Warning: disaster movie ahead…

The mysteries of the deepest oceans may be about to be unlocked by Welsh explorers to reveal startling scientific discoveries, like those previously confined to books and movies.

The research at Cardiff suggests insights into Day After Tomorrow-style Ice Age conditions as a result of global warming; or a new untapped fossil fuel produced by bacteria.

Research could even show the secrets behind the Bermuda Triangle and its mysterious “disappearances”.

This may all sound like the stuff of science fiction, but for some scientists the ocean is the true “final frontier” with more potential for exploration and discovery than deep space.

Because of huge underwater pressure and lack of light, there are parts of the oceans – which cover 71% of the earth’s surface – that have never been seen by man.

Now various scientific teams at the Cardiff University are helping to improve our understanding. Rather than searching for evidence of climate change in the atmosphere, some of the scientists are sampling the ocean bed to establish what happened in the past to help predict the future.

While many predict the melting of the polar ice caps, this research looks at the ways ocean currents and weather systems would change if this were to happen.

“The ocean’s conveyor belt of currents distribute large amounts of heat and moisture around the planet,” said Dr Ian Hall of the School of Earth, Ocean and Planetary Sciences.

“If that distribution is disrupted, as the result of natural or human activity, you could see plunging temperatures, particularly in the northern part of our hemisphere.”

Dr Hall’s team believes that any large-scale disruption to the warmth that currently emanates from the Gulf Stream could see average European temperatures drop by a significant 5C.

That’s not enough to trigger a fully fledged ice age, but would bring snow in June and frosts in July and August, as occurred in 1816, the “year without a summer”. And the evidence gathered goes back to the last Ice Age, some 12,700 years ago.

Cardiff experts have designed world-first technology to investigate sustainable energy sources by isolating ancient high-pressure bacteria from the deep.

Some of these bacteria produce methane that accumulates in “gas hydrates” – a super concentrated methane ice that contains more carbon than all conventional fossil fuels like coal or oil. It is a potentially enormous energy source.

Professor R John Parkes, also of the School of Earth, Ocean and Planetary Sciences, said, “DNA analysis of deep sediments has shown diverse bacterial populations, including major new types.

“But we have been unable to culture them. This might be because we have not been able to keep them at the high pressures which they need to survive.”

Now Cardiff’s Manufacturing Engineering Centre has helped design and produce a high-pressure system, the first of its kind in the world, using titanium and stainless steel alloys, and sapphire windows.

As well as studying potentially the deepest organisms on earth this research might also throw light on the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle by finding out more about the behaviour of the hydrates.

One theory suggests that the covering of “methane ice” which exists over much of the seabed in the Bermuda Triangle can become unstable. This causes instability of the sea and an explosive mixture of air and methane above. Any ships or planes travelling over the area could sink or catch fire.

“So ancient, deep-sediment bacteria may be a key to sustainable energy in the future and to explaining a few disasters,” said Professor Parkes.

Source: Gareth Morgan, Western Mail