Washington Post Staff, October 4, 2010
A lone deep-sea snail living within a hydrothermal vent. The migratory tracks of great white sharks crossing ocean basins. Audio recordings of schools of fish the size of Manhattan, swimming in concert.
hese are just a handful of the discoveries that came out of the Census of Marine Life, a decade-long project that finished Monday. Encompassing more than 2,700 scientists from 80 nations and territories across the world, the census sought to answer a basic but daunting question. In the words of its scientific steering committee chairman Ian Poiner: “What did live in the ocean, what does live in the ocean and what will live in the ocean?”
Ten years after the study was launched, much of the sea remains unknown. At its start only 5 percent of the ocean had been seriously explored, and even now, there are no observations for 20 percent of the sea, while more than half of the ocean has only been subject to minimal exploration.
Still, the project has, in the words of its co-founder Jesse Ausubel, “defined what is unknown” about the ocean, and shed light on how it functions. “The oceans are richer than we imagined, more connected than we imagined, and they’re more altered,” said Ausubel, program director for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the census’s vice president.
The $650 million initiative, $75 million of which came from the Sloan Foundation, launched 570 expeditions that journeyed from Antarctica to the tropics. Ranking as one of the world’s largest scientific collaborations ever, it produced more 2,600 academic papers and collected 30 million observations of 120,000 species. Researchers have identified potentially 6,000 new species in the course of the project, 1,200 of which have been formally described.