April 23, 2013
Understanding The Oceans To Understand Ourselves
If you’re like me, the bulk of your knowledge of the oceans centers on the fact they cover 2/3 of the Earth’s surface. And even that is a nearly long lost factoid learned in or around the 6th grade. Unless you’ve taken an environmental science class that was fairly ocean-centric, you have probably never known the true import of these masses.
The oceans are responsible for producing half of the oxygen necessary for life on Earth. They also play a substantial role in climate regulation, providing the atmosphere that makes our life on this planet possible.
Oftentimes on redOrbit, you have read about the impressive work being done through private/public partnerships in the area of satellite technology. However, with the oceans reaching depths of 2 miles in some areas, satellites can only, quite literally, just graze the surface.
“To truly explore ocean trenches,” states Chris German of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, “scientists need to study them methodically which requires routine access to emerging technologies.”
One recent example was a dive last year undertaken by Hollywood film director and ocean enthusiast James Cameron. He captained the Deepsea Challenger to depths never before explored. And his dive was only made possible by the technologies created and built upon over the previous three decades.
In 1977, the diving vessel ALVIN took researchers down nearly 1.5 miles to explore a volcanic ridge. That dive ignited a passion among oceanographers when an important and never-before-seen discovery was made. Hydrothermal vents fueled by chemical energy released from the Earth’s interior provided a habitat for lush ecosystems that, prior to the dive, could never have been conceived of in such cold and unforgiving depths. Researchers have been able to identify and categorize hundreds of previously unknown animal species as a result.
Single dives, while exciting for the teams conducting them, are proving to be too slow and too laborious a process for gaining a fuller understanding of the ocean deep. Scientists claim if the same rate of exploration is maintained, it may take an additional 3 decades to explore just 1/5th of the ocean ridges and trenches. What is required is a more methodical approach. And this, say scientists, is where advancement in the field of robotics will most likely play an important role in future ocean floor exploration.
German continues, “Understanding our Earth’s oceans has never been more crucial: they aren’t just a defining feature of our planet, they’re our life support system.”
Researchers see a future where live scientists collaborate with self-powering robots able to explore the oceans. These robots, they contend, would maintain contact with researchers on the surface while being programmed with enough decision-making software alerting them when they should stray from their programmed mission in order to follow something both unexpected and important.
This future robot development is not necessarily pie-in-the-sky thinking by oceanographic researchers, however. In fact, this robot vehicle and system development has already been undertaken. The consensus, however, is that this effort needs a rapid infusion of funding and man hours so that we might gain a fuller and faster understanding of the oceans around us.
The answers we seek may very likely be contained in the blanket of blue that covers our globe. From climate change to food and resource depletion to pollution, unlocking the mysteries of the deep may help us to solve the critical issues we now face. At the very least, we will enjoy a fuller understanding of this rock on which we live.
Image Credit: Photos.com