Unlocking the Ocean’s Deepest Secrets

Unlocking the Ocean’s Deepest Secrets

By Jon Sung


Everyone loves talking about exploring space. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. Space is great! Here at XPRIZE, we love space. But there's another almost entirely unexplored realm much closer to home that we also think deserves attention: the ocean. Yes, that ocean, the one right here on Earth—because there's still so much to learn. We recently sat down with Dr. Paul Bunje, Senior Director of the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, to talk about the benefits and challenges of the deep sea.

When you think of ocean exploration, you may think of Jules Verne, Jacques Cousteau, or the glossy photo spreads from National Geographic. Lots of kids go through a phase where they want to be marine biologists—diving into the water, looking at coral, talking to dolphins, and swimming through schools of glittering fish. Or maybe you remember Alvin, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's intrepid three-man submersible, which celebrated its 50th birthday this year.

Dr. Paul Bunje, Senior Director of the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE

It seems like we've been at this exploration thing for a while now. So how much marine life have we actually been able to identify? Three quarters? Less than half? Dr. Bunje estimates maybe 9%. Just a few weeks ago in fact, a research team led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) discovered a new species of deep-sea coral in the underwater canyons off the coast of Northern California. Such corals provide refuge for fish and other marine life, so the discovery will help scientists to better understand and manage this deep-sea ecosystem.

And while scientific knowledge in and of itself is always nice to have, there are additional benefits to be had in cataloguing the other 91% of the ocean's unknown species. We’ve found poison dart frogs in the Amazon rainforest that produce toxins that have proven medical applications. We might find something equally interesting down in the depths, like amphipods crammed with a compound that may help to treat Alzheimer's disease.

A new species of white coral discovered this year off the coast of Northern California at a depth of 600 feet. Source: NOAA

But we might be getting slightly ahead of ourselves here. Do you realize we don't have a good map of the ocean floor? It's maybe 3-5% complete. Imagine flying from San Francisco to New York and having virtually no idea on the terrain beneath you. Well, that's what we do anytime we board an oceangoing vessel. Having a complete, accurate map of the ocean floor wouldn't just do wonders for research and prospecting: it would also be useful for guiding the search for ships or planes lost at sea.

Exploring the ocean contrasts interestingly with exploring space. It's not as expensive, but in some ways it's much, much harder. Aside from surviving the G-forces of launch, which is certainly a non-trivial task, a space-going vessel only has to be able to withstand 1 atmosphere of pressure, and that's to keep the air inside from escaping out into the void of space. A deep-sea submersible doesn't have to worry about riding a rocket into space, but it does have to think about pressure a lot: every 10 meters of depth adds another atmosphere. To properly explore the ocean floor, a vessel needs to be able to withstand being crushed by 600atm of pressure, or nearly 9,000 pounds per square inch. To put that in perspective, the hydraulic ram of a New York City garbage compactor averages less than a third of that.

Commissioned in 1964 as one of the world’s first deep-ocean submersibles, Alvin has made more than 4,600 dives. Source: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The number of people who've been down that deep barely passes five (one of them is filmmaker and XPRIZE Board of Trustees member James Cameron). So instead, we send robots—which are incredibly hard to build. They need to carry their own power supplies (typically batteries), and of course there's that nagging 9,000psi of pressure to deal with. Worldwide, there are less than ten of these things, and they're becoming scarce: one of them, the Nereus, was lost to an implosion event earlier this year when it was operating more than six miles down. "Losing one of them is like losing a space shuttle," Dr. Bunje laments. Oddly enough, for all the challenges building one presents, a deep ocean explorer is amazingly inexpensive compared to a space shuttle: the Nereus came with an $8 million price tag, while the Space Shuttle Endeavour cost $1.7 billion to build, and another $450 million per launch.

Set aside the issues of ocean mapping and biodiversity, and a larger, much more pressing matter comes into focus: our own survival. Fundamental characteristics of the ocean are changing, and not just because of the garbage we dump into it or the fish we pull out of it. Have you ever had a drink of plain carbonated water from something like a Sodastream? Ever notice how nasty it tastes? That's because carbon dioxide acidifies water -- which, incidentally, is why flat soda is so sweet: it's to compensate for the acidity when it's fully carbonated. You may have heard something about climate change; the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere that's turning the planet into a greenhouse is also being absorbed by the ocean and turning it acidic. How much, and how fast? We don’t really know.

That's where XPRIZE comes in. Right now, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE competition is underway to find the best method for measuring and monitoring the acidification of the ocean, taking the first step toward understanding (and one day hopefully solving) the problem. We're also developing some other ocean-related competitions, one of which may be aimed at finally mapping the abyss. So just because we're starting to venture out into space again doesn't mean we have to quit looking around down here, too.



Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.

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