Final Frontier vs. Fruitful Frontier: The Case for Increasing Ocean Exploration
Possible solutions to the world’s energy, food, environmental, and other problems are far more likely to be found in nearby oceans than in distant space.
Every year, the federal budget process begins with a White House-issued budget request, which lays out spending priorities for federal programs. From this moment forward, President Obama and his successors should use this opportunity to correct a longstanding misalignment of federal research priorities: excessive spending on space exploration and neglect of ocean studies. The nation should begin transforming the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into a greatly reconstructed, independent, and effective federal agency. In the present fiscal climate of zero-sum budgeting, the additional funding necessary for this agency should be taken from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The basic reason is that deep space—NASA’s favorite turf—is a distant, hostile, and barren place, the study of which yields few major discoveries and an abundance of overhyped claims. By contrast, the oceans are nearby, and their study is a potential source of discoveries that could prove helpful for addressing a wide range of national concerns from climate change to disease; for reducing energy, mineral, and potable water shortages; for strengthening industry, security, and defenses against natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis; for increasing our knowledge about geological history; and much more. Nevertheless, the funding allocated for NASA in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for FY 2013 was 3.5 times higher than that allocated for NOAA. Whatever can be said on behalf of a trip to Mars or recent aspirations to revisit the Moon, the same holds many times over for exploring the oceans; some illustrative examples follow. (I stand by my record: In The Moondoggle, published in 1964, I predicted that there was less to be gained in deep space than in near space—the sphere in which communication, navigations, weather, and reconnaissance satellites orbit—and argued for unmanned exploration vehicles and for investment on our planet instead of the Moon.)
There is wide consensus in the international scientific community that the Earth is warming; that the net effects of this warming are highly negative; and that the main cause of this warming is human actions, among which carbon dioxide emissions play a key role. Hence, curbing these CO2 emissions or mitigating their effects is a major way to avert climate change.
Space exploration advocates are quick to claim that space might solve such problems on Earth. In some ways, they are correct; NASA does make helpful contributions to climate science by way of its monitoring programs, which measure the atmospheric concentrations and emissions of greenhouse gases and a variety of other key variables on the Earth and in the atmosphere. However, there seem to be no viable solutions to climate change that involve space.
By contrast, it is already clear that the oceans offer a plethora of viable solutions to the Earth’s most pressing troubles. For example, scientists have already demonstrated that the oceans serve as a “carbon sink.” The oceans have absorbed almost one-third of anthropogenic CO2 emitted since the advent of the industrial revolution and have the potential to continue absorbing a large share of the CO2 released into the atmosphere. Researchers are exploring a variety of chemical, biological, and physical geoengineering projects to increase the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon. Additional federal funds should be allotted to determine the feasibility and safety of these projects and then to develop and implement any that are found acceptable.
Iron fertilization or “seeding” of the oceans is perhaps the most well-known of these projects. Just as CO2 is used by plants during photosynthesis, CO2 dissolved in the oceans is absorbed and similarly used by autotrophic algae and other phytoplankton. The process “traps” the carbon in the phytoplankton; when the organism dies, it sinks to the sea floor, sequestering the carbon in the biogenic “ooze” that covers large swaths of the seafloor. However, many areas of the ocean high in the nutrients and sunlight necessary for phytoplankton to thrive lack a mineral vital to the phytoplankton’s survival: iron. Adding iron to the ocean has been shown to trigger phytoplankton blooms, and thus iron fertilization might increase the CO2 that phytoplankton will absorb. Studies note that the location and species of phytoplankton are poorly understood variables that affect the efficiency with which iron fertilization leads to the sequestration of CO2. In other words, the efficiency of iron fertilization could be improved with additional research. Proponents of exploring this option estimate that it could enable us to sequester CO2 at a cost of between $2 and $30/ton—far less than the cost of scrubbing CO2 directly from the air or from power plant smokestacks—$1,000/ton and $50-100/ton, respectively, according to one Stanford study.
