What is Ocean Exploration and Why Is It Important? from NOAA’s Website

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Logo We have explored about 5% of Earth’s ocean.
“What does that mean? Who cares?
What difference does it make?” 

What is Exploration? Despite the fact that the ocean plays a role in everything from the air we breathe to daily weather and climate patterns, we know very little about our ocean. And, most of our knowledge of the ocean lies in shallower waters. Deeper waters remain a mystery even though we are relying more and more on these areas for food, energy, and other resources. Enter ocean exploration…

Enlargeable banner logo of Space and Ocean Exploration by Danny Quintana and the Global High Seas Marine Preserve.Ocean exploration is about making discoveries, searching for things that are unusual and unexpected. Ocean exploration, however, is not randomly wandering in hopes of finding something new. It is disciplined, systematic, and includes rigorous observations and documentation of biological, chemical, physical, geological, and archaeological aspects of the ocean.

Findings made through ocean exploration are fundamental to reducing unknowns in deep-ocean areas and providing high-value environmental intelligence needed to address both current and emerging science and management needs. Exploration helps to ensure that ocean resources are not just managed, but managed well, so those resources are around for future generations to enjoy.

NOAA EXPLORER LIVEThrough ocean exploration, we can establish the baseline information needed to better understand environmental change, filling gaps in the unknown to deliver reliable and authoritative science that is foundational to providing foresight about future conditions and informing the decisions we confront every day on this dynamic planet. This same knowledge is often the only source for basic information needed to respond appropriately in the face of deep-sea disasters.

Information from ocean exploration is important to everyone. Unlocking the mysteries of deep-sea ecosystems can reveal new sources for medical drugs, food, energy resources, and other products. Information from deep-ocean exploration can help predict earthquakes and tsunamis and help us understand how we are affecting and being affected by changes in Earth’s climate and atmosphere.

Ocean exploration can improve ocean literacy and inspire young people to seek careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The challenges of exploring the deep ocean can provide the basis for technology and engineering innovations that can be applied in other situations.

Yet even as the importance of deep areas of the ocean in our everyday lives continues to increase, our knowledge of these areas remains limited – in many instances, we are “flying blind” when it comes to management, regulation, and resource use in deep-water areas.

Planet Ocean, A 90-Minute Award Winning Film by
Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Michale Pitiot for GoodPlanet Foundation

Wonders of Ocean

Ocean covers a Large Part of Our Hydrosphere

International Space Station with Space Shuttle in foreground and Earth oceans belowThose who have seen planet Earth from outer space often compare it to a blue marble suspended in front of the stars. It’s the world’s oceans that put the blue in the blue marble, for ours is a water planet, 71% whose surface is covered by saline seas. Indeed, though we have given names to five specific oceans – the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Southern – there is in it fact only one great ocean on the planet, and it encircles all the world’s continents. In these vast waters, most scientists believe, life forms first emerged on the planet. Water remains a critical component in almost every form of life on Earth, and the fluid chemistry of the human body is remarkably similar to that of seawater: in a sense, the oceans are not only all around us but inside us as well.

Earth oceans from space, blue and beautiful The oceans are key drivers of the Earth’s climate, taking in solar energy that warms their waters, then distributing the heat around the globe in the process called surface circulation. Influenced by the Coriolis effect, created by the planet’s spin, surface circulation operates through a series of circular gyres that carry warm water away from the equator and cold water toward it.

The Gulf Stream and Japan Current are familiar examples of prevailing surface -circulation currents; it is the hot water borne by the Japan Current that creates the temperate, rainy climate of the U.S. pacific Northwest. Deeper ocean currents move more slowly, in a process called thermohaline circulation.

Shark Diving in the Bahamas with FeelActivePL,
Which Conducts Diving Tours Throughout the World

Interacting with the atmosphere, the oceans also play a major role in the irrigation of the planet, as solar heat evaporated seawater and carries it into the atmosphere, where it forms rain clouds. And the oceans are also vast reservoirs of life, filled with plants and animals that help feed the planer, including the billions of humans who rely on the sea for sustenance.

Filming Black Tipped Reef Sharks off Moorea, TahitiBiologists estimate that some 250,000 distinct species of animals live in the ocean, with more discovered every year. Yet even though the oceans are the foundation of life on Earth, they are relatively explored. Their depths were alien territory until the latter part of the 20th century, and scientists today know more about the surfaces of the moon and Mars than they do about the seabeds under the oceans. The water planet promises to be a fascinating new frontier for scientific exploration in the 21st century.

