Oceans' salvation may lie in exploration

A gala event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first--and only--manned dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench highlights just how much work needs to be done if mankind hopes to rescue the planet's oceans from their rapidly degrading health.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard wave after surfacing from their dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the worlds deepest spot. The mission, in 1960, was the first--and only--manned dive to the bottom of the trench. Now, ocean exploration has fallen off the map, but new technologies promise to recharge a once promising field of research. Thomas Abercrombie, National Geographic Society

On January 23, 1960, two men, diving in a small deep-sea submersible, reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a spot about 200 miles southwest of Guam that, at 35,800 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, is the deepest point on Earth.

It was the first time humans had gone that deep, and when Navy Lt. Don Walsh and his co-pilot, Jacques Piccard, took the bathyscaphe Trieste all the way down, they surely must have felt like pioneers, the first of many who would make their way there.

On Thursday, at a gala event at the Press Club in Washington, D.C., Walsh will be the featured guest at the official celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Trieste's famous dive--he wasn't available on the actual anniversary--and will have two awards bestowed on him: The National Geographic Society's highest honor, the Hubbard Medal, and the U.S. Navy's Distinguished Public Service award.

Piccard died in 2008.

All these decades later, however, no one has repeated that great success, and as Walsh told CNET in an interview last week, "We were happy to be the first, but we didn't expect to be the last."

Ocean exploration past, present, and future (images)

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Indeed, the fact that humans haven't returned to the bottom of the Mariana Trench highlights a disturbing fact: while we have spent billions putting men on the moon and building space stations, we have, by comparison at least, neglected the most significant environments on Earth, our oceans. And that has, to some experts, forced our hand. Either we turn things around and make the future of ocean exploration a very high priority, they say, or we face some sobering realities.

"To paraphrase [author] Tom Wolfe, we had the right stuff, but [went in] the wrong direction," Walsh said. "In the oceanographic community globally, not just in the United States, we have really failed to make the necessary investments to learn about the world's oceans, which cover 70 percent of our planet."

'Far behind the curve'
If there's anyone who has gravitas in the field of ocean exploration, it's National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence Sylvia Earle. A longtime ocean explorer, author, lecturer, and former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Earle was awarded the 2009 TED Prize for her work and created Mission Blue, which aims to "heal and protect the Earth's oceans through the creation and management of essential marine protected areas."

"We're far behind the curve from where we need to be," Earle told CNET. "People look at the surface, and they think that's the ocean, and because they can't see what's going on below, they think everything's just fine. But those of us with decades of exploration [experience know that] the ocean is in trouble, and therefore so are we."

That's because, she said, it's the world's oceans that drive climate and weather and which generate most of our oxygen. Indeed, she said, fully one-fifth of the planet's oxygen comes from a single marine-based, blue-green bacterium: the prochlorococcus. Yet, before our eyes, she said, the marine ecosystems are dying out or struggling from a wide variety of factors including over-fishing, pollution, changes in chemistry, and more.

So why have we, as a people, spent so little energy exploring the seas, even though 50 years ago, it was considered a great national triumph to have conquered the Mariana Trench?

Earle recalled a lunch she once had with Clare Boothe Luce, the famous playwright and former U.S. ambassador to Italy and congresswoman. "[Boothe] was musing about the disparity [between space and ocean exploration] and she looked up at the puffy clouds, and she said, 'You know, heaven is up there. And you know what's down there.'"

Deep-sea technology
Today, there are not nearly enough ships, sonars, or submarines of any kind to do ocean exploration justice, said Stephen Hammond, the chief scientist for NOAA's office of ocean exploration and research. But at least some things are moving in the right direction, he added.

The urgent goal, Hammond said, is to make a dent in the 90 percent of the world's oceans that humans know nothing about. And that's where NOAA is putting its money where its mouth is: by taking a former Department of Defense acoustic surveillance vessel that it acquired in 2005 and retrofitting it as a world-class "global range ship of discovery."

Christened the Okeanos Explorer--okeanos is Greek for ocean--the ship, which is undergoing field trials in Hawaii right now and should embark on its first major expedition in June, is a testament to scientists applying technology to solve some significant problems.

Among its innovations, the Okeanos Explorer is outfitted with what is called a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), essentially an unmanned submersible, that can descend to 6,000 meters below the surface. Like many of its cousins, it is tethered to its mothership with fiber-optic cable that can transmit data from a host of sensors and cameras.