Despite these promising findings, there are a number of challenges that prevent us from using the oceans as a major means of combating climate change. First, ocean “sinks” have already absorbed an enormous amount of CO2. It is not known how much more the oceans can actually absorb, because ocean warming seems to be altering the absorptive capacity of the oceans in unpredictable ways. It is further largely unknown how the oceans interact with the nitrogen cycle and other relevant processes.
Second, the impact of CO2 sequestration on marine ecosystems remains underexplored. The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, which noted in a 2013 report that absorption of CO2 is “acidifying” the oceans, recommended that “the administration and Congress should take actions to measure and assess the emerging threat of ocean acidification, better understand the complex dynamics causing and exacerbating it, work to determine its impact, and develop mechanisms to address the problem.” The Department of Energy specifically calls for greater “understanding of ocean biogeochemistry” and of the likely impact of carbon injection on ocean acidification. Since the mid-18th century, the acidity of the surface of the ocean, measured by the water’s concentration of hydrogen ions, has increased by 30% on average, with negative consequences for mollusks, other calcifying organisms, and the ecosystems they support, according to the Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. Different ecosystems have also been found to exhibit different levels of pH variance, with certain areas such as the California coastline experiencing higher levels of pH variability than elsewhere. The cost worldwide of mollusk-production losses alone could reach $100 billion if acidification is not countered, says Monica Contestabile, an environmental economist and editor of Nature Climate Change. Much remains to be learned about whether and how carbon sequestration methods like iron fertilization could contribute to ocean acidification; it is, however, clearly a crucial subject of study given the dangers of climate change.
Ocean products, particularly fish, are a major source of food for major parts of the world. People now eat four times as much fish, on average, as they did in 1950. The world’s catch of wild fish reached an all-time high of 86.4 million tons in 1996; although it has since declined, the world’s wild marine catch remained 78.9 million tons in 2011. Fish and mollusks provide an “important source of protein for a billion of the poorest people on Earth, and about three billion people get 15 percent or more of their annual protein from the sea,” says Matthew Huelsenbeck, a marine scientist affiliated with the ocean conservation organization Oceana. Fish can be of enormous value to malnourished people because of its high levels of micronutrients such as Vitamin A, Iron, Zinc, Calcium, and healthy fats.
However, many scientists have raised concerns about the ability of wild fish stocks to survive such exploitation. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that 28% of fish stocks were overexploited worldwide and a further 3% were depleted in 2008. Other sources estimate that 30% of global fisheries are overexploited or worse. There have been at least four severe documented fishery collapses—in which an entire region’s population of a fish species is overfished to the point of being incapable of replenishing itself, leading to the species’ virtual disappearance from the area—worldwide since 1960, a report from the International Risk Governance Council found. Moreover, many present methods of fishing cause severe environmental damage; for example, the Economist reported that bottom trawling causes up to 15,400 square miles of “dead zone” daily through hypoxia caused by stirring up phosphorus and other sediments.
There are several potential approaches to dealing with overfishing. One is aquaculture. Marine fish cultivated through aquaculture is reported to cost less than other animal proteins and does not consume limited freshwater sources. Furthermore, aquaculture has been a stable source of food from 1970 to 2006; that is, it consistently expanded and was very rarely subject to unexpected shocks. From 1992 to 2006 alone, aquaculture expanded from 21.2 to 66.8 million tons of product.
Although aquaculture is rapidly expanding—more than 60% from 2000 to 2008—and represented more than 40% of global fisheries production in 2006, a number of challenges require attention if aquaculture is to significantly improve worldwide supplies of food. First, scientists have yet to understand the impact of climate change on aquaculture and fishing. Ocean acidification is likely to damage entire ecosystems, and rising temperatures cause marine organisms to migrate away from their original territory or die off entirely. It is important to study the ways that these processes will likely play out and how their effects might be mitigated. Second, there are concerns that aquaculture may harm wild stocks of fish or the ecosystems in which they are raised through overcrowding, excess waste, or disease. This is particularly true where aquaculture is devoted to growing species alien to the region in which they are produced. Third, there are few industry standard operating practices (SOPs) for aquaculture; additional research is needed for developing these SOPs, including types and sources of feed for species cultivated through aquaculture. Finally, in order to produce a stable source of food, researchers must better understand how biodiversity plays a role in preventing the sudden collapse of fisheries and develop best practices for fishing, aquaculture, and reducing bycatch.
