Discovery in the Dark | Testing the Limits of Technology and Funding
The Marshall Islands consist of 29 atolls, scattered over 180,000 nautical miles in the Northern Pacific. The Southeast Asians who settled there in the second millennium B.C. learned to canoe around the island chains by mapping the ocean. Using the mid-ribs of coconut fronds, cowrie shells, and curved threads, ancient cartographers constructed stick charts—open frameworks depicting the islands and the ocean surface patterns as the waves swelled and refracted. They were part art and part science—stick charting was the province of a few who passed their techniques to successive generations, and each map could only be read by the map-maker.
Today, scientists fly undersea remotely operated vehicles, equipped with manipulator arms and suction systems to collect samples, sonar systems to detect objects, and video cameras that beam high-resolution images to satellites, which, in turn, transmit other-worldly panoramas and hard data to other scientists on shore, participating on their computer screens.
The race is on to develop devices that can explore the deep ocean more easily, quickly, and cheaply. And consortiums of scientists across many disciplines are pulling together to mine every byte of data that can be extracted from the sea bottom.
Nonetheless, these leaps are not yet the bounds that the scientific community says must be made. The ocean covers 71 percent of the planet’s surface, and half of the United States’ land mass lies beneath its waters, yet we know it but slightly. Experts estimate that humanity has probed about 15 percent of the seabed.
Only three people have made the nearly 7-mile drop into the Challenger Deep at the southern end of the Mariana Trench, the lowest known point of the seafloor. For comparison, four times as many have walked on the moon.
The fleet is tiny. Globally, there are a handful of vessels dedicated solely to exploring nearly 140 million square miles of ocean. The tens of millions of dollars dedicated to exploration each year are a drop in an ocean of need.
“The world relies heavily on the ocean as a resource to sustain our livelihoods, as a food source, [and] 50 percent of our oxygen comes from the ocean. It governs climate and moderates our temperature,” says Alan Leonardi, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER). “Times change and resources change. No matter what, exploration is the first step in gaining understanding and knowledge of the ocean and its ecosystems.”
(Above) The remotely operated vehicle can descend to survey deep reaches of the ocean. Photograph © Brian Skerry
The Paradigm for Ocean Exploration Shifts
In 2009, ocean exploration took a bold step forward. The Okeanos Explorer, NOAA’s 224-foot ocean exploration ship, was testing its state-of-the-art mapping systems and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) in a series of shakedown cruises around the national marine sanctuaries in the Pacific.
The E/V Nautilus, a 215-foot research vessel owned by the Ocean Exploration Trust, was on its maiden voyage, documenting the seabed around the Gallipoli Peninsula. And the University of Rhode Island opened its $15 million Ocean Science and Exploration Center, featuring the Inner Space Center, a unique facility that would transmit the data collected at sea in real time to observers on shore.
The combination of an exploration fleet, technology that allowed scientists to gather high-resolution images and other data at greater depths, and telepresence changed what is collected, how it is collected, and who has access to it.
Most ocean scientists still do their field work aboard one of the 21 vessels that make up the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS). Getting a berth aboard the academic research fleet requires a mature hypothesis, says David C. Smith, associate dean for academic affairs at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO).
“You have to sell it to your peers, submit your proposal, and go through a vetting process with external experts who rank projects. That is a fundamental difference between the Okeanos and a UNOLS ship—two complementary approaches.”
Indeed, explorer and URI oceanography professor Robert Ballard, who has been at the forefront of crafting national ocean strategies as a member of the Panel on Ocean Exploration and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, founded the Ocean Exploration Trust in 2008 to build capacity for hypothesis-generating exploration. With support from NOAA, the Navy, GSO, National Geographic, and Citgo, the trust embarks on months-long expeditions each year.
“The problem with ocean exploration is, your mission is to boldly go where no one has gone before on this planet, and you can’t rely on the UNOLS fleet for that,” he says. “Our program is very unique, run by professional explorers, with a no-nonsense objective to make discoveries. I wanted a ship that was run by the inmates.”
Telepresence exponentially increases the corps of scientists who can participate in ocean exploration. The Inner Space Center works closely with the research fleet so that scientists interested in carnivorous sponges, or the geology of the Kick’em Jenny submarine volcano, or the impact of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill can not only follow cruises from live video feeds, but also can help direct their route and evaluate their finds in real time.
The Inner Space Center’s mission control features banks of computers dominated by a 20-foot projection screen, a small broadcast studio, and a hub of servers that capture and store the data.
“Telepresence increases the efficiency of the dives —dozens, if not hundreds, of scientists are helping us interpret what we find. Not everyone can take the time to spend a month at sea, and we needed to involve a much broader group to understand what we are looking at,” says Dwight Coleman, a geological oceanographer and the center’s director. “It has become part of the model for ocean exploration.”
