Exploring Our Own Alien World
NEARLY 36 years ago, our understanding of life was changed forever when scientists towing a remote vehicle through the depths photographed a cluster of clams on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean far beyond the reach of sunlight, where no life was supposed to be. The clams were nourished by geothermal ocean vents instead of energy from the sun.
(From the New York Times / by Tony Haymet) – Since then, scientists and explorers from around the world have quietly and patiently discovered a foreign universe full of life here on Earth. The latest foray was on Sunday, when the director James Cameron descended nearly seven miles into a trough known as the Challenger Deep, the planet’s deepest known recess, off Guam.
We should honor this accomplishment and encourage continued exploration through a global effort by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to preserve the deep seas. The open ocean beyond regions of national jurisdiction covers roughly half of the planet’s surface. We have no idea what strange life thrives in the blackness there at depths of two miles or more. That’s the point. We know enough that we don’t want to lose it.
Deep-sea researchers live apart from the bright lights and billions of dollars devoted to space exploration. But these researchers, working in relative obscurity, nonetheless have documented rich and surprisingly diverse communities of organisms in the deep sea. These have been low-budget expeditions, mostly robotic, sponsored by a handful of countries with a little capital to invest.
At ocean vents, hot gases emerge out of the ocean floor and support life that does not rely on photosynthesis and sunlight. In the 1980s, different life was discovered at cold methane seeps. These life forms use methane as their source of energy, not the sun or photosynthetic pathways.
And the weirdness continues. Recently, my colleagues Lisa Levin and Greg Rouse of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography documented an ecosystem off Costa Rica that shows elements of both vent and seep life, where organisms that can tolerate extreme heat and extreme cold can rub elbows.
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin flew into space in the first manned space flight, more than a year after the bathyscaphe Trieste, a deep-sea submersible carrying Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, descended 35,797 feet into the Challenger Deep. They were the true mad men of the era: the Trieste could have been sent unmanned to this depth, but instead Mr. Walsh and Mr. Piccard accompanied it on its first attempt, not hitting the panic button even when a Plexiglas window cracked at about 29,000 feet.
We thought back then that the era of deep sea and space exploration had begun. We were right about space. But it wasn’t until four private expeditions were assembled recently that a return to the Challenger Deep was possible. Over the next 10 years, scientists hope to exploit the wonderful technology invented for these expeditions.
On Sunday Mr. Cameron, in a submarine of his own design, on an expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society, finally became the first human to return to the Challenger Deep in more than 52 years. We should continue this exploration. Much remains to be discovered. Indeed, as just one example, my colleagues hope to discover new creatures that produce novel molecules that, when tweaked and synthesized in the lab, will replenish our rapidly decreasing array of effective pharmaceuticals. Properly managed, noninvasive use of our oceans might keep us safe until we are smart enough to design drugs with just our brains and computers.
The exploration of the ocean depths will happen just like the exploration of Mars. Robots will do most of the work, collect all the data, and if we are lucky and smart enough to occasionally take a pilot along, these expeditions will enrich the human condition more than we can imagine. Yes, exploration of the deep ocean will be just like the exploration of Mars — with one huge exception. We already know we are going to find life in the deep ocean, and lots of it.
Tony Haymet is professor and director at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and vice chancellor of marine science at the University of California, San Diego.