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Mapping the change in deep ocean habitats

Google maps for the undersea world? A new University of Georgia project is designed to make that become a reality.

The project, Mapping Deep Blue Habitat in a Changing Climate, aims to create an underwater 3-D map that illustrates spatial information about habitat characteristics like temperature, oxygen, light, using computational and graphical tools so that scientists, stakeholders, and the public can “see” how the ocean habitats will change.

The project was among 21 interdisciplinary seed grants totaling $1.55 million announced June 12 by the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) and the Gulf Research Program – programs of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

“We imagine a ‘streetview’ trip though a city, except it’ll be underwater,” said Patricia Yager, professor of marine sciences at UGA and principal investigator on the project. “The goal is to partner with museums and aquariums to make it available to the public.”

Major federal funding programs do not typically provide support in areas that are considered risky or unusual.  Futures grants aim to fill this critical gap in funding for bold new ideas. The seed grants allow investigators to recruit students and postdocs to the research effort, purchase new equipment, acquire preliminary data, develop prototypes of exhibits, or create new collaborative teams and modes of inquiry -- all of which can position the project to compete for larger awards from other public and private sources.

“The NAKFI meeting in November 2016 was a revelation for me as a scientist,” Yager said. “Nearly half the invited participants were artists and graphic designers who wanted to work with scientists for the pubic good, and it became clear to me that the creative process of working as a scientist on the frontiers of knowledge is a lot like the creative process of artists. Although schools and society tends to break us up into groups according to STEM versus art, we have much more in common that we think. We all need to work together to solve this problem we call climate change.”

Joining Yager on the team is Julie Spivey, associate professor of graphic design in the Lamar Dodd School of Art; and Curtis Deutsch and Hartmut Frenzel, School of Oceanography, University of Washington.

“There is enormous potential for visual design to have significant impact on the communication of complex information to broad audiences,” Spivey said.

Yager and Deutsch attended the NAKFI meeting in the same group on climate change, acquaintances who had not worked together. The two began sharing ideas, both wanting to ‘take people on a journey of discovery to change their minds about climate change.’ They shared a goal: to make something useful for science, and to create something that explained the science to the public.

“We were torn between charismatic biology and life-giving biogeochemistry. We liked the idea of taking our 1-D view of the mesopelagic zone, or intermediate ocean depths, and making it global. Deutsch recalled the terrestrial concept of "novel and disappearing climates," which gave way to the idea of mapping changes to deep marine habitats.

Yager and Deutsch had model data in hand to define an ocean habitat based on a range of variables, and the ability to map it today and in the future. Yager discussed the usefulness of such a tool with mesopelagic biologists, who agreed and also provided examples. The following day, with input from colleagues, they presented an early version of the project.

"The NAKFI meeting really encouraged us to think big and to reach outside of what we normally do," said Yager.  "It will probably take us a year to figure out how to make this happen, but I am excited to get started!" 

Established through a $40 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation in 2003, the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative is a 15-year effort to enhance communication among researchers, funding agencies, universities, and the general public – with the objective of stimulating interdisciplinary research at the most exciting frontiers. More information is available at

Image: Lanternfish illustration via wikipedia commons.

Teaser: Photo at Blue Hole Point, Palau

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