Academic tradition also dictated that the data was held by individual scientists for up to two years to give them time to publish. The last nine years has seen the advent of open-source data at oer—initially a difficult transition for many scientists who must publish to maintain their careers, says Catalina Martinez, a NOAA OER regional program manager and liaison to URI.
“We were turning their model upside down,” she says. “But we had to make this data publicly accessible if we really wanted to broaden our reach. And because of the way technology has evolved and the world has evolved, everyone expects this immediacy— people’s mindsets evolved. Even some of the most seasoned ocean-going scientists have really bought into this way of doing business.”
Technology has been another game changer. Many of the devices used—sonar, submersibles, and ship- tethered ROVs developed by the Navy and academia— have been in existence for a couple of decades, but they have gotten smaller and lighter, with more sensors, better visualization, and faster computational capabilities. The next phase is fully autonomous vehicles.
Christopher Roman, a GSO associate professor of oceanography and ocean engineering who specializes in acoustic and photographic seafloor mapping, has been working on an unassuming three-foot, cylindrical “photofloat” to map the seafloor at shallow depths. He was inspired by ship time working with rovs— “complex and crazy, over-the-top expensive devices,” he says. “It made me think: what’s the opposite end?”
Roman’s imaging platform delivers high-quality, low-cost images, and can be launched by hand from any vessel. The float consists of a stereo camera system that can take black-and-white or color images, a strobe light, an auto-ballasting system, and a sensor that can measure the conductivity, temperature, and pressure of seawater.
Roman envisions his photofloats as part of a reconnaissance force, scouting in advance of more sophisticated, ship-based devices.
“We’re looking at smart ways to use robots to get more information, to better strategize operations,” he says.
While some predict a future in which ocean scientists spend little of their time at sea, robots can’t do everything, says David Smith, who studies microorganisms that live in marine sediment.
“I don’t deny that it’s happening. We are able to do a lot of things remotely, and it’s opened up new avenues in terms of endurance, but some of us still need a sample in our hands to manipulate in the lab on the ship or bring back home. We just don’t have sensors for that.”
Exploration on a Shoestring
Despite potential scientific rewards for ocean exploration, public support for it has remained modest.
In 1828, President John Quincy Adams requested funding for a major expedition to the South Seas and Pacific Ocean. But Congressional wrangling over the appropriation delayed its implementation by eight years.
In 1838, a flotilla of six U.S. naval vessels finally weighed anchor at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Four years later, the U.S. Exploration Expedition returned with a staggering scientific haul: tens of thousands of ethnographic, botanical, geological, and zoological samples; precise nautical charts; and notebooks stuffed with data about astronomy, meteorology, and oceanography.
More than 150 years later, the U.S. formally re-entered the ocean exploration business—with a small pot of funding. While the federal government had supported ocean surveys and undersea research programs as far back as 1807, fears that the U.S. had lost its leadership role prompted President Bill Clinton in 2000 to establish a multidisciplinary group to develop a strategy for exploring the oceans. One of the Panel on Ocean Exploration’s principal recommendations was 10 years of funding at $75 million annually.
A year later, NOAA established the OER with a budget of $4 million. In fiscal 2017, the OER budget was just under $32 million, and the 2018 OER appropriation is $36.5 million.
“It’s peanuts,” says Jacqueline Dixon, dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science and a member of the Ocean Advisory Board. “It’s not enough to do the job, and we have a lot of the discussion about how difficult it is to generate the same enthusiasm with the public and legislators for exploration of our own planet, versus exploration of space. How do we do a better job communicating to the public and policymakers about how important the ocean is to our survival as a species and for the global economy and national security? They are all tied together.”
With ship time costing anywhere from $25,000- $120,000 a day, OER does its best to leverage public dollars by working with partners, says Alan Leonardi.
But David Lovalvo, president of the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration (GFOE), headquartered in Mystic, Connecticut, sees these budget constraints as troubling limitations.
“Autonomous vehicles are very popular now, but they are just another tool in the toolbox. A lot of what is driving this [focus on autonomous technology] is the cost, and this is a dangerous position. When a scientific question is important enough, it should not be gauged by the cost of answering the question.”
Partnering for the Cause
On March 8, 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 vanished on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, with 239 people aboard. The search for the wreckage— considered the most expensive aviation recovery effort in history—was as needle-in-a-haystack as one could imagine. A multinational squadron of planes and ships scoured almost 3 million square miles of the waters of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean for four years without locating the body of the aircraft.
