Over 80 percent of Earth’s oceans remain unexplored — the US can step up
While the U.S. has been a leader in space exploration, including investing billions of dollars to achieve a set of national priorities, there are many great unknowns on Earth where we can step up similar efforts.
With such a significant focus in space, it is incredible to me that over 80 percent of our Earth’s oceans remain unexplored. It is also unacceptable. Understanding our oceans is critical to our economy, security and way of life. Our oceans are essential in adapting to and mitigating changes to the earth’s climate, but the marine environment is under threat. High-value fisheries are moving north, dangerous tropical storms are intensifying and harmful algal blooms are becoming more frequent. The general public is increasingly concerned, resulting in a doubling of funding for marine conservation worldwide over the last decade to nearly $2 billion. More and more, governments, companies and private citizens are supporting ocean causes that range from fundamental science, coral reef conservation, marine litter removal, endangered species protection, to habitat restoration.
For these reasons, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently initiated and oversaw the development of the National Strategy and Plan to map and explore the America’s oceans — i.e. U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) — as well as similar efforts to add new and expand existing marine protected areas (MPAs), clean up marine plastic pollution, combat coral disease and advance ocean science and technology.
NOAA elevated attention to these efforts in 2019 at a White House Summit on Ocean Science and Technology Partnerships, which spurred the signing of a trove of agreements between the agency and partner organizations to move forward in areas such as ocean mapping, exploration, science, public understanding, countering illegal fishing, conserving coral reefs, as well as expanding the research and operational application of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence. NOAA continues to support all things ocean through its leadership in the UN Ocean Decade.
The one area where the U.S. stands to fall behind is human exploration of the deep sea. The U.S. flagship for this capability is the Human Occupied Vehicle (HOV) Alvin, funded by the Navy and operated by the National Deep Submergence Facility (NSDF) at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). Alvin recently suspended test certification dives for a maximum depth is 6500 meters due to inspect for potential damages, only reaching 5338 meters.
Compare that to the November 2020 dive by China’s HOV Fendouzhe, which broke their national record by reaching 10,909 meters in the Challenger Deep, just 26 meters above the deepest point in the Marianas Trench.
Fortunately, the private sector has stood up to show American leadership in this realm. Victor Vescovo of Caladan Oceanic, in partnership with Triton Submarines, developed and dived in the HOV Limiting Factor during a stunning series of dives to the world’s deepest ocean trenches. First, with the Five Deeps Expedition in 2019, then later in subsequent campaigns, Vescovo made over 60 dives below 10,000 meters, including 14 to Challenger Deep. Before Vescovo, four times more people had walked on the moon (12) than had been to the ocean’s deepest depths in Challenger Deep (three).
Now, the Biden administration has set a goal to return to the moon, including landings by a woman and person of color. In an ocean equivalent of this moonshot, Vescovo has already done that, too.
In American ocean leadership, Vescovo has exponentially exceeded what can be expected from any single citizen. So, he cannot be criticized for putting the Limiting Factor and its support vessel, Pressure Drop up for sale. Now, the U.S. government to take ownership of the deep ocean by acquiring Vescovo’s vessels for the NSDF. To realize the greatest benefit for the nation, they could be funded by NOAA’s Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute (OECI), which includes WHOI, University of Rhode Island, University of New Hampshire, University of Southern Mississippi and Bob Ballard’s Ocean Exploration Trust. With OECI’s unmatched expertise in planning and conducting multidisciplinary ocean mapping and exploration cruises, the ship and submersible would see the maximum possible return on investment.
Human exploration of the deep sea is not without its critics. Many point to the fact that remotely operated or autonomous underwater vehicles (ROV/AUV) are much less expensive and risky. But their argument ignores the same justification for human and robotic exploration of space in the U.S. Space Priorities Framework — that “space inspires us and is a source of American innovation, opportunity, leadership, and strength.” All equally hold true for the ocean.
Similar to their activity in space, China has set its sights on the deep seabed to fuel its economic and military ambitions. Especially appalling, Beijing is exhibiting a complete disregard for the environment in the deep sea that is on par with their abuses around the rest of the planet. During one of Vescovo’s Challenger Deep Dives, he observed miles of plastic-coated synthetic cable jettisoned from a ROV or HOV. Because China’s vehicles are the only platforms other than ours to venture near this remote patch of the seafloor, the cable is undoubtedly theirs. Not only does this present a serious safety hazard to future expeditions, it has resulted in the sad fact that no corner of the ocean has escaped the reach of anthropogenic plastic pollution.
From the dark side of the moon to the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions, China’s aspirations for dominance have no boundaries. To prevail in this great power competition, the U.S. needs to lead now more than ever before. With massive investments and policy priorities to lead in space, our trajectory is clearly arcing upward. To do the same in the ocean, we need to look downward — and go deep.
Rear Admiral (ret.) Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., is the former deputy administrator at NOAA, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, as well as oceanographer for the Navy. He is a fellow in the Explorer’s Club and has a Ph.D. in oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and is a research affiliate with the Galileo Project at Harvard University.
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