric cars are taking off, especially seeing as many consumers are moving away from petrol and diesel, to help combat climate change. However, where are all of the rare metals and other elements going to come from to help fuel that switch from fossil fuels? There are a number of mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (with questionable practices) and China, which are currently helping to meet demand. However, we’re going to need more raw materials soon, to help fuel the uptake of electric vehicles (and other alternatives). The deep sea may hold the answer, with mineral nodules and the smokers/vents that are also mineral rich. This may seem like a a great solution, everything we need is just sitting there. However, if the mining takes place (and it looks like it may do by 2023), the areas that are mined will be damaged forever and life may never recolonise them. The species of the deep are fragile, long-lived and sensitive to disturbance. This has been demonstrated by the effects of trawling around sea mounts, imagine what deep sea mining will do to these habitats? It is a real tricking situation to be in. In my mind, we should value the environment for what it is, instead of mining it of it’s minerals and other useful resources. Instead, we should fund money to develop alternatives that use readily available materials.

If you want to know more about the discoveries of the deep sea and how humanity has constantly put pressure on this extremely unique environment, then I highly recommend The Brilliant Abyss.

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