Monday, August 30, 2021

Q&A with Helen Scales




Helen Scales is the author of the new book The Brilliant Abyss: Exploring the Majestic Hidden Life of the Deep Ocean and the Looming Threat That Imperils It. Her other books include Eye of the Shoal, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including National Geographic and The Guardian. She teaches at Cambridge University, and she lives in Cambridge, England, and in France.


Q: What inspired you to write The Brilliant Abyss?


A: There were two things driving me to write the book.


Firstly, the most exciting discoveries and research in the living world are taking place in the deep ocean. We now have incredible technologies that are opening up the depths to a greater understanding of what lives down there, and how this vast ecosystem works.


At the same time, with our growing knowledge of the deep ocean comes the realisation of just how critically important this realm is for all of life on earth. As I write in the book, the deep ocean quite simply makes this planet of ours habitable.


But, as so often is the case with human beings, we explore and simultaneously exploit the planet.


So, the second major reason I decided to write the book was to show readers how the deep ocean isn’t so vast and so remote that it’s untouchable by human impacts, and in fact our collective influence is reaching ever deeper than it ever has, with potentially devastating consequences.


Q: What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the deep ocean?


A: A common misconception I try to bust in the book is that the deep ocean is pretty much full of ugly, slimy creatures and that’s about it. But there’s so much extraordinary, fascinating and beautiful life down there.


Also, I want to push against the idea that life in the deep is somehow alien. That seems to be a way deep ocean wildlife is often described, as if it is too strange to belong on earth. But the deep ocean makes up around 90 percent of the living space on the planet. So all of these incredible lifeforms are just as earthly as us creatures out on land — if not more so! 


Q: What impact do you think climate change is having on the deep ocean, and what do you see looking ahead?


A: Climate change is undoubtedly reaching into the deep and we’re already starting to see those changes, in terms of rising temperatures, reduced oxygen levels and acidification.


Also, the deep plays a critical role in regulating the global climate and has already saved us all from an unthinkably catastrophic version of climate change, by absorbing so much of the carbon humanity has released, and the heat that’s been trapped in the atmosphere.


So it’s all tied together really, the deep being both a great buffer for the planet and also, ultimately, somewhere that will be hit hard by the changing climate.


Looking ahead, it’s predicted temperatures will rise way beyond the normal range for many deep species and habitats that are adapted to very cold, stable conditions.


Also, it’s expected that animals living at different depths (the deep ocean is not all one water body, but divided into distinct zones) will respond to the changing climate to different extents and in different directions, which would push a lot of ecosystems out of synchrony, and cause even more trouble. 


Q: You describe some fascinating creatures in the book--which did you find the most intriguing?


A: That’s a tough question! There’s so much extraordinary life in the deep I find it endlessly difficult to single any out, which is why I tried to put as many as I could into the book.


In general, though, the organisms I find the most fascinating are the ones that have evolved amazing adaptations to survive in the deep ocean.


This is an extreme place to live, certainly by the standards of our lives out here on land. The pressure is enormous, there’s no sunlight, very little food, it’s cold. And yet there are species that have evolved all kinds of ways to survive down there.


So, with that in mind, some of my favourites are the animals that live on hydrothermal vents, which are probably the most toxic, scorching, inhospitable places on the planet, and yet life thrives there.


There are yeti crabs that farm microbes in their furry arms, and snails with a shell and scales on their foot made of iron. Those strange features are survival strategies for living on vents. And these fuzzy, white crabs and golden snails look very cool too.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now I’m working on a couple of picture books for young readers. I'm also working on some stories for National Geographic magazine. I really enjoy collaborating with artists and photographers to combine words with visual storytelling.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I write in The Brilliant Abyss about the looming threat of deep-sea mining. That threat is now even closer than it was when I wrote the book — it could possibly begin within the next two years. It’s an issue that is definitely not going away.


There are growing calls from scientists, conservationists, corporations and governments for a moratorium on deep-sea mining. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Helen Scales.

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