On the issue of food, NASA is atypically mum. It does not claim it will feed the world with whatever it finds or plans to grow on Mars, Jupiter, or any other place light years away. The oceans are likely to be of great help.
NASA and its supporters have long held that its work can help address the Earth’s energy crises. One NASA project calls for developing low-energy nuclear reactors (LENRs) that use weak nuclear force to create energy, but even NASA admits that “we’re still many years away” from large-scale commercial production. Another project envisioned orbiting space-based solar power (SBSP) that would transfer energy wirelessly to Earth. The idea was proposed in the 1960s by then-NASA scientist Peter Glaser and has since been revisited by NASA; from 1995 to 2000, NASA actively investigated the viability of SBSP. Today, the project is no longer actively funded by NASA, and SBSP remains commercially unviable due to the high cost of launching and maintaining satellites and the challenges of wirelessly transmitting energy to Earth.
Marine sources of renewable energy, by contrast, rely on technology that is generally advanced; these technologies deserve additional research to make them fully commercially viable. One possible ocean renewable energy source is wave energy conversion, which uses the up-and-down motion of waves to generate electrical energy. Potentially-useable global wave power is estimated to be two terawatts, the equivalent of about 200 large power stations or about 10% of the entire world’s predicted energy demand for 2020 according to the World Ocean Review. In the United States alone, wave energy is estimated to be capable of supplying fully one-third of the country’s energy needs.
A modern wave energy conversion device was made in the 1970s and was known as the Salter’s Duck; it produced electricity at a whopping cost of almost $1/kWh. Since then, wave energy conversion has become vastly more commercially viable. A report from the Department of Energy in 2009 listed nine different designs in pre-commercial development or already installed as pilot projects around the world. As of 2013, as many as 180 companies are reported to be developing wave or tidal energy technologies; one device, the Anaconda, produces electricity at a cost of $0.24/kWh. The United States Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory jointly maintain a website that tracks the average cost/kWh of various energy sources; on average, ocean energy overall must cost about $0.23/kWh to be profitable. Some projects have been more successful; the prototype LIMPET wave energy conversion technology currently operating on the coast of Scotland produces wave energy at the price of $0.07/kWh. For comparison, the average consumer in the United States paid $0.12/kWh in 2011. Additional research could further reduce the costs.
Other options in earlier stages of development include using turbines to capture the energy of ocean currents. The technology is similar to that used by wind energy; water moving through a stationary turbine turns the blades, generating electricity. However, because water is so much denser than air, “for the same surface area, water moving 12 miles per hour exerts the same amount of force as a constant 110 mph wind,” says the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), a division of the Department of the Interior. (Another estimate from a separate BOEM report holds that a 3.5 mph current “has the kinetic energy of winds in excess of [100 mph].”) BOEM further estimates that total worldwide power potential from currents is five terawatts—about a quarter of predicted global energy demand for 2020—and that “capturing just 1/1,000th of the available energy from the Gulf Stream …would supply Florida with 35% of its electrical needs.”
Although these technologies are promising, additional research is needed not only for further development but also to adapt them to regional differences. For instance, ocean wave conversion technology is suitable only in locations in which the waves are of the same sort for which existing technologies were developed and in locations where the waves also generate enough energy to make the endeavor profitable. One study shows that thermohaline circulation—ocean circulation driven by variations in temperature and salinity—varies from area to area, and climate change is likely to alter thermohaline circulation in the future in ways that could affect the use of energy generators that rely on ocean currents. Additional research would help scientists understand how to adapt energy technologies for use in specific environments and how to avoid the potential environmental consequences of their use.
Renewable energy resources are the ocean’s particularly attractive energy product; they contribute much less than coal or natural gas to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is worth noting that the oceans do hold vast reserves of untapped hydrocarbon fuels. Deep-sea drilling technologies remain immature; although it is possible to use oil rigs in waters of 8,000 to 9,000 feet, greater depths require the use of specially-designed drilling ships that still face significant challenges. Deep-water drilling that takes place in depths of more than 500 feet is the next big frontier for oil and natural-gas production, projected to expand offshore oil production by 18% by 2020. One should expect the development of new technologies that would enable drilling petroleum and natural gas at even greater depths than presently possible and under layers of salt and other barriers.
