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Menopausal Mother Nature

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‘Dr. Seuss’s Garden’ Yields a Deep-Sea Discovery, but It Already Faces Threats

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Researchers announced on Tuesday that they had found two new species of cold-water coral in undersea canyons off New England, a discovery that highlighted concerns about the effects of global warming on the world’s oceans.

The corals were found about 150 miles southeast of Boston in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, a vast area of undersea mountains and valleys that was designated a monument by President Barack Obama in 2016.

“There’s a lot of predictions right now that suggests this area of the Atlantic, the northwest Atlantic, is going to heat up three times faster than any other part of the Atlantic,” said Timothy Shank, a deep-sea biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who led the expedition.

Warming waters can kill coral, the same way extreme heat can kill humans. They can also reduce the level of nutrients in the water that corals need to survive.

Concern about rising temperatures is partly why Mr. Obama made the area a marine monument, the first in the Atlantic. His declaration immediately banned mineral and oil extraction inside the monument area and called for phasing out fishing over a seven-year period in an effort to ease pressure on the ecosystem.

But in 2017, a coalition of New England fishing groups filed a lawsuit against the designation.

“Our lawsuit argues that the monument designation is unlawful,” said Jonathan Wood, the attorney representing the fishing groups. It says that the Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the authority to create national monuments, does not apply at sea.

A judge in Federal District Court for the District of Columbia rejected that argument. The ruling is under appeal.


Timothy Shank, a deep-sea biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, in the submersible Nadir in the Lydonia Canyon.CreditLuis Lamar/National Geographic

There have been signs, however, that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing the monument status, a move that would make the court battle irrelevant. In 2018, the Interior Department accidentally made public emails that included drafts of presidential proclamations overturning the Obama-era designation.

Cold-water corals are notoriously slow to grow. Dr. Shank once sampled one that stood four feet tall. “We dated it and it was over 4,000 years old,” he said.

The canyons are much deeper than a human can dive, so Dr. Shank’s team, which included researchers from the University of Connecticut and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, used underwater drones and a submersible vehicle provided by the exploration group OceanX.

Peter J. Auster, a research professor emeritus of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut who toured the seamounts on an unrelated expedition, said the experience was “like a stroll through Dr. Seuss’s garden.”

“Between the corals their size and their shapes and the fish that live there, it’s a pretty otherworldly experience,” he said.

Coral at a depth of 2,900 feet in the Lydonia Canyon.CreditLuis Lamar/National Geographic
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