After watching the collection of talks on The Deep Ocean, read a thoughtful recap of the major points in this TED Study, and learn where experts believe things are headed.
TED speaker Robert Ballard and many other scientists and ocean explorers find it remarkable that we're expending so much effort to explore outer space when we have yet to visit — much less study and understand — vast tracts of our own planet.
We simply do not comprehend the patterns of life in the deep ocean. How many species are there? What's their distribution? In what way are they linked through food webs or other interspecies interactions? These remain great unknowns. Ironically, these problems get larger the smaller the organisms are, so that the microbial world -- though of paramount importance to the functioning of the ocean and the Earth system — is largely mysterious.
In addition, variation in marine ecosystems over time is an added problem of increasing significance in the context of global climate change. Without an understanding of how life varies in time and space in the ocean ecosystem, its function cannot be understood. Thus, our ability to predict the effects of human activities on the world's oceans will remain poor or non-existent.
What's required? A much larger investment in trying to understand how the ocean works and how it relates to the Earth system and ultimately to humans. As Edith Widder and Robert Ballard observed in their TEDTalks, up until recently, marine scientists were relying largely on Victorian equipment to sample the deep sea. However, modern technology is providing remarkable new ways to observe the ocean, visit it — even down to the bottom of the deepest trenches — and to sample it.
Large-scale satellite observation is proving critical in measuring global changes in atmospheric gases, sea ice cover, ocean physics, primary production and the distribution and health of coastal and shallow-water ecosystems. Increasing resolution of satellite imaging along with the further development of sensors will clearly be important in understanding ocean future. It will also be critical in monitoring human industry on the oceans, such as the movement and activities of fishing vessels.
Over last 20 years, we've seen a remarkable advance in the acoustic imaging of the seabed. Improvements in resolution allow accurate determination of seabed depth and texture and have allowed the mapping of the seabed's geological and biological features in great detail. Such mapping is a prerequisite to wise management of the world's oceans, particularly with respect to how we exploit biotic (fisheries) and abiotic (oil, gas and mineral) seabed resources.
Over the last two decades researchers have also developed increasingly sophisticated "oceanographic" tags for attachment to marine animals such as seals, whales and sharks. Such technologies provide important information on the animals' physical environment as well as their foraging ecology. The cost-effectiveness of such tags mean that observations can be collected across wide geographic areas over several years.
Submersibles and remotely operated vehicles allow explorers like Sylvia Earle, David Gallo, Mike deGruy and others to visit the water column and seabed and carry out intensive observations, sampling and experiments over relatively small areas. However, autonomous underwater vehicles, hybrid vehicles and gliders, as well as drifting oceanographic instrument packages such as Argo floats, offer the ability to cover much larger areas of the ocean for longer periods. Such technologies, coupled with the ability to transmit data to scientists or environmental managers anywhere in the world, have the ability to revolutionize our understanding of spatial and temporal variation in marine ecosystems.
In laboratories marine scientists are developing new ways to study marine life, such as through new microbial culturing techniques which benefit from the explosive pace of development in molecular biology. Experimental observations of larger marine organisms remains very difficult and it's likely that the further development of in-situ experimental approaches, such as the use of landers or the combination of camera traps and physiological monitoring experiments, may be important. Submarine cabled observatories like John Delaney's GOOS Project may provide opportunities for such experimental approaches.
Long-term observation programs such as the Sir Alistair Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science's continuous plankton recorder survey have a unique place in monitoring environmental change. However, the advent of cabled observatories such as Neptune provide a new avenue for real-time monitoring of a wide range of physical and biological parameters from shallow waters to the deep sea. Again, such observatories will benefit from the development of new technologies, especially those that can measure the presence and abundance of organisms such as the Environmental Sampling Processor from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
Ultimately, our success at monitoring the health of the ocean and actively managing it will depend on integrating many of these technologies. It will also depend on international collaboration to develop and deploy the technologies, and to share the data arising from them; programs like the Census of Marine Life have demonstrated that such international collaboration can produce enormous benefits in understanding the ocean.
However, we'll only realize the full potential of such technologies to restore and protect marine ecosystems if nations put aside self-interest and cooperate to reform the governance of the ocean and our management of all sectors of human activity within it or affecting it. As Sylvia Earle urges, the goal should be to maintain healthy and fully functional marine ecosystems and to ensure that all activities are sustainable in the long term.
The TEDtalks that form this course of study demonstrate that the ocean is a critical part of the Earth's life support system. Furthermore, the ocean contains a vast wealth of resources which can generate enormous economic benefits and, in a variety of ways, improve human knowledge and well-being.
We've done enormous damage to the ocean through short-sighted misuse. However, as the TED speakers point out, there's still time to restore the ocean to health — and now also the technological means to achieve an unprecedented level of knowledge about marine ecosystems and to monitor and manage their health in real time.