In addition to developing these technologies, entire other lines of research are needed to either mitigate the side effects of large-scale usage of these technologies or to guarantee that these effects are small. Although it has recently become possible to drill beneath Arctic ice, the technologies are largely untested. Environmentalists fear that ocean turbines could harm fish or marine mammals, and it is feared that wave conversion technologies would disturb ocean floor sediments, impede migration of ocean animals, prevent waves from clearing debris, or harm animals. Demand has pushed countries to develop technologies to drill for oil beneath ice or in the deep sea without much regard for the safety or environmental concerns associated with oil spills. At present, there is no developed method for cleaning up oil spills in the Arctic, a serious problem that requires additional research if Arctic drilling is to commence on a larger scale.
More ocean potential
When large quantities of public funds are invested in a particular research and development project, particularly when the payoff is far from assured, it is common for those responsible for the project to draw attention to the additional benefits—“spinoffs”—generated by the project as a means of adding to its allure. This is particularly true if the project can be shown to improve human health. Thus, NASA has claimed that its space exploration “benefit[ted] pharmaceutical drug development” and assisted in developing a new type of sensor “that provides real-time image recognition capabilities,” that it developed an optics technology in the 1970s that now is used to screen children for vision problems, and that a type of software developed for vibration analysis on the Space Shuttle is now used to “diagnose medical issues.” Similarly, opportunities to identify the “components of the organisms that facilitate increased virulence in space” could in theory—NASA claims—be used on Earth to “pinpoint targets for anti-microbial therapeutics.”
Ocean research, as modest as it is, has already yielded several medical “spinoffs.” The discovery of one species of Japanese black sponge, which produces a substance that successfully blocks division of tumorous cells, led researchers to develop a late-stage breast cancer drug. An expedition near the Bahamas led to the discovery of a bacterium that produces substances that are in the process of being synthesized as antibiotics and anticancer compounds. In addition to the aforementioned cancer fighting compounds, chemicals that combat neuropathic pain, treat asthma and inflammation, and reduce skin irritation have been isolated from marine organisms. One Arctic Sea organism alone produced three antibiotics. Although none of the three ultimately proved pharmaceutically significant, current concerns that strains of bacteria are developing resistance to the “antibiotics of last resort” is a strong reason to increase funding for bioprospecting. Additionally, the blood cells of horseshoe crabs contain a chemical—which is found nowhere else in nature and so far has yet to be synthesized—that can detect bacterial contamination in pharmaceuticals and on the surfaces of surgical implants. Some research indicates that between 10 and 30 percent of horseshoe crabs that have been bled die, and that those that survive are less likely to mate. It would serve for research to indicate the ways these creatures can be better protected. Up to two-thirds of all marine life remains unidentified, with 226,000 eukaryotic species already identified and more than 2,000 species discovered every year, according to Ward Appeltans, a marine biologist at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.
Contrast these discoveries of new species in the oceans with the frequent claims that space exploration will lead to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. For example, in 2010 NASA announced that it had made discoveries on Mars “that [would] impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” but ultimately admitted that they had “no definitive detection of Martian organics.” The discovery that prompted the initial press release—that NASA had discovered a possible arsenic pathway in metabolism and that thus life was theoretically possible under conditions different than those on Earth—was then thoroughly rebutted by a panel of NASA-selected experts. The comparison with ocean science is especially stark when one considers that oceanographers have already discovered real organisms that rely on chemosyn-thesis—the process of making glucose from water and carbon dioxide by using the energy stored in chemical bonds of inorganic compounds—living near deep sea vents at the bottom of the oceans.
The same is true of the search for mineral resources. NASA talks about the potential for asteroid mining, but it will be far easier to find and recover minerals suspended in ocean waters or beneath the ocean floor. Indeed, resources beneath the ocean floor are already being commercially exploited, whereas there is not a near-term likelihood of commercial asteroid mining.
