Want to know what the surface of the moon looks like? There’s a map for that. What about Mars’ topography? There’s a map for that too. Want to know about our own planet’s surface? Good luck, because our maps are missing roughly three quarters of the necessary information.
Even in a 21st century world where we can instantly pinpoint and view any given spot on the globe with Google Earth, 95 percent of the 71 percent of Earth covered by ocean remains unexplored. That means 68 percent of our own planet remains a complete unknown.
Thanks to National Geographic Explorer and blockbuster movie director James Cameron’s historic descent to the deepest place on earth this week, discussions of the ocean’s mysteries are resurfacing. On Tuesday, Cameron descended 6.8 miles beneath the Pacific’s surface into Marianas Trench via his custom designed DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, and experienced a world unlike any seen before.
While this expedition received worldwide attention, influenced at least partially by Cameron’s Hollywood success with films such as Avatar and Titanic, ocean exploration remains an understudied area. Thanks to (not to oversimplify) water coverage, the Earth’s greatest mountain ranges, deepest valleys and tens of thousands of active volcanoes remain unvisited and unexplored.
Robert Ballard, a geophysicist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, passionately advocates ocean exploration. “When you really think about it, we’re living on the peaks of mountains and don’t know what’s down in the valleys,” Ballard said in an interview with NPR.
And why does it matter what’s in the valleys? Beyond pure curiosity, anyone who has taken middle school science realizes oceans are the key to our weather systems. Based on 2011, a year with the second deadliest tornado and third busiest hurricane year on record, epic floods, drought and heat, concern for the origins of these weather and climate trends should be higher than ever.
However, the funding levels for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are not so high. The budget, which includes improvements in the prediction of high impact weather and water forecasts in order to reduce weather-related fatalities and investments in satellites and sensors to further observation, was just $5.5 billion compared to NASA’s $18.7 billion for space exploration.
A reduced budget of $5.1 billion for 2013 (compared to NASA’s $17.7 billion) will aim to provide lifesaving preparation services andinfrastructure to protect American communities and promote research to enhance America’s competitiveness on an international level.
Beyond geological advances achieved with ocean discovery, unprecedented historical findings lay below the sea’s surface. Lack of oxygen at deep levels allows the oceans to preserve more history than all of the museums on earth combined. According to Ballard, scientists’ discoveries include preserved shipwrecks from as far back as 750 BC. In places like the Black Sea, which is void of oxygen, bodies found in shipwrecks from over a thousand years ago are intact with DNA perfectly preserved.
Between geological and historical research potential, the limited budget and progress in ocean exploration is not enough. While we survey Mars this year, we ignore the 50 percent of our own country’s territory that is covered by ocean and mostly unexplored.
But maybe Cameron’s expedition to the depths of the earth will be able to advance ocean exploration beyond the collection of his samples. Cameron intends to turn his endeavor into a film.
“If I see something amazing at the bottom of the ocean and I’m not able to shoot it and bring it back in 3-D, then it’s a tree falling in the forest. So I see them as being two aspects of the same basic impulse,” he said.
With his raw publicity power and his film, Cameron could remind our nation and our world how much we still have left to explore. And as he explained, we need to look no further than our beaches, seas and oceans.
“The idea is that if you can go to the deepest spot in the ocean, you can go anywhere in the ocean. There are so many of these extremely deep places that, together, form the last unexplored frontier on our planet.”