What the searches did stumble upon piqued the interest of the nonprofit XPRIZE, however, which, since 1996, has been holding technology competitions to solve complex problems. A survey of the seafloor conducted by the Australian government in pursuit of Flight MH370 discovered two ancient shipwrecks, deep ocean trenches, and undersea volcanos.
These incidental findings, in part, led the organization to design a contest around advancing ocean mapping technologies, says Jyotika Virmani, senior director of Planet and Environment for XPRIZE.
In March, 32 entrants were winnowed to nine finalists vying for $7 million in prize money for a device that could advance “the autonomy, scale, speed, depths and resolution of ocean exploration,” without a ship. Launched from air or shore, each entry must explore the competition area and produce a high-resolution bathymetric (depth measurement) map and images of a specific object and identify other features.
“We want to be on a path of a healthy, valued, and understood ocean within the next decade,” Virmani says. “To make it healthy, you have to value it, and valuing it requires understanding. A map is the most basic level of understanding you can have in the world.”
(Above) In 2011, the Okeanos Explorer examined deep-sea habitats in the Galápagos region. Photo by Carl Verplank courtesy of NOAA.
The GFOE and the Schmidt Ocean Institute also focus on developing new ocean exploration technologies. The former designs, builds, and operates robotic platforms and trains young ocean engineers. The Schmidt Ocean Institute, based in Palo Alto, California, operates the R/V Falkor as a testing platform for
“As things move to more autonomous vehicles, we spend a lot of time enabling people to advance technology,” says institute spokesman Logan Mock-Bunting. “We are trying to advance the frontiers. There aren’t many places that will allow you to go out and test in real-world conditions and work the kinks out.”
Yet, ocean scientists have concluded that without coordinating these separate efforts, ocean exploration will proceed at an unacceptably slow pace.
“With our current technology, it is estimated that we will still need nearly 1,000 ship years to map 100 percent of the ocean floor at a resolution of 100 meters, considering that 50 percent of the world ocean is deeper than 3,200 meters and parts are permanently ice covered,” says Dawn Wright, chief scientist for the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), which makes GIS mapping software. “We need to coordinate a global effort of new mapping projects initiated by many parties using many vessels and with the necessary funding.”
In 2016, two organizations came together to do that. Seabed 2030 is a global initiative to coordinate the complete mapping of the ocean floor by the year 2030 that was developed by the Nippon Foundation, a Tokyo-based nonprofit, and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), an international organization of geoscientists and hydrographers.
The first objective of Seabed 2030 is to gather all the seafloor mapping information out there—the maps privately held by industry, hard drives buried in a closet, and government-generated charts— “dark data,” says Vicki Ferrini, one of Seabed’s regional directors, based at Columbia University. Then, the group will identify the gaps to help the global community prioritize the areas that need mapping.
The challenges are many. The foundation seeded Seabed 2030 with $18 million over 10 years, but the group will need to raise more funds. Persuading entities with proprietary interests in their maps to share is another issue. Wrangling the massive volumes of data and meeting the deadline make this almost “an unfathomable goal,” she says.
What’s Down There
On July 4, 2016, a three-inch snailfish caused quite a stir. Wraith-white, with yellow eyes set in an oval head, and a tadpole’s body, it was pursuing its business along a ridge 8,200 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, when it wandered into the path of the ROV Deep Diver. The Okeanos was exploring the Mariana Trench as part of the multi-year project to survey U.S. marine-protected areas in the central and western Pacific.
There is no record of anyone ever seeing a living member of the Aphyonidae family, so the news made a splash, from CBS News to Ripley’s Believe it or Not. The U.K.’s Daily Mail heralded the discovery with “Move Over Casper!”
Faceless fish, 12-foot long spider crabs, and vampire squid; Byzantine shipwrecks preserved in the Black Sea; the body of the long-sought Titanic—discoveries with each voyage answer questions and generate others no one thought to ask. And oceanographers know the ripples of excitement can’t die on the shores of the next academic conference. The public must be engaged in pushing the boundaries of time and money to get to the bottom of the planet.
“The scientific community has woken up to the necessity of communicating well,” says ESRI’s Wright.
The thrill of discovery never gets old. In more than 150 expeditions—with many high-profile finds— Ballard himself still marvels at the 1977 expedition he led to probe the Galápagos Rift in the Pacific. They expected to find a desert in the deep down dark, but a trail of clam shells led their submersible to a biosphere thriving on the chemical energy pouring from the hydrothermal vents.
“It was the discovery of a life system that broke all the rules—that all life on this planet was dependent on the friendly sun driving the food chain,” Ballard recalls. “In total darkness, we found a highly developed, highly complex ecosystem living independently. We unlocked Pandora’s Box, and we didn’t even know it was there. What else is there to bump into?”
— By Ellen Liberman