The ocean is a massive body of saltwater that covers roughly seventy percent—or 139,434,000 square miles—of the Earth’s total surface. It has played a vital role throughout history, supplying humans with food and acting as an avenue for transport to develop commerce and trade. Depending on one’s outlook, it can be awe-inspiring for its natural beauty, or terrifying in its vastness. But despite the long history of ocean exploration, approximately eighty percent is unmapped and unexplored, while some sources put this number as high as 95 percent.
Oceans Of The World
Experts estimate that the ocean makes up 97 percent of the world’s water. There is one global ocean, but oceanographers generally break it down into separate, smaller ones: the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian, and the Arctic. Recently, however, many countries have begun to recognize a fifth, the Southern Ocean, which is located around Antarctica. At 63,800,000 square miles, the Pacific is the largest of all five oceans.
History Of Ocean Exploration
Deep sea exploration has been an interest to many different people throughout history; even 8th century Vikings dropped lead weights attached to ropes to measure water depth. Regardless, most historians consider the voyage of the HMS Challenger in the late 19th century to be the first official expedition. Spearheaded by marine zoologist Charles Wyville Thomson, they discovered new species living on the seafloor, ultimately laying the foundation for oceanography as a scientific field.
A few decades later in 1930, William Beebe and Otis Barton became the first humans to visit the deep sea within their bathysphere, a steel contraption lowered into the ocean via cable. Just four years later, they set a new human diving record, reaching 3,028 feet (923 meters) beneath the ocean’s surface.
In 1960, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh descended to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. Measuring approximately 36,000 feet (10,900 meters) deep, it is considered the deepest place in the ocean. In fact, Mount Everest would be completely submerged if placed at the very bottom. The pair made their journey aboard the Trieste, an updated version of the bathysphere.
The advancement of ocean exploration has always been possible due to the development of new technologies. Humans still brave the deep, but most contemporary discoveries are made using underwater vehicles that can be controlled remotely or that operate on their own. Most of these high-tech submersibles are equipped with sonar to map the underwater topography.
Difficulties With Ocean Exploration
Countless expeditions have been made over the years, which has led to a greater understanding of our planet and its inhabitants. Nonetheless, experts have only been able to survey a sliver of the totality of the ocean—anywhere from five to twenty percent. This is because underwater exploration is a very costly endeavor. In addition to the equipment, expeditions can be quite lengthy which only increases the price. Receiving funding is also an issue due to the inherent risks, plus there is no guarantee of success since there is a lack of visibility at great depths. Because there are too many unknowns, many private and public agencies refuse to get involved.
What Remains Undiscovered
There are dozens of regions in the ocean that remain completely unobserved. This includes several areas that are known and named by humans, such as the Horizon Deep in the Tonga Trench (the second deepest place on Earth), the cenotes of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula (the world’s longest underwater cave system), and the Ross Sea Ice Shelf in Antarctica (the world’s largest ice shelf).
But it is not just geography that remains a mystery. Experts estimate that more than ninety percent of all marine species have yet to be discovered; that could mean up to a few million underwater creatures are currently circling the ocean floor that we do not even know exist.
Benefits Of Ocean Exploration
The ocean plays a vital role in our very existence. For example, it produces between fifty and 75 percent of the world’s oxygen. It also impacts the weather and helps regulate our global temperature. Because of this, ocean exploration is not conducted to scratch a mere curiosity. Further studies can help scientists predict earthquakes and tsunamis, which could ultimately save countless human lives, and allow us to understand more fully how to address wider concerns regarding climate change. Depending on its purpose, ocean exploration can also advance certain medical drugs and energy resources.
Space has always occupied a large portion of our collective imagination. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has already mapped Mars, Mercury, and most of Venus. In fact, since the early 1990s, we have known more about Mars’s topography than our own planet. This is because space exploration gets much more attention than ocean exploration.
For decades, NASA outpaced the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in almost everything, including press coverage, attention from the private and public sectors, and funding. In 2017, the Senate Appropriations Committee granted the NOAA $5.7 billion, which is a considerable increase from the previous year, but NASA was given a whopping $19.3 billion for its various projects.
There are many reasons for this. For starters, many believe that space exploration is actually easier. Because there is a lack of visibility at great depths in the ocean, space becomes a more desirable subject; all one needs is a telescope to witness the wonders the night sky has to offer.
Historically speaking, space has garnered more interest from the government early on due to the space race with the Soviet Union. It is also permanently woven into the very fabric of our culture with popular movies and TV shows like Star Wars and Star Trek.
Today, the NOAA—alongside various scientists, government officials, NGOs, and Hollywood director James Cameron—is campaigning for more NASA-scale expeditions to investigate the eighty percent of ocean that remains a question mark. With the continuous advancement of new technologies, perhaps these efforts will succeed, but for now, options for ocean exploration remain limited. We must learn to be content knowing that the majority of our own home is beyond our reach.