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Scientists Get Major Gift to Study the Twilight Zone

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The twilight zone. It’s not just a spooky 1960s television series. It’s what scientists call the part of the ocean between about 600 and 3000 feet below the surface. It’s deep, it’s dark (thus, the name), and it’s relatively unstudied. But it may be home to more life than the rest of the ocean, combined, and also key to the ocean’s ability to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.


Now, the TED Audacious Project has selected Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) as one of its inaugural grant recipients, awarding thirty five million dollars over six years for the exploration of the twilight zone. Other Audacious Project recipients focus on issues like public health, food security, and civil rights. But WHOI president Mark Abbott says twilight zone research fits the name.


“What we’re really trying to do is transform the world,” Abbott said. “We’re trying to transform our understanding of a global resource, an area that’s never been explored.”


Eventually, that new understanding could lead to public policy changes on issues like fisheries or climate change.


The fish that inhabit the twilight zone tend to be small, and many look like they could star in a horror movie. They’re unlikely to show up on restaurant menus, but Abbott says they add up to ten times the weight of all other fish in the ocean, and there is global interest in sucking them up to make fish oil health supplements or fish food for aquaculture.


Besides the fact that we don’t know how much could be harvested sustainably from the twilight zone, reducing the number of fish in that region could have climate repercussions. The ocean has absorbed between a quarter and a half of carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to microscopic plants at the surface of the ocean who ‘breathe’ it in. When those plants die – or when the animals who eat them die – they sink down through the twilight zone, where fish eat the detritus and generate “pellets of poop” that carry that carbon all the way to the seafloor. Slowing down that trip to the bottom could mean more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


Abbott says the Audacious Project grant will enable his institution to connect with colleagues and stakeholders around the globe, to engage everyone in an effort to understand the twilight zone, before we exploit it.

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.