Folks, there’s untold wilderness in the fathoms below. Proof lies about 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina—and then about 2,600 feet down. This summer, a submersible containing a pilot and a couple of researchers descended through darkening waters to the seafloor. After a thump and the flipping of a light switch, the scientists gazed in wonder. There, illuminated in the tiny sub’s beam, stood an endless swath of bright white Lophelia pertusa. Mounds of these cold-water corals reached up to 300 feet tall, and their polyp-tipped branches grew healthier and thicker as the team explored the 85-mile stretch of reef hidden deep off a busy coast.
“This was our first big cruise, and we made this discovery,” says Erik Cordes, the principal investigator for the DEEP SEARCH program, a collaboration between federal agencies and universities. “It’s very exciting as a scientist to be exploring the unknown, and scary when you’re trying to manage a resource with so little information. We have no idea what’s out there.”
Most of what lies below the ocean’s surface remains a mystery. High-resolution maps exist for just about 5 percent of the oceans, and we’ve laid eyes on even less than 10 percent of that. The goal of DEEP SEARCH is to find sensitive habitats off Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia to help the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) manage these areas should they become open to oil and gas drilling. This is why the recent discovery is both a success and a dazzling reminder of the risks—known and unknown—that come with extracting fossil fuels from the Atlantic off our southeastern coast.
A few months after taking office last year, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a controversial offshore plan that entails potentially opening previously protected sections of sea to drilling—including parts of the Atlantic from Georgia to Maine. The next offshore oil and gas leasing program, which will last from 2019 to 2024, is now making its way through the regulatory process, and later this year, the BOEM is expected to release its plan for whether or not to allow oil and gas extraction from the southeastern seafloor.
For now, the newly discovered reef is in good shape. Obscurity has enabled evolution and biodiversity to work their magic. Cordes believes this reef and other Atlantic corals could be hundreds of thousands of years old. Urchins, sponges, crabs, other corals, and apex predators like swordfish thrive among the coralline hills and valleys. Reefs like this one are basically underwater old-growth forests.
Ancient reefs play key roles in maintaining biodiversity and the overall health of the seas they inhabit. Not only do they provide homes for countless marine species, but they also serve as important feeding grounds that help nourish fisheries elsewhere. Reefs may even house future medical discoveries. For instance, a deep-sea sponge containing molecular compounds that zap tumor cells was discovered in 2005 off Alaska (another coastline targeted by the Trump administration). Sandra Brooke, a coral ecologist with Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Lab, says, “It’s quite possible that in the areas being obliterated by deep-sea fishing or mining, we might lose the next cure for cancer before we even know it’s there.”
Reefs are very sensitive to disturbances—and oil and gas exploration and drilling are as disruptive as they are dirty. The damage starts off with a bang by way of seismic testing. That’s when ships blast powerful sound waves to map the geology below the seafloor in an effort to find oil and gas deposits. The resulting noise pollution—which has been likened to dynamite going off every 10 seconds—disorients, harms, and can ultimately lead to the death of marine mammals, such as the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale, which relies on hearing for communicating, feeding, and migrating. After giving birth off the coasts of Florida and Georgia in the spring, right whale mothers and their calves migrate north to New England, passing the Carolinas.
After the seismic cacophony comes an oil project’s installation and drilling phases, which churn up large amounts of sediment into the water column. “Corals and other benthic animals are very sensitive to sedimentation and can be smothered or immobilized,” says Brooke, who is part of the DEEP SEARCH project. “If it’s a one-time thing and it happens in an essentially healthy system, the species will recover. If it’s a chronic input, the animals get worn down.”
If allowed, offshore drilling would become a chronic condition for ecosystems in and along the Atlantic. Rigs, pipelines, ships, helicopters, trucks, and refineries would pockmark the shoreline as they do elsewhere, and many coastal communities are already fighting back. “That’s not who we are,” has become a rallying cry uniting liberal and conservative municipalities along the southern coast in an effort to preserve the area’s tourism and natural beauty and, most important, to avoid the oil spills that plague the Gulf. Drilling, after all, brings small day-to-day leaks as well as the ones that make big headlines.
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe still sits in the forefront of southerners’ minds—and for good reason. BP’s rig blowout lasted 86 days and spewed an estimated 200 million gallons of crude oil across 16,000 miles of the Gulf Coast. It was the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. And nearly a decade later, the region is still feeling its ecological and economic impacts (and little has been done to improve offshore drilling safety). According to a special report in the Post and Courier that looked at 1,000 computer-generated simulations of potential spill scenarios off the South’s Atlantic coast, a spill here could possibly be even more devastating than one in the Gulf.
“In the Atlantic things are a lot more complicated, and any spill will end up off the coast for thousands of miles,” says Alan Hancock, energy and climate advocacy director for the Coastal Conservation League. The simulations show how the swift-moving Gulf Stream could send oil from even a medium-size spill off Georgia to North Carolina’s Outer Banks and then onward into Virginia’s waters, where it would make a right turn toward Europe.
If the Atlantic is included in BOEM’s five-year offshore drilling program, it would likely conduct a more detailed environmental analysis at the lease sale stage to examine the sensitivity of deep-sea corals. Let’s hope it doesn’t even come to that. “To think we would introduce an industry that could wipe out something that has been there for hundreds of thousands of years is shocking,” Hancock says.
In the meantime, marine scientists continue to plumb the depths. “People need to know that there’s wilderness out there,” says Brooke. “We’re so surrounded by concrete and people and busy-ness. I find peace in the wilderness and comfort in knowing it’s there, and hope other people will find it too.”
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