Polarstern, the flagship vessel of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), is getting ready to set out for its 22nd Arctic expedition on May 29 with stops planned first in Northern Norway and then Spitsbergen. With a team that includes 130 scientists from 11 countries, Jörn Thiede, the director of AWI, is making the European project HERMES (Hotspot Ecosystem Research on the Margins of European Seas), in which deep sea ecosystems will be explored, one of the mission's top scientific priorities.
Coldwater corals, which develop in a similar fashion to tropical reefs and also form unique ecosystems that can house more than 600 different species, will be the primary research focus during the Norway arm of the expedition. During the second stage of the trip, led by Michael Klages of the AWI, Polarstern will head to the Håkon-Mosby mud volcano, an underwater discharge point for methane gas situated off the Norwegian coast. "QUEST," a specially designed remote-controlled underwater vessel, will be used to investigate the mud volcano and the deep-sea under conditions during which samples will be collected. A priority common to all stages of the expedition will be the "hot spots," which are systems placed under strict physical control (i.e. deep sea ditches, deep water corals, regions colonized by bacterial communities, etc) that are shaped by dynamic boundary conditions and typically have a rich biodiversity. Because of their hypersensitivity to local and global changes, "hot spots" have become a particular focus of ecology scientists and conservationists wary of the increasingly widespread biodiversity losses in the world's oceans.
The mission's results may influence future policies and guidelines for European marine politics. Models based on the obtained data will be used to create simulations of these sensitive ecosystems in an attempt to gain a broader understanding of the underlying physical, chemical and ecological factors at play.
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