LONDON-A huge international research programme has been launched to assess the health of the Atlantic Ocean.

The iAtlantic project is the biggest ever mounted in the planet’s second largest ocean.

It involves more than 30 partners, funded by the EU, and is being co-ordinated by Edinburgh University.

The scientists will use an array of hi-tech devices, including robot submarines, to scan the deep ocean from the Arctic to South America.

They want to assess the effects of climate change on plants and animals.

They will use genomics, physics, machine learning and other specialisms, and spend four years creating a digital map of the ocean’s ecosystems.

The project will look at all aspects of life in the Atlantic Ocean

The results will help governments decide which developments of the Atlantic are sustainable and responsible.

They will also highlight “refuges” where threatened species may have a chance to survive.

The Atlantic is suffering from a three-pronged attack, according to iAtlantic programme co-ordinator, Prof Murray Roberts of Edinburgh University.

By way of illustration, he opens a sample bucket and pulls out a deep-sea red crab about a foot across.

He’s a beauty. He’s also quite dead, sampled in 2012 and submerged in preservative ever since.

“It’s just to give you an idea of how big and beautiful the life of the deep sea is out there,” the professor says.

The world’s oceans have absorbed most of the effects of global warming and researchers want to understand the impact this is having on plants and animals

From other buckets he pulls specimens of black coral and a deep sea skate’s egg case, a large version of what we landlubbers sometimes refer to as a mermaid’s purse.

“What will happen to these animals in the future as the Atlantic changes?” Prof Roberts says.

“As it gets warmer, as it gets more acidic and also - in some areas - as it runs out of breath.

“Because the Atlantic, like many ocean basins in the world, is being deoxygenated - it’s losing the oxygen that is vital to life.”

The cause is climate change, 90% of the world’s global warming has been absorbed by the oceans.

All forms of ocean life, from whales to plankton, will be assessed by the scientists working on the project

The team will be focusing on the ecosystems of 12 areas, including the Mid-Atlantic Ridge off Iceland, the Sargasso Sea, the cold deep from Angola to the Congo Lobe and the Vitória-Trindade Seamount Chain off Brazil.

In the lab in Edinburgh, Dr Laurence De Clippele shows us underwater camera footage of the coral mounds of the Mingulay reef.

The images are remarkable but technology allows her to do more.

The mounds have been mapped in unprecedented detail by a remote-controlled submersible equipped with sonar.