The Geopolitics of Deep Oceans review: fathoming the new frontier

John Hannigan’s highly readable survey of mankind and the oceans tackles deep-sea mining, superpower rivalries, global warming and popular culture

Tue, Oct 4, 2016, 17:26


Book Title:
The Geopolitics of Deep Oceans


John Hannigan


Guideline Price:

Apart from their luminary status, what do Leonardo di Caprio, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and Arthur C Clarke have in common? All four have taken a keen interest in that “new frontier” below 200 metres, where global oceans become “deep”.

Clarke predicted a moon landing in his space science fiction, but the writer was also a scuba diver and salvage agent who recognised that we would become increasingly dependent on the seas around us. He warned of the risks of over-enthusiasm more than half a century ago. Mining the ocean required caution if “we hope to save our machine-based civilisation from collapsing back into the Stone Age through shortage of metals”, he said.

Future Shock author Alvin Toffler also predicted a “new Atlantis” where competition for underwater resources would herald a “way of life that offers adventure, danger, quick riches or fame.” Toffler echoed the views of Isaac Asimov, who forecast that population growth would force settlement of desert and polar areas, and this would also extend to underwater colonisation of continental shelves.

French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, co-inventor of the aqualung, was similarly conflicted about the potential. Solar energy cells transmitting sun to the seabed, allowing for photosynthesis, would revolutionise mariculture, he wrote. He believed a “marine medicine chest” would contribute to development of new lifesaving drugs.

However, the damage done by overfishing, coral reef destruction and offshore oil drilling could be replicated, Cousteau warned, when man “opened the gates”.

Resource experts have forecast that this new century will be marked by “water wars”, as population expansion exerts more pressure on freshwater resources. However, as University of Toronto professor of sociology John Hannigan documents, there is also the potential for conflict in that vast and hidden environment which was once a “theatre of imagination” inhabited by the sort of “submarine aliens” he read about when he was a boy.

Hannigan identifies four competing and often overlapping “master narratives” . The first of these, the “frontier” approach, is associated with technological advances during and after the second World War – although the first serious expedition dated back to 1871-6 when the British Admiralty, Royal Society of London and Treasury Museum supported a voyage by the HMS Challenger to the western Pacific.

That voyage had two mandates – one being commercial, to identify the sort of obstacles that had led to a break in the first transatlantic cable just two years after it was laid in 1858. The second, and of more lasting importance for the seven scientific researchers onboard, was to settle the question as to whether the deep oceans hosted fauna of great size and antiquity – the sort of “evolutionary throwbacks” suggested in Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species.

The research ran to 50 volumes, and Challenger’s achievement was the oceanographic equivalent of “landing on the moon”, Hannigan says. Yet the deep ocean has rarely captured the public imagination in the same way as space has. He cites University of Connecticut marine historian Helen Rozwadowski, who believes the “infinity” of space makes it more appealing as a “better frontier”.

And so, while most school children learn about the various milestones in space exploration, there is far less awareness about two outstanding discoveries in ocean science in the 20th century. The first was identification of mid-ocean ridges and sea-floor spreading. This synthesised into the “revolutionary” earth science known as plate tectonics, whereby the Earth’s surface is made up of a series of constantly moving flat pieces or plates.

The second was the discovery of hydrothermal vents east of the Galapagos islands in 1977 – an entirely new type of ecosystem dependent on chemosynthesis, or chemical energy, rather than solar-powered photosynthesis. As he records, it sparked an intense debate in scientific journals about the origins of life itself.

By contrast, out of the public eye, commercial interests have been focused “in earnest” on the deep sea since the 1960s, Hannigan says. The attraction of deep-sea mining is not just the absence of private landowners, he notes. Methane hydrates, those reserves of natural gas trapped in “ice-like” form, could yield as much as ten times the entire recoverable natural gas supply globally, he says. That depends on when and if they are successfully tapped at a commercially viable cost.

Governing the “abyss”, and development of international maritime treaties, including the first and groundbreaking UN Law of the Sea Convention, is the second of Hannigan’s “master narratives”. The close relationship between the military and the major oceanographic research institutions “nurtured” during the Cold War is tracked in his third narrative, focused on “sovereignty games”.

He charts how technological breakthrough has so often been influenced by military and strategic imperatives. For instance, in response to cuts in US military spending, the US navy has been experimenting with self-powered robotic systems that can replace ships and submarines in carrying out surveillance. One of these projects, collectively known as “cheap stealth”, involves building a large robotic jellyfish, powered by rechargeable batteries to patrol the oceans.

Hannigan’s highly readable survey of the current status of deep oceans extends from a summary of scholarship over the past half century and more to popular culture. He recounts how film star Leonardo di Caprio has embraced the plight of the marine environment, and how methane hydrates were a theme in the revived US television soap opera, Dallas, while film director James Cameron has dived to the bottom of the Mariana trench, the lowest point in the Pacific and 25 per cent deeper than Mount Everest is high.

His fourth “master narrative” addresses the image of the oceans as a “canary in a mine shaft” in gauging the impact of climate change. Global warming and ocean acidification pose a serious threat to the sustainability of habitats, and he charts the conflicting views among scientists on whether deep oceans are absorbing the “missing heat” which is said by some to be masking the real trajectory of world air temperatures – said to have levelled off from 2000 to 2010.

There is growing political support for initiatives such as marine reserves, and he notes that President Barack Obama secured “bragging rights” when signing into law the world’s such reserve, in the Pacific, in September 2014. However, Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s approach is somewhat different. In 2007, during a polar expedition, Russia planted a flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

So, even as advances in oceanographic research could play a key role in tackling the challenge of climate change, a “great game” is currently in train among superpower nations at the top of the world. It has echoes of the battle for geopolitical supremacy by European powers in central Asia in the 19th century, he says – and with a “supporting cast”.

Lorna Siggins is Western and Marine Correspondent of The Irish Times