The Earth’s oceans cover about 70 per cent of the surface of the planet. Human beings have explored only 10 per cent. The deepest oceans are largely unknown. Given human civilization’s penchant for discovery, how is it that so much excitement and (more importantly) funding can be generated for projects exploring space when we don’t even fully understand the planet we’re on? Why look up before looking down?
A couple of years back, there appeared to be some deep-sea momentum. In 2012 film-maker James Cameron became one of three humans to reach the 6.8-mile depths of the Marianas Trench, the deepest ocean spot on Earth.
Eric Schmidt of Google co-founded the Schmidt Ocean Institute and Virgin announced a new era of sea exploration with the $17 million (€15 million) Virgin Oceanic submarine, a vessel that was proposed to take visitors to the deepest parts of the ocean. (The project is now on hold until technology catches up with Richard Branson's ambitions.)
How things have changed. Last year, the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had its deep-sea research budget cut to $26 million, which is still 10 times the European budget for same research. For comparison, NASA's exploration budget was $4 billion. Soon the United States will have no Pacific deep-sea facility at all.
There is a growing movement to map the world's oceans. But this is not without challenges. For starters, it would be expensive. The director of the Centre for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the Jere A Chase Ocean Engineering Lab in New Hampshire, Larry Mayer, has put a figure on it. "It would cost roughly $3 billion," he says.
Put in context, the cost of mapping the entire global ocean basins would be about the same as a single Mars mission. A successful manned landing on the red planet would be an amazing human achievement. But to what end?
“I fully support space exploration,” says Mayer. “However, I cannot understand the attraction of a mission to Mars when so much is unknown right here on Earth. I guarantee just mapping the oceans would lead to tonnes of new discoveries.”
Mayer has even estimated how long it could take. “About 200 ship years,” he says. “In other words, 200 ships could do it in a year while two ships would be out for 100 years.”
Manned submersible vehicles have been around for a century and some nations, such as the United States, still prefer to keep a human at the helm. Remotely operated vehicle (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicle (AUVs) technology has developed significantly in recent times and allows for research at greater depths and for longer periods. ROVs and AUVs are more popular for European-based deep-sea exploration.
"You can get a lot more work done for your euro," explains Dr Anthony Grehan, from the School of Natural Sciences at NUI Galway, and a member of a consortium of Irish marine universities on the European Marine Board, a pan-European platform for member organisations to develop common marine research priorities.
"I've been using the Irish submersible called the Holland 1 [named after Irishman John Philip Holland who invented the submarine]. It's a fantastic ROV that we use on the Celtic Explorer vessel. On deep water coral sites, we were able to pick up samples as small as a golf ball at depths of 3,000 metres."
The development of technology like this is a significant step forward in terms of mapping the world’s oceans. But money, time and technology are not the only factors.
“The oceans are so divided amongst different nations that it’s a real challenge to mount a global effort,” says Mayer. “It’s going to have to be done piecemeal.”
This is a problem. As technology that allows for deeper sea exploration develops it is, unsurprisingly, exciting industries such as deep-sea mining, oil and gas production, and fisheries.
It would be prudent for those without any commercial interests to map the oceans sooner rather than later. That way they would be in a position to regulate deep-sea activity as well as highlight any areas requiring particular environmental protection.
Ireland is leading the world in deep-sea mapping. "We were the first country in the world to make a significant investment in mapping its deep sea resources," says Grehan.
“We realised that, with our semi-continental shelf, nine-tenths of our potential resources were underwater. The six-year Irish National Seabed Survey charted 600,000sq km of deep-sea water and has now been succeeded by INFOMAR, which is concentrating on inshore mapping.”
Research from institutions such as NUI Galway and University College Cork (UCC) is informing marine experts around the world and will hopefully help to convince the European Commission to fund a wide-reaching deep-sea mapping project. "The European Marine Board just launched a new position paper on the deep-sea: Delving Deeper: Critical challenges for 21st century deep-sea research," says Grehan.
“In October, the European Commission will announce the outcome of a call for proposals to fund Atlantic Ocean and deep-sea research on ‘Improving the preservation and sustainable exploitation of Atlantic marine ecosystems’ in the face of climate change with an investment of about €20 million.”
Realistically, the European Commission won’t fund mapping on its own. That will get done as part of a wider management strategy to promote more sustainable developments of resources in the oceans. “Right now, everything in this field is done a little bit ad hoc,” adds Grehan. “There are various organisations involved, all controlling their own interests.”
In order to create a more globally consolidated approach, it would certainly help to get the public more interested in deep-sea research.
"It's almost as if we have gotten bored of our oceans," says Prof Andy Wheeler from the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UCC, who in 2014 gave a TEDx talk on how our oceans are the true final frontier.
“Humans have moved onto the next exciting thing, which right now happens to be Mars,” he says. “Various career scientists and institutions have gotten the public interested in exploring the universe, which is really not that relevant to us. We have evolved to live on this planet. The public seems to have lost that perception. We are a very land-centric species.
"But understanding our oceans is crucial. If climate change does make living on this planet more difficult, it would be a lot easier to figure out how to survive in Antarctica or on the bottom of the seabed than it would on Mars, an incredibly harsh place with constant hurricane winds."