The results would help set up a second generation of expeditions to understand these workings in greater detail – with an eye toward managing what is likely to be a vital marine resource, he says.
Expeditions exploring canyons in the western Pacific have shown that they harbor a rich mix of species and that corals and sponges in the canyons act as relatively safe nurseries for young fish, just as corals closer to the surface do. The expedition to canyons off the Northeast coast aim to find out if these undersea features play an equally important ecological role here.
In the Northeast, "we've been able to obtain the fish we need without having to go deeper, into these canyons," he says. Now, fishermen can harvest from depths as low as 2,000 meters, giving them access to areas they couldn't reach in the past – including the canyons.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other stakeholders, "are saying: Wait, before we go and open up everything for fishing, let's go see what's out there," Dr. Shank says.
In addition, researchers are looking at the potential for undersea landslides along the continental margin, events that can triggered tsunamis.
In November 1929, for instance, a powerful undersea earthquake struck some 280 kilometers south of Newfoundland, triggering an undersea landslide that involved an estimated 200 cubic kilometers (48 cubic miles) of material. The tsunami snapped undersea telegraph cables and killed 27 people in Newfoundland and one person in Nova Scotia.