Choices: fund deepsea research or buy a futbol player?

One of my old friends, Thomas Trudel, is here in Roatan for about two months to assist Karl with a new submarine design. Right now, they’re running some stress tests on different parts of Idabel, which means the sub is out of commission for a few days. Tom is not a trained submersible engineer, but he has about 10 years of experience in aerospace engineering, mostly designing jet propulsion systems and sending satellites up into space. An aerospace engineer designing an innerspace vehicle. A small statement which reflects the sad state of deepsea exploration in our modern times.

Deepsea Research Publications

One example of how a recent sub-field, Gut Microbiomes, has surpassed deepsea research based on the number of publications per year. I used Web of Science and a keyword search to create this figure. Granted, this is not an exhaustive search, but gives an idea of the slow, steady crawl that characterizes advances in deepsea research.

In countless fields of science, we have made     tremendous progress over the last several decades. Take a moment to consider how far we’ve come since the Franklin-Watson-Crick discovery of DNA back in 1953. In just 50 years, we have sequenced thousands of genomes (mostly bacterial) and created innumerable sub-fields based on genome sequencing methods (pharmacogenomics, microbiomes, metabolomics, proteomics, etc.)! Our understanding of biological processes has been increased by an unimaginable factor. It is astounding that given our evolutionary origins, we don’t have a better grasp of what lies beneath the surface of the ocean. In fact, deepsea research publications, while certainly on the rise, have not seen anything close to the frenetic pace of discovery of other disciplines (see graph above).

Back in 1960, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh descended 35,797 feet below the ocean’s surface in a clunky piece of steel called Trieste. The 50-foot vessel was mostly comprised of gasoline chambers and water ballast tanks to control buoyancy. A small passenger sphere was located underneath the behemoth’s belly where Piccard and Walsh sat for the 4 hour and 47 minutes descent to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench.

So what did we accomplish in the 50 years after this epic descent? Well, in 2012 a big-shot movie producer touched bottom in the same trench as Walsh and Piccard. Granted, James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger is much more compact and sophisticated submersible than Trieste. But in the end, it’s just another submarine doing the same thing as a pair of oceanographers 50 years ago. For all of our technological innovations, it’s a shame that we haven’t seen the field of deepsea exploration progress that much.

This is not to say that nothing interesting or ground-breaking has surfaced from the deepsea in the past 50 years. In 1977, several scientists from Oregon State University stumbled upon a chemosynthetic ecosystem (an ecosystem that thrives off of chemicals – think sulfur and methane) surrounding deepsea vents in the Galapagos Rift. In other words, these scientists found a recipe for life, so bizarre, that it flew in the face of our previous notions of where, why, and how life exists.

Deepsea hydrothermal vents are undoubtedly an important area of research. However, they represent one of possibly thousands of different types of ecosystems that inhabit the various depths of the deepsea. So what’s holding us back from further exploration?

Well, part of the problem is funding. Cuts in U.S. government-spending have left research institutes scrambling for money to operate at even a basic level. Look no further than Hawai’i Undersea Research Laboratories (HURL) which shut down operations, including its two manned submarines, Pisces 4 and Pisces 5, due to funding bottlenecks. The only publicly-funded U.S. manned submersible in operation now is Alvin at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Other deepsea research centers such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Census of Marine Life Project are funded by private foundations. Individuals, such as Eric Schmidt (Google), James Cameron, and Craig Venter have also contributed significantly to research efforts. But deepsea research and exploration should not be an individualized or privatized affair.

In October 2011, Karl had the chance to spend several days in the company of other submersible pilots at a Chicago Adventure Club meeting. One of the pilots, Anatoly M. Sagalevich (a giant in the field of deepsea exploration and sub design), told Karl of his aspirations to conduct a manned-submersible expedition that would travel all over the world to visit unexplored areas of deepsea hydrothermal fields. The expedition has been in the making for the past 10 years, but funding hiccups have prevented it from moving forward. Anatoly mentioned that an affluent benefactor had reneged on his offer of 30 millions dollars to fund the project. Apparently, the Russian oligarch was more interested in purchasing a single futbol player, who incidentally, came with a higher price tag than that of the entire deepsea research proposal.

If people don’t know, they won’t care. This is why Karl believes that Idabel is now being used for her highest calling: educating the public. In our world of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia, ignorance is no longer a viable excuse.

William Beebe, a naturalist who descended 3,000 feet in a vessel called the Bathysphere, wrote in his book, Half Mile Down:

“If one dives and returns to the surface inarticulate with amazement and a deep realization of the marvel of what he has seen and where he has been, then he deserves to go again and again. If he is unmoved or disappointed, then there remains for him on earth only a longer or a shorter period of waiting for death.”

I would like to believe that most people fall into the first category.


~ by twonakedapes on April 16, 2013.

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