Year by year, scientists peer deeper and deeper into space, mapping distant stars, detecting planets, searching for signs of life. But there’s a frontier that is, at most, seven miles away and barely known and rarely visited.
Seven miles is nothing on land – a friend’s house, a favorite shop, school, or park. Seven miles up is not exotic either. It’s cruising altitude when you fly. Seven miles deep is another world. Frankly, half that distance is. Earth’s ocean has been barely mapped, mostly in its upper regions, its life-forms and geology still largely uncataloged.
To give you some idea of how unexplored the ocean is: Six times, humans have landed on the moon, 239,000 miles away, each mission backed by a cast of thousands and covered breathlessly by the world’s media. Only twice have humans made the seven-mile voyage to the bottom of the sea, touching down in the Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the Mariana Trench. In 1960, with little fanfare, the US Navy lowered a two-man team in the Trieste. Not until 2012 did a human return: movie producer James Cameron in the Deepsea Challenger.
The great novelist of the ocean, Herman Melville, wrote of how its “gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.” What was for so long hidden, romanticized, even feared, is now revealing itself, thanks to a wave of undersea exploration – sometimes in human-piloted vessels, more often in remotely operated ones.
Doug Struck details this new age of discovery in a Monitor cover story. Scientists, he explains, are interested in the ocean for pure science, for potential commercial payoff, but most of all because they are concerned that warming temperatures and other factors are a threat not just to the ocean but also to terra firma. Habitats such as the Great Barrier Reef are under severe stress. Warming waters appear to be disrupting marine ecosystems. And, given the ocean’s power as Earth’s primary weathermaker, what happens above and below sea level can affect climate, economy, and coastal communities around the world.
The ocean is a bellwether. As humans become more attuned to the ocean, they almost certainly will need to modify their age-old, land-based default toward tribalism and territoriality. Boundaries and ownership make little sense beyond the continental shelf. The ocean is a vast commons. Aquatic life swims freely. Storms, currents, earthquakes, and the enormous undersea circulatory system affect the entire planet.
The more ocean-minded we become, the less likely we will be to see ourselves as nationalities, races, and ideologies, defending pieces of dry land that we claim as our own. We are earthlings – or maybe more accurately, because salt water covers 70 percent of the planet, oceanlings. There are plenty of planets out there if the impulse to claim and own must be pursued. So far, there is only one awesome Earth and only one global ocean.
As scientific exploration peels away the ocean’s mysteries, we are left with a clear message: We are all in this together.