Oceans

How Ocean Exploration Technology Is Changing Our Understanding of the Sea

July 23, 2018
ocean exploration technology

It’s 2018, and we’ve got humans living in orbit and robots exploring the cosmos to look for new places for our civilization to expand. At the same time, we’ve still only managed to explore five percent of the ocean’s depths. We’ve mapped the length and breadth of the oceans, but most of what is hiding beneath the surface is still unexplored. Advances in ocean exploration technology are just starting to let us discover what is hidden in the depths of the ocean. How are these technological advances changing our understanding of the sea?

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Submersible Technology History

The first deep-sea submersible, the bathysphere, was only able to reach depths of about 4,500 feet safely. It was very simple — a hollow steel ball was lowered on a cable and contained two oxygen tanks with roughly eight hours’ worth of air in 1934.

In 1953, the bathyscaphe — designed by inventor Auguste Piccard — was able to reach depths of slightly more than 10,000 feet in the Mediterranean Sea. In 1960, this bathyscaphe managed to touch the bottom of the Challenger Deep — the deepest point in the Mariana Trench — and was manned at the time.

Reaching the depths of the sea is one thing, but exploring them is something else entirely. That wasn’t really possible until the mid-1960s, when a deep-sea submersible named Alvin was created to find a missing hydrogen bomb in the Mediterranean Sea. Alvin was also used to explore the wreck of the Titanic and was able to carry up to three people at a time at depths of up to 14,800 feet. Alvin also discovered the giant tubeworms living near volcanic vents at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

There have only been three people who have managed to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench: Auguste Piccard, his pilot and “Titanic” movie director James Cameron, who explored the bottom of the trench in 2012.

Autonomous Exploration

We’re limited in our exploration of the bottom of the ocean because of the massive pressure created by the millions of gallons of water pressing down. One way around this is to use autonomous robotic vehicles that can safely explore the depths because the pressure doesn’t affect the electronics the same way it does human bodies.

These devices have to be autonomous because Wi-Fi and even radio waves don’t travel under water. It’s the same reason submarines have to surface in order to communicate.

Low Oxygen Regions

One of the most surprising finds in recent years is the fact that vast stretches of the ocean are suddenly becoming low-oxygen zones. Most of these areas are deep beneath the surface, but they are being avoided by fish because entering them would mean suffocation. This is changing where fish are living and is likely both the result of global warming and something that is contributing to this changing climate.

This is a side effect most people don’t understand, but it is destroying the ecosystems where it is occurring. We don’t tend to see it because it occurs far beneath the surface, which is why ocean exploration technology is so important.

The water is warming up along with the rest of the planet, and warm water carries less oxygen in it than cold water does. It also makes microbes and other creatures in the deeps use up more of what little oxygen is available, leaving little to none for fish and other marine life.

Positive vs. Negative Stories

Stories about exploring space, for the most part, are positive. We did have some hiccups during our first attempts to get off this planet, but now we have people living in orbit full time. Stories from the ocean, on the other hand, tend to be negative, such as the low-oxygen zones mentioned above. We don’t want to think about the damage we’re doing to the planet we live on. Instead, we’d rather think about the things we can’t see yet, the possibilities that await us if we create technology that can carry us to another planet.

We don’t want to discourage anyone from exploring the cosmos. Becoming an interstellar species might be the next step in our evolution, but there is still much we can learn right here on our own home planet. These technological advances could even be used to carry us down into the ocean’s depths and into the depths of space, depending on how they’re applied.

There are many different things we could still discover in the depths of the ocean. It’s up to us to take those first steps and dive right in — literally. We have to be willing to take the steps that lead us to the bottom of the ocean before we can find out what secrets it is hiding.

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