A Sea of Stars: Liquid Space Exploration

March 15, 2013 12:29 pm

The deep-sea has been a mystery to mankind for as long as we’ve been on the surface of the planet.  The fact that vast swathes (71%) of our world remain hidden under 2-3, even 5-7 miles of ocean, is a mind-boggling concept, and it’s only until the last century that we’ve been able to use cutting edge technology to penetrate these inky black depths.

Existing under a thousand times the pressure of the surface (at its deepest point), and in perpetual darkness and near freezing cold, this is truly a foreign realm on our otherwise familiar and (mostly) accessible planet, and for now, may be the closest experience we have to exploring alien worlds.

mariana trench

I like to think of this world as liquid deep space and I’ve become fascinated in recent times by the various organizations that explore this unknown realm and the tools they use to do so.  From ROV’s, to manned submersibles, to film director James Cameron launching a deep-sea sub, similar to the experience of a shuttle launch, it’s a fascinating area.

It was in fact his expedition to the Mariana Trench, on March 26, 2012, using the Deep Sea Challenger, that kindled my interest in this area with viewings of his deep-sea documentaries soon following.  Cameron has been a passionate advocate of ocean exploration and conservation, being only the third person ever to reach the bottom of the trench, and first to do it solo.

The Trench itself exists in the Hadal Zone, the deepest part of the world’s oceans, and is thought to be sparse of life in general.  It is one of the many deep ocean trenches located around the world that exist along tectonic plate convergent boundaries, (one plate of the Earth’s crust slide’s under another), including the Puerto Rican trench in the Atlantic. These trenches are thought to equal an area the size of Australia, with a vast area still left to explore.

The first and only previous expedition to the Mariana Trench was some 52 years earlier on January 23rd, 1960, and undertaken by U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard, (son of the ship’s designer), on board the bathyscaphe Trieste.  This was a much larger vehicle than Cameron’s, and despite an outer plexiglass window on the craft cracking, it ultimately managed to stay on the bottom for a brief period.  Unfortunately, it didn’t bring back any data to study.

By comparison, Mr Cameron’s craft was much smaller and composed of new, lighter materials that allowed a much quicker descent and ascent to the bottom, carrying HD 3D cameras and physical samplers.  As a result, footage was captured at the bottom of the trench, some of which was released shortly after the dive and showed an eerie, almost lunar landscape.  Additional footage was presented recently by researcher Natalya Gallo, detailing lifeforms that were previously unknown to science – sea cucumbers – and an indication of how much life is still unexplored.  Physical samples were also taken during and around Cameron’s jaunt into the abyss, and these will help scientists gain a further understanding of biology at these extreme depths, as well as information on tectonic plate activity – which can be useful in the study of Earthquakes and tsunami’s.

Other expeditions have been planned to these extreme depths before, such as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic submarine, and this is a burgeoning area of future scientific exploration that I think will generate awareness for the Oceans in general.  Cameron’s own effort was an attempt not only to reach the deepest point of the worlds oceans – some seven miles down (deeper than Everest is tall) – and show how modern technology can be utilized to achieve this goal, but also to inspire future generations about ocean conservation and stewardship.

It’s no secret that our Oceans are in a bad way.  UK politician David Miliband, recently launched the Global Ocean Commision, (one of many conservation organizations that exist), to look into the problems facing the oceans and how we, as a race, can address these problems, as we are moving forward into an uncertain and potentially difficult future.

Mankind is polluting at an extraordinary rate, and no bones have been made about the fact that plastic is becoming a huge issue in the oceans. It gathers in such huge quantities such as to form the famous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, more information on which can be found here and here.  Marine life can choke on these items as they do not degrade quickly and leach chemicals into the surrounding ocean, creating further pollution which in turn damages ecosystems.  Ocean acidification is another issue, and achieves the same result, decreasing the PH level of the ocean and effecting the growth of coral reefs in particular, along with numerous other harmful effects.

Impact on land territories crucial to future human sustainability and development is a huge result of rising sea levels, along with overfishing, and part of the GOC’s new mandate, is to address this issue and look at recommendations to help protect fish species that are edging closer to extinction.  Mr Miliband was instrumental in the formation of the Chagos Marine Reserve, the largest of its kind in the world, on April 1st, 2010, and although there were issues surrounding that Park, more work needs to be done in this spirit to help regulate human impact on the open oceans.

Under the oceans, explorers like Dr Robert Ballard, have been instrumental in furthering exploration and uncovering aspects of our nautical past previously unseen to human eyes, and discoveries such as the Titanic and other shipwrecks are now documented historical treasures for future generations.  He and the Woods Hole Institute have done sterling work in this field, continuing to do so with further marine studies which help us gain a clearer picture of life under the waves.  The Woods Hole institute itself is a leading oceanography institute, and it’s website offers useful interactive content that goes a long way to help explaining the nature of the oceans, making them accessible to those interested.

The governments of China, Japan and India are also continuing work in deep-sea exploration through manned submersibles, and how governments manage this area is a key issue for the future.  Although liquid space exploration is not as high on the agenda as outer space exploration I think it’s just as important given the state of the planet, Mr Cameron wrote an article on the subject, which I think is a worthwhile read on liquid explorations potential future.  The USA in particular is a key component, and given the lack of government interest, it may be that private sector funding is a vital element of the road ahead.

Ultimately, the exploration of the oceans and the conservation needed to protect them are interlinked, just as everything is on the planet, and the more we explore this uncharted alien world the more we will come to appreciate it and the myriad natural wonders it contains.  Wonders like the Giant Squid and Hydrothermal Vents, (the deepest discovered), were recently filmed and evidence of a new lost continent under the Indian Ocean are just some of the phenomena available in our oceans. It is also home to the longest and highest mountain range on Earth, with a combined surface area many more times vast than all the continents of the Earth put together.  In fact, you could fit them all into the Pacific Ocean with room to spare, and the ecosystems that live there comprise over 90 percent of the Earth’s biosphere, being vital for life on Earth creating half the Oxygen we breath.  The oceans also regulate the world’s weather systems storing up to 20 percent of the heat from the sun, which would otherwise make life very uncomfortable for the rest of us.

Bearing all of this in mind, it’s clear that the oceans, despite being an alien world to most of us, are in fact crucial for our survival, and the more we learn about them and the role they play the more important it is to help save them.  One of the main ways of raising awareness are not only deep-sea expeditions, (which can make the headlines), but documentaries, and documentaries by film makers like Mr Cameron are extremely useful as they present these topics in an immediate and compelling way.  In fact his documentary about the Mariana Trench dive due for release sometime in the near future should be extremely interesting.  Websites are another key aspect of further education, but engaging students of now and future generations is perhaps the most important aspect; raising more awareness early on needs to be done in my view to achieve this.

In the meantime, we race steadily onward towards a future where mankind’s resource consumption is only going to increase, and increase exponentially as the population climbs in number.  As we march towards that future we have to take steps towards sustainability – recycling, clean fuels, conservation – to mitigate the impacts of this, and hopefully articles like these will help to spread the word and engage people’s interest for further study.

Which hopefully people still have…deep down.

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