Another major justification cited by advocates for the pricey missions to Mars and beyond is that “we don’t know” enough about the other planets and the universe in which we live. However, the same can be said of the deep oceans. Actually, we know much more about the Moon and even about Mars than we know about the oceans. Maps of the Moon are already strikingly accurate, and even amateur hobbyists have crafted highly detailed pictures of the Moon—minus the “dark side”—as one set of documents from University College London’s archives seems to demonstrate. By 1967, maps and globes depicting the complete lunar surface were produced. By contrast, about 90% of the world’s oceans had not yet been mapped as of 2005. Furthermore, for years scientists have been fascinated by noises originating at the bottom of the ocean, known creatively as “the Bloop” and “Julia,” among others. And the world’s largest known “waterfall” can be found entirely underwater between Greenland and Iceland, where cold, dense Arctic water from the Greenland Sea drops more than 11,500 feet before reaching the seafloor of the Denmark Strait. Much remains poorly understood about these phenomena, their relevance to the surrounding ecosystem, and the ways in which climate change will affect their continued existence.
In short, there is much that humans have yet to understand about the depths of the oceans, further research into which could yield important insights about Earth’s geological history and the evolution of humans and society. Addressing these questions surpasses the importance of another Mars rover or a space observatory designed to answer highly specific questions of importance mainly to a few dedicated astrophysicists, planetary scientists, and select colleagues.
Leave the people at home
NASA has long favored human exploration, despite the fact that robots have become much more technologically advanced and that their (one-way) travel poses much lower costs and next to no risks compared to human missions. Still, the promotion of human missions continues; in December 2013, NASA announced that it would grow basil, turnips, and Arabidopsis on the Moon to “show that crop plants that ultimately will feed astronauts and moon colonists and all, are also able to grow on the moon.” However, Martin Rees, a professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge University and a former president of the Royal Society, calls human spaceflight a “waste of money,” pointing out that “the practical case [for human spaceflight] gets weaker and weaker with every advance in robotics and miniaturisation.” Another observer notes that “it is in fact a universal principle of space science—a ‘prime directive,’ as it were—that anything a human being does up there could be done by unmanned machinery for one-thousandth the cost.” The cost of sending humans to Mars is estimated at more than $150 billion. The preference for human missions persists nonetheless, primarily because NASA believes that human spaceflight is more impressive and will garner more public support and taxpayer dollars, despite the fact that most of NASA’s scientific yield to date, Rees shows, has come from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Kepler space observatory, space rovers, and other missions. NASA relentlessly hypes the bravery of the astronauts and the pioneering aspirations of all humanity despite a lack of evidence that these missions engender any more than a brief high for some.
Ocean exploration faces similar temptations. There have been some calls for “aquanauts,” who would explore the ocean much as astronauts explore space, and for the prioritization of human exploration missions. However, relying largely robots and remote-controlled submersibles seems much more economical, nearly as effective at investigating the oceans’ biodiversity, chemistry, and seafloor topography, and endlessly safer than human agents. In short, it is no more reasonable to send aquanauts to explore the seafloor than it is to send astronauts to explore the surface of Mars.
Several space enthusiasts are seriously talking about creating human colonies on the Moon or, eventually, on Mars. In the 1970s, for example, NASA’s Ames Research Center spent tax dollars to design several models of space colonies meant to hold 10,000 people each. Other advocates have suggested that it might be possible to “terra-form” the surface of Mars or other planets to resemble that of Earth by altering the atmospheric conditions, warming the planet, and activating a water cycle. Other space advocates envision using space elevators to ferry large numbers of people and supplies into space in the event of a catastrophic asteroid hitting the Earth. Ocean enthusiasts dream of underwater cities to deal with overpopulation and “natural or man-made disasters that render land-based human life impossible.” The Seasteading Institute, Crescent Hydropolis Resorts, and the League of New Worlds have developed pilot projects to explore the prospect of housing people and scientists under the surface of the ocean. However, these projects are prohibitively expensive and “you can never sever [the surface-water connection] completely,” says Dennis Chamberland, director of one of the groups. NOAA also invested funding in a habitat called Aquarius built in 1986 by the Navy, although it has since abandoned this project.
