Mission Deep Sea: Why Map Mars Before the Ocean?

The ocean is a scientific, technological, economic and geopolitical frontier. From 2015 to 2030 the global marine economy will grow from $1.5 to $3 trillion, according to the OECD, thanks to growing and emerging opportunities in offshore renewables, marine biotechnology, aquaculture, deep water oil and gas and seabed mining.

In terms of wider direct economic benefit from marine ecosystem services, the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF's) report Reviving the Ocean Economy estimated the ocean to be worth $2.5 trillion annually—which would give the ocean a seat at the G7 table in its own right.

Yet we also know that the ocean is under pressure from the cumulative effects of multiple human stresses, including acidification, deoxygenation, habitat loss, over-exploitation of wild fish, chemicals and plastics.

By 2050, nine billion people will live on Earth, with populations concentrated and growing fastest in low-lying coastal plains and mega cities vulnerable to flooding. People will inevitably, and with increasing urgency, turn to the sea and to coastal regions for places to live and for food, energy, and the new medicines and natural products of the future.

However, as the recent Future of the Sea Foresight Report pointed out, people suffer 'sea blindness,' which disconnects them from the ocean realm, which is largely invisible—and so out of sight and out of mind. The report also forecasts that ocean plastic litter will treble between 2015 and 2025.

The most visible effects of plastics in the ocean, which are attracting significant public attention, are the ingestion and entanglement of charismatic marine species such as birds, turtles, mammals, and fish. Concern about small plastic fragments (microplastics) centres on the potential on them to enter the food chain and research suggests that microplastics could also accumulate and concentrate persistent toxic contaminants. And hence transfer them into the food chain of both marine predators and ultimately to humans.

A major study conducted by researchers at the State University of New York at Fredonia recently found that 93 percent of bottles from 11 leading international water brands were contaminated with plastics.

Another study found that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is up to 16 times higher than previously estimated, with 79,000 tons of plastic measuring 620,000 miles².

Now scientists at the European Space Agency want to use a satellite to study plastic in our oceans from space.

An Ariane 5 rocket carrying two satellites, Skynet 5D and Mexsat Bicentenario, is pictured from Cayenne after blasting off on December 19, 2012 from the European space centre of Kourou, French Guiana. Getty Images

It is time to reconnect people with the sea—which is where life on Earth most probably originated. It is our vital life support system, providing half the oxygen we breathe.

Where do we start? I suggest by making the ocean visible. Although nothing lives there, Mars, the Moon and Venus are better mapped (at about 100m x 100m resolution) than the seafloor, which is home to many of the 90% of a possible two million species in the ocean yet to be described—and along with them valuable novel marine genetic resources. It is often said that you cannot manage what you cannot measure, but equally the case is that you do not measure what you do not value.

So beginning to measure and map the ocean is vital. The Seabed 2030 programme estimates it would take one survey ship 1,000 years to map the ocean to the same resolution as Mars. With concerted international effort of tens of ships, combined with swarms of autonomous underwater vehicles, this is achievable. Estimates say it would cost $3 billion to map the ocean floor—or about the same as a single Mars mission.

It is also important to expand the Global Ocean Observing System, an international scientific endeavor sponsored by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO. Part of this uses satellites which give global coverage, but these only see the thin surface skin of the sea. From this, we get a blurred (5km x 5km) map of the seafloor because of the way it is distorted by the sea surface. Therefore 'in-water' measurements are essential.

Underwater photo showing the diverse animal life in McMurdo Sound. NSF/USAP photo by Steve Clabuesch

The global array of continuous scientific measurements has already demonstrated what can be achieved. Through scientific cooperation between 34 countries since the turn of this century, the Argo profiling float programme has grown to 4,000 floats distributed across most of the world's ice-free ocean, measuring the temperature and salinity of the upper 2km. Argo has contributed vital measurements reducing uncertainty in how much heat the ocean takes up 93% of all excess heat in the Earth system and it is helping in very practical ways to improve seasonal weather forecasting, because ocean heat released back into the atmosphere powers weather systems.

Despite the advances, these measurements still leave most of the ocean below 2km depth unmeasured routinely or continuously. The global observing system mostly monitors the 'easy-to-measure' physical properties of the sea—and even then is stubbornly stalled at 65% of the extent of the network that scientists consider needed.

Why? There are multiple reasons but it basically comes down to funding. Research funding agencies don't really like investing in this sort of thing. A lot needs to be spent on infrastructure before getting more immediate scientific returns and demonstrable societal benefits from scientific discoveries. Then, because the outcomes are likely to be practically useful, research funding agencies are often suspicious that someone else should really be paying.

At the same time, much of the global system is necessarily located outside national jurisdictions, so national agencies find it hard to justify the benefits in the face of more local and immediate challenges. The philanthropic community tends to prefer supporting more tangible, visible projects. Contributing a small part of an ongoing integrated global observing infrastructure is not a first choice.

The result is that a large part the global ocean observing system is supported by the best endeavors of a frighteningly small number of dedicated scientists, working together internationally and supporting long-term activities with an accumulation of short-term science and R&D projects, meaning that the system does not have much funding resilience—and no basis on which to continue to build and enhance it.

Plastic bottles litter the Ghadir river bed as it pours into the Mediterranean Sea on January 14, 2017 near Beirut's International Airport. ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images

We now sit at the cusp of the technological revolution, whereby the dream of a global ocean health monitoring system is being enabled by autonomous systems, micro sensors, satellite technology, big data and model simulation analytics and genomics. These technologies—combined with investment in the international coordination effort—will transform the way we see and perceive of the ocean. Most importantly, they will provide the essential information we need to take action.

At the end of 2017, the United Nations General Assembly endorsed an International Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021-2030. This provides a real opportunity to galvanise thinking globally—to stake out the ambition we have for where we want to be at end of that decade. We need significant progress towards the comprehensive seabed map, a truly effective scientifically grounded global ocean observing system, that can provide robust and reliable information informing local and internationally agreed decisions about management of the ocean.

The ocean is a source of endless wonder and inspiration, from the water's edge to the deepest depths—and all life in between.

Mauna Kea in Hawaii is a mountain over 4000m above sea level, but it rises 6000m from the floor of the Pacific Ocean. In total it towers a mile higher than Everest. Many other smaller sea mounts rising from the ocean floor remain undiscovered.

From the great whales—the largest creatures on earth—to the strange animals living around deep sea vents where 300 degree celsius water spews out of the sea floor. These dark worlds are some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. Down here life is completely different and animals gets energy not from the sun but from eating bacteria powered by the chemicals coming out of the Earth's crust. The discovery of the Hoff crab, thriving in this deep sea environment in Antarctic waters, was made comparatively recently—during a 2012 expedition of the RRS James Cook.

In fact, the majority of life in the sea remains to be described by science. Excluding microbes, only about 250,000 marine species have been described out of a possible total of 2 million.

Now is the time to act—to end our blindness to the sea—and to gather the information we need to manage the ocean's resources and keep its health under continuous watch as people inevitably turn to the ocean to tackle some of the greatest challenges of our age.

Professor Edward Hill, Executive Director, National Oceanography Centre, UK