Home » Blog » Pop!Tech 2005 » Sea. The final frontier.

Sea. The final frontier.

Dr. Peter Diamandis gave a colorful, energetic talk about the X Prize for travel. I didn’t blog it, because, as a friend of mine puts it, “it’s not my geek”. Which is to say, I acknowledge that cool, smart people (like Loretta Hidalgo) are fascinated by the challenge and potential discovery of space exploration… but it doesn’t flip my wig like many of the topics at Pop!Tech do.

One aspect of his work that I did find interesting – the use of prizes to encourage exploration. Diamandis was inspired by the prize used in the early 1920s to inspire Charles Lindberg to cross the Atlantic – a $25,000 prize inspired competitors to spend $400,000 to try to win it. Diamandis argues that the $10 million prize offered for a pair of 100km flights within 2 weeks generated a “Darwinian winnowing” of several dozen possible strategies, as well as astounding global media presence. He’s interested, post XPrize, in starting prizes for other unsolved problems, in energy, education and other critical fields.

It will be interesting to see whether the prize technique works on some of these other exploration projects. One area where it would be great to inspire exploration would be in the deep ocean. Dr. Marsha McNutt of the Monterey Bay aquarium, began her talk about deep-sea exploration comparing the challenges in exploring the ocean and exploring space.

In space, you can use solar cells to generate power. Not so in the ocean – you’re using batteries, or delivering power over tethers. In space, you can use radio waves to communicate. They don’t travel well through water, so you use low-baud acoustic communications or send signals through a tether. Because nothing lives in outer space (that we know of), there’s no exobiological life to interfere with your equipment. In the ocean, any instrument you drop into the water becomes a potential reef. The tendency of several thousand shellfish to attach themselves to your gear shortens its lifespan.

The main place where deep sea exploration is easier than space exploration? Launch costs. Drop something into sufficiently deep water and it will sink into the deep ocean. This means that scientists who study oceans have a much better chance of actually seeing their experiments take place than those that work in space.

And those experiments are giving us vital data about the world we’re actually living in. McNutt tells us about a project she’s worked on to explore the underside of the Arctic ice cap – an autonomous vehicle travelled under the cap, powered by a fuel cell, launching torpedoes packed with radar gear every few hundred miles, which melted their way through the ice and transmitted data to the rest of the world. What the probe discovered was a stream of hot Atlantic water running under the cap, rapidly melting the cap.

This leads McNutt to a discussion of what she calls “the least discussed and more troublesome aspect of global warming” – the falling ph of the world’s oceans. As the amount of carbon dioxide (from burning fossil fuels, primarily) increases in the atmosphere, the levels increase in the oceans as well (the atmosphere is supersaturated with CO2, which seeks equilibrium with the oceans, increasing the amount of dissolved CO2…) The impact of that concentration of CO2 in the ocean is an increasing acidification of the ocean, possibly a change of a full point of ph in the next thousand years.

This is scary for all sorts of reasons. Will photosynthetic organisms still be able to live in an acidic ocean? Will carbon sequestration – where atmospheric carbon gets dissolved, made into shells of organisms and buried on ocean floors – still occur?

No one ones. In fact, the basic story of the deep ocean seems to be that there’s a lot we don’t know. In the dark ocean, there’s greater biomass and biodiversity than in all the world’s rainforests combined. There are strange ecosystems, like the ecosystem that springs up around “whale falls” – carcases of whales that sink into the deep ocean. McNutt reports that a study of a whale fall at 3000m – 40% of the organisms discovered there were found only on whale corpses… which raises the interesting question of how these organisms find the corpses…

There’s a catalog of wonders McNutt puts on display – a symbiotic worm with a new form of reproduction, a bacterium that produces ATP by creating a charge across a cell wall, which might act as a bio fuel cell. Perhaps the most amazing is methane hydrate – an ice than burns – which is the largest available fossil fuel remaining on the planet… but nearly impossible to mine, drill or otherwise retrieve.

All of this leaves me wondering why there’s not as much “sex appeal” to deep ocean exploration as there is to space exploration. I put forth a cynical theory: that when we look to the ocean, we see a number of difficult to solve problems; when we look to the sky, we see no harm we’ve created and unlimited – if unrealistic – hope.

The always insightful Amy Salzhauer has another theory – the space program has always been about creating heroes. Ocean science is the province of geeks, not brave, granite-jawed former test pilots.

What would it take to get more of us to look down rather than looking up?