What is the Mariana Trench?
The Mariana Trench is an oceanic trench that sits to the south-east of the Mariana Islands in the western region of the Pacific Ocean. Its deepest point is thought to be approximately 11,034 metres below the surface of the sea, although the very lowest section to have been accurately measured, known as Challenger Deep, lies at 10,911 metres. This makes Challenger Deep the deepest-known point on the Earth’s seabed. If Mount Everest were located here, it would still sit two kilometres below the waves.
Oceanic trenches are depressions in the sea floor and are a common feature of the Earth’s plate tectonics – there are more than 50 major ocean trenches worldwide, although the deepest (including the Mariana Trench) can be found along the Ring of Fire, a line of active volcanoes that encircles the Pacific Ocean. Trenches mark the location of convergent plate boundaries, where two plates collide, forcing one beneath the other and creating a deep chasm or trench in the Earth’s surface.
The Mariana Trench was first discovered in 1875 by the crew of the British ship H.M.S Challenger (after which Challenger Deep was named) and was explored again by H.M.S Challenger II in 1951, with a better degree of accuracy. Since then, measurements of the trench have been collected and it is estimated that as well as its astonishing depth, the trench is 2,550 kilometres long and 69 kilometres wide.
What is in the Mariana Trench?From the ocean’s surface to the dark depths below, the climate of the trench is both varied and sometimes extreme. It is made up of active mud volcanoes and bubbling pockets in the floor that release sulphur and carbon dioxide. At the bottom of the trench the temperature sits between 1–4℃ and no light penetrates the area. Yet even in conditions of extreme darkness and pressure (the water pressure at the bottom is more than 1,071 times that found at sea level) life can still thrive.
A mud sample taken at Challenger Deep by Japanese oceanographers revealed approximately 200 different species of microorganism, including types of microscopic plankton and shells. The most common creatures in the trench include saucer-sized, single-celled xenophyophores, which feed on sediment. There are also amphipods, which are large shrimp-like scavengers, and small sea cucumbers called holothurians.
Larger species have also been found living at remarkable depths within the trench, including the hadal snailfish – a small, pink and completely scaleless species found living at depths of almost 8,200 metres (27,000 feet). With skin so transparent that you can see right through to its liver, it holds the record for the deepest fish captured on the seafloor. The deep-sea dragonfish – a predator that features a giant set of teeth much bigger than its body – also plumbs the depths between 213 to 1,828 metres. In between, researchers have identified dumbo octopus, zombie worms and deep-water jellyfish.
As humans, we are unable to venture very far into the Mariana Trench due to the bone-crushing pressure deep beneath the ocean’s surface. It is so strong that most deep-sea machinery struggles to function, making data collection very difficult. Although scientists and oceanographers are always looking for new ways to gather this information, there is likely plenty more to discover.
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