If anyone wants to use their private funds for such outlier projects, they surely should be free to proceed. However, for public funds, priorities must be set. Much greater emphasis must be placed on preventing global calamities rather than on developing improbable means of housing and saving a few hundred or thousand people by sending them far into space or deep beneath the waves.
These select illustrative examples should suffice to demonstrate the great promise of intensified ocean research, a heretofore unrealized promise. However, it is far from enough to inject additional funding, which can be taken from NASA if the total federal R&D budget cannot be increased, into ocean science. There must also be an agency with a mandate to envision and lead federal efforts to bolster ocean research and exploration the way that President Kennedy and NASA once led space research and “captured” the Moon.
For those who are interested in elaborate reports on the deficiencies of existing federal agencies’ attempts to coordinate this research, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative (JOCI)—the foremost ocean policy group in the United States and the product of the Pew Oceans Commission and the United States Commission on Ocean Policy—provides excellent overviews. These studies and others reflect the tug-of-war that exists among various interest groups and social values. Environmentalists and those concerned about global climate change, the destruction of ocean ecosystems, declines in biodiversity, overfishing, and oil spills clash with commercial groups and states more interested in extracting natural resources from the oceans, in harvesting fish, and utilizing the oceans for tourism. (One observer noted that only 1% of the 139.5 million square miles of the ocean is conserved through formal protections, whereas billons use the oceans “as a ‘supermarket and a sewer.’”) And although these reports illuminate some of the challenges that must be surmounted if the government is to institute a broad, well-funded set of ocean research goals, none of these groups have added significant funds to ocean research, nor have they taken steps to provide NASA-like agency to take the lead in federally-supported ocean science.
NOAA is the obvious candidate, but it has been hampered by a lack of central authority and by the existence of many disparate programs, each of which has its own small group of congressional supporters with parochial interests. The result is that NOAA has many supporters of its distinct little segments but too few supporters of its broad mission. Furthermore, Congress micromanages NOAA’s budget, leaving too little flexibility for the agency to coordinate activities and act on its own priorities.
It is hard to imagine the difficulty of pulling these pieces together—let alone consolidating the bewildering number of projects—under the best of circumstances. Several administrators of NOAA have made significant strides in this regard and should be recognized for their work. However, Congress has saddled the agency with more than 100 ocean-related laws that require the agency to promote what are often narrow and competing interests. Moreover, NOAA is buried in the Department of Commerce, which itself is considered to be one of the weaker cabinet agencies. For this reason, some have suggested that it would be prudent to move NOAA into the Department of the Interior—which already includes the United States Geological Service, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement—to give NOAA more of a backbone.
Moreover, NOAA is not the only federal agency that deals with the oceans. There are presently ocean-relevant programs in more than 20 federal agencies—including NASA. For instance, the ocean exploration program that investigates deep ocean currents by using satellite technology to measure minute differences in elevation on the surface of the ocean is currently controlled by NASA, and much basic ocean science research has historically been supported by the Navy, which lost much of its interest in the subject since the end of the Cold War. (The Navy does continue to fund some ocean research, but at levels much lower than earlier.) Many of these programs should be consolidated into a Department of Ocean Research and Exploration that would have the authority to do what NOAA has been prevented from doing: namely, direct a well-planned and coordinated ocean research program. Although the National Ocean Council’s interagency coordinating structure is a step in the right direction, it would be much more effective to consolidate authority for managing ocean science research under a new independent agency or a reimagined and strengthened NOAA.
Setting priorities for research and exploration is always needed, but this is especially true in the present age of tight budgets. It is clear that oceans are a little-studied but very promising area for much enhanced exploration. By contrast, NASA’s projects, especially those dedicated to further exploring deep space and to manned missions and stellar colonies, can readily be cut. More than moving a few billion dollars from the faraway planets to the nearby oceans is called for, however. The United States needs an agency that can spearhead a major drive to explore the oceans—an agency that has yet to be envisioned and created.