USGS Role in DEEP SEARCH: Deep Sea Exploration to Advance Research on Coral, Canyon, and Cold-seep Habitats

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USGS scientists are collaborating with multiple agencies to provide the esssential foundation for understanding these deep-sea environments.

The Science Issue and Relevance: DEEP SEARCH (Deep Sea Exploration to Advance Research on Coral/Canyon/Cold seep Habitats) is a multi-year, multi-agency study to characterize deep-sea ecosystems of the U.S. Mid- and South Atlantic. Sponsored by National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP), this project is a collaborative effort between Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (NOAA-OER), and USGS. USGS will provide leadership and coordination of interagency and collaborative research.

Pamlico Canyon

At Pamlico Canyon, canyon walls were covered in brinsingid starfish, cup corals, and a diversity of other corals including both octocorals and stony corals.

(Image courtesy of Ivan Hurzeler and DEEP SEARCH 2019 - BOEM, USGS, NOAA, ROV Jason, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)


To better inform potential offshore energy development and other deep-sea management needs, USGS scientists will contribute expertise in a variety of disciplines. USGS will create detailed bathymetric and geological maps and characterize seafloor and sub-seafloor geology and geological processes in the region, providing the essential foundation for understanding these deep-sea environments, including the benthic ecology and seafloor hazards. USGS research on faunal community analysis, distribution, and population connectivity, and associated environmental data will provide information needed for refining habitat suitability models for the region. The application of environmental molecular sequencing (eDNA) will complement the traditional taxonomic approaches, improving our ability to monitor changes in biodiversity of these environments. USGS research on age and growth of deep-sea corals and assessing deep-sea biological productivity, nutrient regime, and microbial communities establish environmental constraints on healthy deep-sea habitats, providing information needed for impact assessments. Providing critical baseline information on the location, biodiversity, and community structure of sensitive benthic communities, as well as seafloor hazards within these outer continental shelf (OCS) environments will facilitate decisions regarding areas to avoid for energy exploration and enable refined habitat predictive modeling of species distributions and connectivity used by BOEM and NOAA.

DEEP SEARCH Mission Operating area

DEEP SEARCH mission operating area

(Image courtesy courtesy of DEEP SEARCH 2018 - BOEM, USGS, NOAA)



  • Explore, characterize, and monitor benthic communities and associated food webs, from microbes to fishes
  • Describe the oceanographic, geological, and geochemical conditions associated with seafloor and sub-seafloor environments including multi-scale characterization via mapping and geophysics, hazards and marine resource assessment
  • Apply population genetics and larval dispersal models to model the distribution of habitats and fauna
  • Examine the paleoecology of deep-sea coral and seep habitats providing critical information on the vulnerability of these environments to natural and anthropogenic change and their time-scales for recovery.
  • Examine the sensitivity of habitat-structuring fauna and associated communities to natural and anthropogenic disturbance


Methodology for Addressing the Issue: Using autonomous underwater vehicles, submersibles, and research vessels, this study will characterize multiple deep-sea habitats, including deep-sea corals, submarine canyons and seeps. Sampling will concentrate on the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region, from Virginia to the Georgia/Florida border. In situ samples of animals, sediments, rocks, and water within different habitats, high resolution multibeam mapping, geophysical surveys, and water column profiling, coupled with data from benthic landers will be used to address each of the USGS study objectives.  


Human occupied vehicle Alvin descends to the seafloor

(Image courtesy of Luis Lamar, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)


Future Steps: USGS DEEP SEARCH research will evaluate the importance of different habitat types (canyon, seep, deep-sea corals) to local and regional benthic abundance and biodiversity, and the trophodynamics of these systems. Geological and geophysical analyses will improve our understanding of seafloor hazards within the region.  Results from this study will provide an important baseline dataset for future monitoring and assessment and will enable comparisons to similar habitats in other regions.


The USGS has a long-term commitment to assisting BOEM with their information needs in OCS regions. BOEM is concerned with preserving and protecting hard-bottom communities, including deep-sea corals and chemosynthetic habitats, as the need for oil and gas exploration, and wind energy increases on the U.S. Atlantic shelf and slope.