West News Wire: The oceans are possibly the most important part of Earth’s ecosystem; they’re biologically diverse, provide huge quantities of food, and generate most of the planet’s oxygen through plankton. But we still know very little about the oceans, with only 5% of the ocean floor having been mapped in detail. Why does the majority of our planet remain so mysterious?
71% of Earth’s surface is water, and that water serves a crucial role in human activities, such as travel, fishing, and the transportation of freight. In fact, some statistics put the volume of cargo carried via the sea as high as 80%. Well, over one million people make a living sailing on merchant ships, 38 million people are fishermen, and historically the countries with the largest navies have been the most powerful. The importance of the sea simply cannot be overstated, but despite the necessity of understanding it as well as possible, it remains famously unexplored especially compared to outer space, where no food is found whatsoever.
There are many reasons why the deep seas haven’t been explored in detail, from the lack of financial incentive to the sheer difficulty of building machines that can withstand those depths. But it’s been proven over and over again that we can do these things; for instance, humans have been using submersible objects to go deeper underwater for hundreds of years, while modern submarines originated in the mid-nineteenth century. Initially used for exploration, early submarines began being used in warfare in the 1860s; they were famously employed by both the Union and the Confederacy during the American Civil War. And back in the 1960s, influential French explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau completed his underwater habitat project, Conshelf II, proving that humans can live underwater. We’ve had this technology for years, but there’s still something standing between us and conquering the depths.
Perhaps the biggest problem we face when it comes to the oceans, however, is the idea of the ocean itself. Thalassophobia is a relatively niche fear that, while likely common to some degree in nearly everyone, isn’t widely talked about. It’s a fear of deep water, including the deepest bodies of water of all – the seas – but also large lakes and even deep enough swimming pools. To be classed as a “phobia”, something has to be irrational and affect someone’s daily life, but phobias can start as completely understandable fears. It’s widely accepted that the phobias of snakes and spiders, which are the most common phobias of all, come from an evolutionary response, as in many parts of the world snakes and spiders are genuinely dangerous.
It’s the same story with deep water, as deep water is potentially deadly far deadlier than spiders, which are estimated to kill somewhere between six to eleven people a year. In contrast, hundreds of thousands of people die annually from drowning. Swimming lessons are standard in schools around the world, while lifeguards are specially trained to rescue people in distress in water, such is its danger. And the less we know about the ocean, the worse our thalassophobia might be. It’s thought by some that the sea’s darkness and scale represent the ultimate unknown, and can reflect the depths of the human subconscious. It’s true that the size of the underwater world we cannot see is at the very least unsettling.
This fear of the sea is reflected in the entirety of human culture. Perhaps the most famous story of the sea’s destructive power is the myth of Atlantis, an advanced city plunged into the ocean after angering the Greek gods. Not only is Atlantis an allegory for why you shouldn’t forsake the gods, it also betrays a very real acknowledgment of the dangers the sea poses. It’s important to remember that not only was Ancient Greece a maritime power, but its islands are a volcanic archipelago that can cause unrest in the earth and sea. Poseidon was, after all, the god of the sea and earthquakes.
Even in the modern day, people are enthralled by the idea that Atlantis is still out there at the bottom of the sea, waiting to be discovered. The other most prominent nautical myth is significantly more recent than Atlantis: the Bermuda Triangle. This corner of the Atlantic Ocean is notorious for the ships and planes that have vanished there in the last century or so. The truth is that statistically, a ship isn’t more likely to sink in the Bermuda Triangle than anywhere else; the high number of disappearances can be attributed to it simply being a busy part of the sea prone to tropical storms. But the Bermuda Triangle remains a major part of pop culture. It’s not the fact that the ships are sinking that’s so intriguing, it’s that they disappear, with very few wrecks ever located.
This fits right in with the fear of the unknown that deep water also represents; people vanish into the sea, and they never return. Outside of popular myths and legends, there are historical events that also cement this fear of the sea. The most famous maritime disaster in history is, without a doubt, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, which caused the deaths of around 1,500 people and deeply traumatized the survivors. The image of the Titanic, the largest ship ever built at the time, sinking below the water in its entirety is something everybody is familiar with. And the sea is so huge that despite knowing where the Titanic sank, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the wreck was located.
In a way, it makes sense that people want to believe the Bermuda Triangle is the work of aliens, or that Atlantis was sunk by the gods, because it’s difficult to accept that the sea has all this power and wields it at random. Vessels have been disappearing since we started building them indeed, one of the aforementioned Civil War submarines mysteriously disappeared in South Carolina in 1864. At least aliens capturing Flight 19 or the USS Cyclops have a reason, which could be why people want to believe this story.
There are, of course, other reasons stopping people from venturing into the depths, especially considering there are plenty who aren’t scared of deep water – those millions of fishermen and sailors, for instance. One of the biggest obstacles is the cost of deep-sea exploration. While we do technically have all the knowledge that we need to explore and map the ocean in detail, nautical research just isn’t being invested in enough. Sure, there are government organizations, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as universities, interested in this kind of research, but they don’t have anywhere near the money they’d need to put the same attention on researching the ocean as we’ve put on researching space.
This is despite the fact that the solar system’s most promising alien worlds, Europa and Enceladus, are icy bodies with huge oceans. The technology we’ve developed to understand our own oceans will work on these planets. On the bright side, this means that one day, as space exploration develops, space and nautical research will coalesce with one shared goal: exploring the depths of Europa. So, it’s not entirely a case of space exploration versus sea exploration, the two fields naturally benefit each other. But though we may have the technology to explore, that still doesn’t make it any easier.
The oceans have crushing pressure as you descend and at their coldest are almost freezing and are full of treacherous ice. They’re also pitch black at the depths we know the least about, all of which makes the deep sea an unappealing place even if you aren’t frightened. And while we do have technologies like submarines and underwater robots that are regularly used in research, these things are still very expensive in and of themselves. There also aren’t any resources in the ocean to potentially exploit without consequence, unlike space and its metal-rich asteroids; the major thing is oil, and drilling for oil is something that shouldn’t be happening anymore regardless.
But, as Kennedy said when he was readying America for the moonshot: we choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard, and the same is true for worthwhile oceanic exploration. One day, we will need to explore the oceans, if only to further our research into space; but will we be able to surmount our evolutionary fear of the deep? And that’s the real reason why we don’t explore the oceans.