Do we need to invest more in research and exploration of Earth’s Ocean ?

EarthzineOcean Decade, Oceans, Schmidt Ocean Institute

The Ocean is under-observed and under-researched, and requires a lot more investment in the years to come if we are to manage it sustainably

16 July, 2022

Afzalbek Fayzullaev

Over the millennia, humanity has continuously developed countless inventions and technology that have kept improving our understanding of the universe. From the Event Horizon Telescope taking the first picture of a black hole to the Mars Exploration Program making new findings of the red planet, the world knows more than ever, each day. Even the recent advances made by the James Webb space telescope are a huge step forward for humanity's understanding of the universe.

Despite the large advances in knowledge, during the ongoing information age, there is still a lot we do not know about the very world that we live in. One example is the deep-sea floor, sometimes referred to as the Final Frontier. It “accounts for 60% of the surface of the planet” [1], and yet we know extremely little about this habitat. Little is known about the depths of the Ocean as well. While we glean a better understanding of the universe around us, we must make sure that the largest habitat on our very own planet does not remain a mystery forever.

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At the recently concluded UN Ocean conference in Lisbon, the Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO Dr. Vladimir Ryabinin, stated in a high-level interactive dialogue that

"People dont realize how strongly they are dependent on the Ocean and Ocean science. The Ocean covers 70% of Earth but receives less than 1% of the funding for studies. Only 28% of the networks observing the Ocean are not expecting problems in the future, and this was calculated before Covid-19 struck. In the meteorological world this number is 70%.

In other words, we under-observe and under-research the Ocean, and what we are doing currently is under-coordinated. "

Throughout the decades of curiosity and exploration of the world’s Ocean, “only nine papers in the last 30 years account for knowledge on population genetics of invertebrates inhabiting 50% of the planet’s surface (depth below 3500m)” [1]. Currently, less than 20% of the Ocean floor is mapped to modern survey standards. There is more information known about the surface of our Moon, and even the surface of Mars, a planet that is at least 33.9 million miles away, than the seas beneath our feet [2]. Although we do have a relatively extensive understanding of the coastal areas of the seas, this is only because “they are easily accessible, and we can sail out almost daily and make measurements and observations” [3]. In other words, there are a myriad of obstacles that create a barrier between us and knowledge about the Final Frontier.

The environment of the deep sea makes extensive exploration difficult. Dr. Gene Carl Feldman, an oceanographer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, says how at deeper parts of the Ocean there is “zero visibility, extremely cold temperatures, and crushing amounts of pressure” [4]. These circumstances, which get more drastic the further below in the sea you get, make it extremely difficult for scientists to study these areas. To add to that, other more technical issues exist when it comes to deep-sea exploration. These can include “insufficient, unreliable, or prohibitively expensive power supplies [and] the complex process undertaken by exploration and extraction machines” [5]. The machinery and technology that are needed to study these extreme environments are seen to not only be extremely expensive but also very complex and unreliable. This cascade of issues ranging from the dangerous environment of the deep sea itself to the costs that must be paid to get scientists to these areas makes exploration of the Final Frontier notably difficult.

The relative lack of knowledge of the Final Frontier also may lead to misconceptions of the true state of the Ocean. Michelle Taylor, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University, said that “we have no grasp of background diversity levels, let alone rates of species loss” [6]. To further show the deteriorating state of the Ocean, Ian Kane, a geologist at The University of Manchester, observed in his study that there were “high concentrations of microplastics” [7] in the deep seafloor. Plastic pollution was already seen to be one of the biggest environmental issues that has faced the Blue Planet in the last decade. Pollutions in the Ocean have been seen to [interfere] with the food systems of marine fauna, often choking animals who chance upon them an ingest them. However, keeping in mind how relatively unknown the Ocean is, the massive issue of plastic pollution may be even more harmful.

Deep-sea life is a marvel that science is yet to understand fully.

