Our Bold Ideas
Our exploration of the twilight zone will achieve much more than scientific discovery.
We are embarking on a bold new journey to explore one of our planet’s hidden frontiers—the ocean twilight zone, a vast, globe-spanning, and dimly lit region between about 200 and 1,000 meters beneath the ocean’s surface. Understanding of the twilight zone is currently limited by its enormous size and lack of easy access. Our goal is to address critical gaps in knowledge, including:
- The distribution of biomass and biodiversity
- Food web linkages within the twilight zone and among the twilight zone and other ocean realms
- The life histories and behaviors of twilight zone animals
- The role of the twilight zone and its inhabitants in the global carbon cycle
Our project will create, expand, and take advantage of new technologies to explore the ocean twilight zone and re-imagine its commercial use. We will enable an open data platform that will bring science, technology, and society together in an interactive environment to accelerate understanding of the twilight zone for use in science-based policies that take into consideration conservation, equitable use, and maintenance of ecosystem services. Ultimately, we aim to achieve much more than scientific discovery—we will foster more informed ocean stewardship and sustainable human interactions with the ocean and our planet.
Our Science Objectives
Biomass and Biodiversity
The twilight zone may be one of Earth’s largest habitats, but only a fraction of it has been explored. Recent studies have suggested that biomass in the twilight zone is significantly higher and biological diversity is far greater than previously thought. New technology and methods being developed at WHOI will help to fill knowledge gaps like these. The data collected will also provide the basis for better informed management decisions to support sustainable use and climate modeling in the future.
Life Histories and Behavior
Before we can understand how human activity might affect any given species, we first have to know basic details about its life history. That includes how quickly a population can replenish itself—and thus how resilient it is—and how organisms behave in their natural environment. While some life history characteristics of a few twilight zone species have been documented, major gaps still exist. We are developing and implementing new tools and techniques to greatly expand our understanding of how animals live their lives in the twilight zone.
There is a great deal we don't know about the roles that twilight zone animals play in the open ocean. The limited information we do have suggests that twilight zone ecosystems are important feeding areas for predatory fish that make up some of the world’s most valuable commercial fisheries. Many twilight zone animals take part in the largest migration on the planet, traveling up to surface waters each night to feed on plankton and returning to the safety of deeper, darker waters during the day. Our goal is to identify the sources of productivity supporting twilight zone animals and how this region is connected to other parts of the ocean.
Carbon & Climate Change
Understanding how Earth will respond to increasing carbon dioxide emissions is arguably the most significant scientific question of our era. Changes we are already witnessing, plus likely pressure from commercial fishing operations, will affect critical twilight zone processes that move carbon from the surface to deep waters where it is sequestered for hundreds or thousands of years. Our goal is to unravel controls over the flow of carbon through the twilight zone to improve predictions of how climate change will play out there in the future.
An explosion of new technologies is revolutionizing oceanography and providing unprecedented access to once inaccessible places such as the twilight zone. We plan to use and extend these technologies, including autonomous robots, remotely operated vehicles, autonomous floats and profilers, and the sensors they carry, to address key questions about twilight zone biomass and biodiversity, food web dynamics, animal life history and behavior, and carbon cycling and climate connections. We also aim to link these tools into an “underwater internet” that will help inform scientific exploration, public engagement, and policy decisions.