The Okeanos Explorer, a vessel that can launch a remotely operated vehicle to depths of 6,000 meters and then beam data from the submersible to anywhere on the planet in real-time.

But what makes the Okeanos unique is that it features telepresence technology that will allow it to beam any kind of data gathered from the ROV, be it high-definition video or high-resolution photographs, to anywhere in the world via a super-high-speed satellite Internet connection in real-time. And that means, Hammonds explained, that scientists in command centers anywhere in the world can participate in the exploration as it's happening, a major leap forward given the economics of putting people on board ships that might be anywhere on Earth at any time.

The National Science Foundation, too, is investing in ROVs and seeing them as a way to expand the reach of its research. For some time, it has operated an ROV known as Jason, which has a 6,000-meter depth range. But over the last year, the NSF has been putting much of its ocean exploration energy into a new ROV developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute known as Nereus, which, according to Brian Midson, a technology operations specialist in the NSF's submersible support program, is today the world's only vehicle proven to be able to reaching the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

What sets Nereus apart is a state-of-the-art, Navy-developed fiber-optic tether system originally designed for torpedoes, Midson said. That system allows Nereus to move laterally away from its mothership, meaning that it is more nimble--and so can explore much more--than its predecessors.

In addition, Nereus is an example of a submersible that has pressure housings made from high-strength ceramics rather than titanium, which means it is smaller and lighter and requires a smaller ship from which to operate than have older models.

Now, while Nereus has already taken two operational missions, it is awaiting the kind of scientific proposals that justify its use.

Batteries a challenge
As with cars, one of the biggest challenges facing submersibles is battery power. According to Bob Houtman, the head of NSF's integrative programs section, traditional submersible batteries have used lead acid and have therefore been large and heavy and inefficient.

Today, however, researchers are hopeful that they will soon be able to turn to the kind of lithium ion batteries found in many electronic devices. There are no clear paths to that future, but it's clearly a priority, particularly because the batteries are lighter and more efficient. However, lithium ion batteries currently require a protective housing that adds weight and offsets much of the weight loss.

Another challenge is finding a way to build manned deep-sea submersible housings out of ceramics. That may be a long way off, but Houtman said the NSF has recently funded an entirely new type of titanium submersible housing, one which he suggested could improve performance and efficiency.

Cost, too, is a big barrier between researchers and the exploration they'd like. Traditionally, submersibles have been seven-figure expenditures. But on Thursday, one of the leaders in the personal submersible field, Hawkes Ocean Technologies, is announcing a spinoff company, called Hawkes Remotes, which is setting out to begin producing ROVs as well as autonomous unmanned vehicles (AUVs) that will cost at least 50 percent less than traditional models.

"Our view...is that the traditional architecture for AUVs and ROVshas been relatively unchanged" for years, said Jonathan Epstein, the CEO of Hawkes Remotes, "and that by deploying the principles of flight underwater and [founder Graham Hawkes'] control systems and batteries and material science, we will be able to reduce the cost of ocean access by 50 percent right away, and possibly by an order of magnitude within two-to-three years."

The lowest-priced models will cost less than $100,000, and the top end will start around $500,000.

This will make it much easier, Epstein said, for research institutions to purchase submersibles and then to do deep-sea exploration. The company's vessels will combine very deep-sea range with the latest in electronics, allowing customers to send back HD video, high-resolution imagery, and much more from thousands of meters below the surface and at much lower cost than today.

A closing window
While the field has been neglected for some time, there is a blossoming of interest in ocean exploration today. Disney Nature will release its feature film, "Oceans" on Earth Day, April 22. One of the first efforts of the crowdsourced social change organization Armchair Revolutionary is a video game called Make Waves, which launched on April 5. It is designed to provide users with real-life social activism tools while they manage part of the ocean in a virtual environment modeled on the real-world.

Still, it may be more important than ever to dive in quickly, as it were, to ocean exploration for science and research, said Hawkes. That's because, he said, with natural resources on the surface of the planet dwindling quickly, it is only a matter of time before industrial interests take to the seas to search for energy and mineral deposits.

"As soon as we're short of cobalt [or other resources], the commercial pressure to start to exploit the oceans becomes real and that's all going to happen very quickly," Hawkes said. "That's an engine and impetus that's just going to dwarf science [and research] and it's just going to run right over it. My feeling is, we're running out of time to get a few solid decades of science and understanding under our belts before we get to exploitation."