Hidden Natural Kingdoms Under The Sea

It’s the stuff of science fiction, Seinfeld or string theory: imagine a world that is hidden from our view yet runs parallel to our own, if composed in a slightly different key. There is such a world, of course, and it’s surprising how little we know about it: the world of the ocean depths and the seabeds of the planet’s oceans. The wonders of this hidden realm are manifold. They include a gash that cuts more than six miles (9.5 k.m) deep into the earth’s crust. They include tectonic rifts far longer and more active than those found on land. They include 90% of the planet’s active volcanoes.

They include its highest mountain: only the top 13,796 ft. (4,205 m) of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea stand above sea level, but its total height from sea floor to summit is 33,465 feet (10,200 m), dwarfing Mount Everest. And they include bizarre life-forms: the mysterious giant squid; luminescent fish adapted to life under enormous pressure; big tube worms that cluster around steaming hydro-thermal vents miles beneath the waves.  The seabeds of the oceans are the planet’s most active tectonic region.

Mariana Trench cross section map The largest single geological feature on the earth is the 40,000 mile (65,000 km) long mountain chain known as the Mid-Oceanic Ridge, which winds around the planet along the borders where tectonic plates meet. The ridge, which varies in height, is constantly being replenished by hot magma that flows to the surface as lava, then hardens to form oceanic crust. At other points where plates meet, one plate is subducted beneath the other, creating a deep sea trench.

The deepest place in the ocean lies in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean; the 35,800 ft. ( 10,900 m) abyss was named the Challenger Trench, for the submersible craft that first probed it. Prescription: more probing of these hidden realms is long overdue.

Treasures Under the Sea

Could the solution to the world’s energy problems lie within the ocean’s seabeds? U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researcher Tim Collett believes that may be the case. “ This is potentially a revolutionary energy resource,” he told Time in 2008, referring to natural gas hydrates, the ice like formations of methane suspended within a cage of solidified water molecules that are found in deep oceans and beneath permafrost around the world.

Long theorized to exist in the outer solar system, methane hydrates were discovered on Earth in the 1930s, when they began forming spontaneously inside natural gas pipelines that ran through cold regions. In the 1960s they were first found in nature, thanks to new forms of radar that could penetrate the ground and the sea floor.

Deep Sea hydrothermal vents“Hydrates are formed from the interaction of gas and water,” Collett explains. “When methane vents from the earth’s interior and hits a layer of water at low temperature and high pressure, they become locked together.” The result is a crystalline structure that looks like dirty snow and feels like slushy ice.

But this is no ordinary frost. “If you hold a piece of gas hydrate hissing and spitting as the methane escapes. And if you expose it to a flame, it will flare intensely until all the gas is burned off.” Part of what gives gas hydrates their punch is what geologists call their “energy destiny”- a cubic centimeter of methane hydrate contains 164 times as much energy as the same volumes of ordinary natural gas.

So how much energy does all this fiery ice hold? “Conservative estimates say the total energy contained in all the world’s hydrates is more than all known oil, coal and natural gas on the planet combined,” says Collett. “And some scientists believe that the total might be two or three times higher than that.” Indeed, a single field of hydrates off the coast of North Carolina is believed to contain enough methane to meet all U.S energy demands for more than a century.

So, why aren’t we all driving cars powered by exploding snowballs? Because most hydrates are found where they’re hard to get: buried deep in permafrost and even deeper under seabeds, below 1000 ft. (305 m) of water. This makes the costs of extraction high. There are also serious environmental concerns to address.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping solar heat 10 to 20 times as effectively as carbon dioxide. If accidentally vented into the atmosphere during hydrate recovery, methane could speed the effects of global warming. Another risk: continental shelves honeycombed with hydrates could become destabilized by extraction, perhaps triggering underwater landslides and tsunamis. Yet there’s also an ecological upside. “Natural gas burns much more cleanly than other fossil fuels. If handled properly, methane hydrates could help us cut pollution significantly,” explains Collett.

“Nobody knows for sure yet what proportion of a hydrate deposit can be extracted economically,” Collett concludes, acknowledging that some of it may not be recoverable at any price. “But the amounts are so huge that if even a small percentage of it can be made practical to use, this could be world-changing-stuff.”

Reef of Riches Documentary About Coral Reefs by Space Age Productions