Scientist at Work: I’ve Dived in Hundreds of Underwater Caves Hunting for New Forms of Life
By Tom Iliffe
Maybe when you picture a university professor doing research it involves test tubes and beakers, or perhaps poring over musty manuscripts in a dimly lit library, or maybe going out into the field to examine new crop-growing techniques or animal-breeding methods. All of it's good, solid research and I commend them all.
Then there is what I do—cave diving. To study the biology and ecology of coastal, saltwater caves and the marine fauna that inhabit them, my cave diving partners and I head underground and underwater to explore these unique and challenging ecosystems. Often we go to places no other human has been. While the peaks of the tallest mountains can be viewed from an airplane or the depths of the sea mapped with sonar, caves can only be explored firsthand.
Around the globe, from Australia to the Mediterranean, from Hawaii to the Bahamas and throughout the Caribbean, I have explored more than 1,500 such underwater caves over the last 40 years. The experience can be breathtaking. When you are down 60 to 100 feet in a cave that has zero light and is 20 miles long, you never know what you are about to see as you turn the next corner.
My primary focus is searching for new forms of life—mostly white, eyeless crustaceans—that are specifically adapted to this totally dark, food-poor environment. Cave diving is an essential tool in our investigations since the caves I'm interested are filled with water: typically a layer of fresh or brackish water on the surface and then saltwater at depths of 10 to 20 meters or more.
The remipede Cryptocorynetes elmorei from Eleuthera, Bahamas. Remipedes are only found in deeper saltwater layers from caves on opposite sides of the Atlantic and from the Indian Ocean coast of Western Australia.Tom Iliffe, CC BY-ND
There's no other way to access these unexplored areas than to strap on your scuba tanks and jump in.
Scientific Research as Extreme Sport
The list of what can go wrong in a cave dive could fill your event planner.
Equipment or light failure, leaking scuba tanks, broken guide lines, getting lost, cave collapse, stirred up silt resulting in zero visibility, poisonous gas mixtures—you get the idea.
It's fieldwork that can be a matter of life or death. I have had some close calls over the years, and sadly, have lost several good friends and researchers in cave accidents.
Tom Iliffe preparing for a side mount dive at Cliff Pool, Bermuda. Rather than carrying tanks on his back as in conventional scuba, a tank is clipped off under each arm, allowing him to pass through low sections in a cave where it would otherwise be impossible to go. Gil Nolan, CC BY-ND
To put it mildly, underwater caves can be very hostile and unforgiving. One such cave—the Devil's system in north-central Florida—has claimed at least 14 lives in the last 30 years, and there are other examples elsewhere in Florida and in Mexico.
Most of the time, human error is to blame, when divers don't follow the rules they should or lack essential training and experience in cave diving.
My family has gotten used to the idea that what I do is not always a walk in the park. They know that since I'm 69, I stress safety, being physically and mentally prepared, and that I religiously abide by the cardinal rule of cave diving—that you never ever dive alone. My colleagues and I usually go into a cave with teams of two to three divers and constantly look after each other to see if there is anything going wrong during our dives, which usually last about 90 minutes, but can be as long as three hours or more.
Tom Iliffe diving with his Megalodon closed-circuit rebreather in a lava tube cave in the Canary Islands. Jill Heinerth, CC BY-ND
Death-Defying Dives Pay Off in Discoveries
It's not just new species we are discovering, but also higher groups of animals including a new class, orders, families and genera, previously unknown from any other habitat on the planet. Some of our newfound animals have close relatives living in similar caves on opposite margins of the Atlantic Ocean or even the far side of the Earth (such as the Bahamas versus Western Australia).
While most of these caves are formed in limestone, they can also include seawater-flooded lava tubes created by volcanic eruptions. Amazingly, similar types of animals inhabit both.
In the deserts of West Texas, our team discovered and explored the deepest underwater cave in the U.S., reaching a depth of 462 feet.
The graduate students in my lab work on a diverse group of questions. They're uncovering the nature of chemosynthetic processes in caves—how microorganisms use energy from chemical bonds, rather than light energy as in photosynthesis, to produce organic matter—and their significance to the cave food web.
Other students are examining records of Ice Age sea level history held in cave sediments, as well as the presence of tree roots penetrating into underwater caves and their importance to the overlying tropical forest. We're finding evidence that sister species of cave animals on opposite shores of the Atlantic separated from one another about 110 million years ago as tectonic plate movements initiated the opening of the Atlantic, as well as determining how environmental and ecological factors affect the abundance and diversity of animals in saltwater caves.
Our research has significant implications, especially concerning endangered species and environmental protection. Since many cave animals occur only in a single cave and nowhere else on Earth, pollution or destruction of caves can result in species extinctions. Unfortunately, the creation of many protected areas and nature reserves failed to take cave species into account.
The remipede Godzillius robustus from Abaco, Bahamas. Note the darker shaded venom-injecting fangs on the first pair of appendages. Tom Iliffe, CC BY-ND
Some discoveries can be completely unanticipated. For example, when we sequenced DNA from a variety of arthropods, including crustaceans and insects, the data strongly support a sister group relationship between hexapods (the insects) and remipedes, a small and enigmatic group of marine crustaceans exclusively found in underwater caves. This places the remipedes in a pivotal position to understanding the evolution of crustaceans and insects.
The author on a cave dive. Jill Heinerth, CC BY-ND
Even at this stage of my life, to me the risks attendant to my cave diving research are worth it. It's like the Star Trek mantra come true—to boldly go where no man has gone before. The chance to discover new forms of marine life, to view never-before-seen underwater formations, vast chambers, endless tunnels and deep chasms, to swim in some of the bluest and purest water on Earth—I will take that sort of research and its challenges any day.
Yes, it can give new meaning to the old line about "publish or perish" in academia. But I love it, and I will tell you with all honesty, I can't wait until my next trip.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
By Alexandra Villarreal
As West coast wildfires color the skies dystopian red and orange and an aggressive hurricane season batters the U.S. Gulf coast, college students are demanding their schools take bold action to address the climate crisis.
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Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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