While there are seemingly few pieces of undiscovered terra firma left on Earth, adventurers shouldn’t turn in their compasses just yet.
The world’s five oceans have gone largely unexplored. Because the oceans cover 71% of the planet’s surface, that means most of Earth has yet to be observed by humans. With manned and unmanned submersibles and other underwater technologies pushing the pace, the years ahead should be a hallmark era of deep sea exploration.
Expect to learn more about ocean habitats that have so far eluded observation, and expect to be wowed by the underwater discoveries of never-before-seen creatures and other aquatic life that will undoubtedly illustrate the workings of the deep blue sea and how this largely unknown environment shapes the planet.
A Vast Underwater World to Explore
It’s often said that 95% of the Earth’s ocean floor is unexplored. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) puts that figure at more than 80%. A professor of marine ecology at the University of Southampton in the U.K. posits that while satellite technology has mapped just about 100% of the ocean floor at a certain resolution, less than 0.05% has been mapped at the highest possible resolution and even less ground has actually been explored.
No matter how you dive into it, a substantial swath of sea still hasn’t seen a human-led expedition. Although relatively few in number, past discoveries hint at the beauty and wonder that awaits explorers. While others went before him, Jacques Cousteau undoubtedly sparked the interest of generations of explorers by documenting his deep-sea journeys on film. Cousteau made oceanic study seem like a dreamy endeavor that almost anyone with the right equipment could pursue. And they had the right equipment thanks to him: He invented the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (better known as SCUBA).
In 2012, filmmaker James Cameron famously took a solo submarine dive nearly seven miles down to a Pacific Ocean valley known as Challenger Deep, the deepest surveyed spot on Earth that was visited only once before but with a two-person submersible. (Cameron’s record dive was bested this year by 52 feet.)
There’s Life in the Deep Blue Sea
Other underwater explorers have failed to match Cousteau’s legacy (Who could?) or generate as much media coverage as Cameron did, but many have made significant scientific underwater discoveries. Consider the work in progress right now.
NOAA and several government agencies recently studied deep water habitats off the U.S. Mid- and South Atlantic coasts in a project called “Deep Search 2019.” The researchers made the first observed sighting of tubeworms in that part of the ocean, a finding that will reveal more about a creature that uses chemosynthesis to convert hydrogen sulfide into food.
Another NOAA initiative, “Windows in the Deep 2019,” furthered a years-long study of seafloor methane seepage in the northern U.S. section of the Atlantic Ocean. By observing the methane plumes, the researchers hope to learn how gas hydrate dynamics influence ocean ecology.
Meanwhile, off the southeast Pacific coast of Chile and Peru, three new species of fish were discovered 7,500 meters below the surface. Temporarily named “the pink, the blue and the purple Atacama Snailfish,” the fish live in the Hadal Trenches, one of the deepest places on Earth and where tectonic plates collide.
Larger initiatives such as the International Ocean Discovery Program bring together researchers from around the world to examine seafloor rocks and sediments to make sense of the Earth’s history.
Knowledge to Inform Conservation
Those and many other journeys wouldn’t have happened without technology that can survive the pressure of extreme ocean depths and the effects of seawater corrosion. Researchers rely on submersibles such as remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) — which are ship-tethered robots that can reach great depths. They also use autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which are preprogrammed robots that also dive deep. Human occupied vehicles (HOVs) carry people to ocean floors and feature robotic arms that collect creatures and sediments.
Technology and the unquenched, objective curiosity of marine researchers will continue to push deep sea exploration at a time when such studies will help us understand how the Earth can handle climate change. With coral and other ocean species under threat of extinction because of warming water, researchers need to know more so they — and us — can better protect already fragile underwater ecosystems.