Why Haven't We Explored the Ocean Like Outer Space?

The final frontier is right here on Earth.

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson

Global ocean topography via GEOSAT. Image: NOAA

Depending on who you ask, there exists not one—but two—final frontiers of discovery. Deep space has long captivated our imaginations, but the deep ocean, right here on Earth, remains one of the most underexplored places known to humans.

Only five percent of the seafloor has been topographically imaged, which leaves 65 percent of the entire planet (not counting land masses) relatively unknown. Yet, since the dawn of space exploration, NASA has thoroughly mapped Mercury, the dwarf planet Ceres, almost all of Venus, and even the Red Planet, some 140 million miles away. And don't forget the stunningly detailed satellite images of the Moon's every nook and cranny.

High resolution topographic map of Mars. Image: NASA/JPL/USGS

But now, an international group of marine experts at the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), an oceanographic organization founded in 1903, says it wants nothing more than to see future marine exploration on par with the space race.

At the Forum for Future Ocean Floor Mapping this week—a symposium where scientists, oceanographers, government officials, and NGOs converged over global ocean issues—the nonprofit declared its intentions for a NASA-scale mission to see every last inch of the seafloor digitally mapped.

"Since 1991 we have known more about the topography of Mars than we do about the earth's seafloor, and oceans certainly have a much more direct impact on our everyday lives than the surface of Mars," Vice Admiral Shin Tani, chairman of GEBCO's guiding committee, said in a statement earlier this month.

Vice Admiral Tani's sentiments echo the longstanding rivalry between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). For years, the space agency has outpaced NOAA in terms of funding, press coverage, private sector innovation, and just plain old excitement.

"The basic reason is that deep space—NASA's favorite turf—is a distant, hostile, and barren place, the study of which yields few major discoveries and an abundance of overhyped claims," sociologist Amitai Etzioni wrote of the distinct lack of parity in Issues in Science and Technology. "By contrast, the oceans are nearby, and their study is a potential source of discoveries that could prove helpful for addressing a wide range of national concerns from climate change to disease."

In its fiscal markup for 2017, the Senate Appropriations Committee allotted NOAA $5.7 billion, which is nearly $33.5 million more than the agency received in this year's budget. NASA, on the other hand, only received an additional $21 million, but was provided with a total of $19.3 billion to support its 2017 programs.

"It's a matter of commitment," Larry Mayer, director of the Center for Marine Science and Coastal Engineering at the University of New Hampshire, told the BBC. "We could map the entire deep oceans for $3 billion—no more than a single Mars mission."

Technically, most of the ocean floor has already been mapped, but at a mere resolution of five kilometers, which at best shows a rough approximation of undersea trenches and seamounts. Compared to NASA's unprecedented 20 meter resolution Martian maps, almost everything produced by bathymetry is seemingly light years behind.

Bathymetry of the MH370 search area. Image: YouTube/Geoscience Australia

Unlike moons and planets, the seafloor can't be mapped using radar, since ocean water tends to obstruct a satellite's radio waves. In order to capture high-resolution images of the bottom of the ocean, experts will need to deploy a series of sophisticated sonar techniques, which can map a small sliver of the seafloor to a resolution of about 100 meters.

Sonar systems were used to locate the missing Malaysia Airlines plane in 2014, and resulted in the discovery of extinct underwater volcanoes, ridges, and trenches that were previously unknown to explorers.

"The recently acquired high-resolution bathymetry (underwater survey) data has revealed many of these seabed features for the first time," said the Australian Transport Safety Bureau in a statement. "It is also revealing finer-scale seabed features that were not visible in the previous low-resolution, satellite-derived bathymetry data."

Right now, ambitious projects like the Shell Ocean Discovery Xprize Challenge are attempting to harness the ingenuity of people all over the world to map the ocean floor. Even Hollywood's James Cameron has invested time, money, and advocacy in the pursuit of better deep sea technology.

Whether undersea exploration will become more of a priority currently remains as unknown as parts of the ocean itself.