Deep-sea life is a marvel that science is yet to understand fully.
(The image – “Deep Sea Fish” By Benson Kua is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Unseen Oceans, a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, had a goal of showing visitors “how little we know, and … how much we’re learning so rapidly with technology” [8]. Fluorescence-detecting cameras, echosounder speakers, and aquatic drones are only a few examples of new cutting-edge technology that is going to help uncover the mysteries of the Final Frontier. Dr. Virmani, the Executive Director of the Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI), described some of the latest and upcoming developments in robotics technology that has boosted Ocean exploration. These new developments included the Seakit and Saildrone robots which can stretch out through the water column, sea surface and beyond, gathering data in a 3D way.

In addition to these new developments, submersibles and, underwater robots that can collect information from the ocean and seafloor, are also worth watching out for. An example of submersibles is. Alvin, named after Allyn Vine, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) engineer who was a leader in developed submersibles to explore the deep sea. Alvin is “one of the world’s first deep ocean submersibles” [9] and is developed at WHOI. With over 4,600 dives in its career, Alvin has been able to uncover 300 new species of animals and even helped discover hydrothermal vents [10]. The Trieste, another manned submersible designed by oceanographer Auguste Piccard, “reached the deepest known point on Earth, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench” [11].

The Audacious Project has funded the Ocean Twilight Zone project, a project whose goal is to explore the twilight zone. The twilight zone is about 200 to 1,000 meters beneath the surface of the Ocean and is “home to more than one million new species” [12]. WHOI, the group in charge of the Ocean Twilight Zone project, hope to “form a new body of knowledge that will promote responsible stewardship of the Ocean and shed new light on how our planet works” [12]. This mission is especially important because although very little is known about the twilight zone, commercial fishing interests are slowly starting to harvest the twilight zone.


A deep-sea Siphonophore.
Image Credits:  Schmidt Ocean Institute

The Challenger 150 program is another project with a similar goal; to learn more about the Ocean. It’s primary goal is to “sustainably manage the many resources of the deep ocean’[13]. One of Challenger 150’s priority activities is to expand the coverage and frequency of deep sea biological sampling. This program is a large and cooperative effort, bringing together multiple nations, 68 Research Centers and Universities, SOI, REV Ocean and more [13]. SOI has also signed an MOU to commit to the Seabed 2030 mission, which is to “produce the definitive map of the world Ocean floor by 2030 and make it available to all” [9]. To further add to this, when Dr. Virmani was asked about the possibility of such a mission being done, she was confident in her answer. She said how when they first started only 5-6% of the seafloor had been mapped to high resolution. However, she then added that in the last 4 years, we have already got to 20%. This dramatic increase is one of the many reasons why Dr. Virmani has confidence in the Seabed 2030 mission; a high-resolution map of the seafloor is going to be available to the world in the near future. 


Glass sponge found in Cape Range Canyon

Glass sponge found in Cape Range Canyon.
Image Credits: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Unfortunately, it seems like Ocean exploration gets a lower fraction of government funding than it should, a fact that will hopefully change by the end of the ongoing UN Decade of Ocean Sciences. A recent article drew attention to an interesting statistic in this regard - a large difference between how much the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) receives from US government funding and how much NASA receives. [10] (we respectfully note that NASA, too, studies oceanography and the Ocean-surface). For the Fiscal year 2021, NASA’s budget was $23.3 billion, a “3% increase over the previous year’s amount” [14]. However, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 provided a total of only $5.65 billion to the NOAA [15]. NASA received more than 4 times the amount of money that the NOAA received in 2021. We do not comment on this disparity, but it is clear that with adequate funding, “Oceanic research may help discover preventive mechanisms against catastrophic earthquakes, tsunamis, and oil spills” as well as uncover “the benefits of the Ocean while ensuring its sustainability for future generation” [10]. Since the benefits of Ocean exploration are believed to be no lesser than the benefits of space exploration, it is clear governments around the world “should apportion the necessary capital needed to explore the deep-sea frontier” [10].

Through efforts of Ocean scientists, industry and philanthropic organization around the world, the vast seas, that were once impossible to learn about, will hopefully become a place of extensive knowledge and research.