Why Do We Know More About the Moon Than We Do About the Oceans?

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We know about a ton of freaky stuff in the ocean.

The ocean is full of bizarre spectacles like the (male!) seahorses who give birth to 2,000 babies at a time, a tuskfish who learned how to use tools, and the octopuses that can camouflage, ambush and escape from seemingly impossible places in a way humans have yet to understand.

And those are just the weird creatures – we also know that the ocean is responsible for life on this planet. The plants within it provide us with about 70% of the oxygen we need to breathe, plays a giant role in our climate and weather patterns and provides jobs, food and medicine for countless people around the world.

Sounds Like We Know a Lot, Right?

Kind of? But there’s a lot more to know. You may have seen memes or statistics that show we’ve only mapped 5% of our ocean. That’s not the whole truth, but it’s something like it.

Technically, we have mapped the entirety of the ocean, but only to a degree of about 5 kilometer resolution, which means we can only spot things bigger than 5 km, or 3 miles long. To compare, all of Mars has now been mapped at about 6 meters per pixel. That means that on all of Mars, we can map things that are about as big as a tennis court, while under our oceans, we only know about stuff that’s bigger than three entire miles, like trenches and some underwater volcanoes.

So. Why do we know so little about our four, um, SUPER IMPORTANT giant bodies of water, the things that cover 70% of our planet and literally give us life?

It's Complicated!

The short answer is that it’s incredibly expensive and complicated to explore underwater. While it seems pretty obvious that we need to know more about what’s going on beneath our seas, not many countries are exactly rushing to the front of the line to take on the cost.

Part of the reason it’s so expensive is the equipment and human labor involved. Research vessels and their crews can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 per day. Because it’s so time and cost prohibitive, a lot of the biggest recent probes have either come from efforts either at least partially funded by private money, the oil industry or in response to major events like the missing Malaysian Airlines flight.

One of those big private funders has been Titanic director James Cameron. In 2012, he went on a record-setting dive to the deepest part of the Mariana Trench, becoming the first person to do so solo. At his lowest point, he was a whopping 35,787 feet, or 6.6 miles, below the surface. That’s about how high planes fly above the sky, except Cameron was down in the other direction, in a submersible designed to battle the extreme darkness and pressure found at those depths.

The Malaysia Airlines flight that seemingly disappeared from the sky was another impetus for some important underwater exploration. When the search for the missing plane began, many people couldn’t understand how an entire airplane could vanish without a trace, or why we couldn’t just start searching the oceans for clues. But those people couldn’t comprehend the vastness of the search area and how little we knew about it to begin with. This graphic attempts to display just that – the remoteness of that stretch of the Indian Ocean, how deep potential clues could be and the limits of our resources for unearthing (or, un-oceaning?) that debris.

But the widespread search efforts, led largely by Australia, did provide us with a ton of much-needed info. That stretch of the Indian Ocean has now turned into one of the most thoroughly mapped areas of the sea floor. New findings included new topographic info about the ocean floor, tectonic activity and undiscovered volcanoes.

Ocean vs. Space

Money isn’t the only thing stopping underwater exploration, though. While expensive, exploratory research dollars do exist. It’s just that many of them get sent to space. That’s not to say space exploration isn’t important -- learning about planets and galaxies beyond our own has taught us all kinds of things about how to better sustain life on Earth, not to mention kept an eye out to make sure we’re not all done in by a doomsday scenario like a giant asteroid.

But many ocean experts argue that discovering our oceans and learning more about how we can protect and enrich them is far more important for our daily life on Earth – especially now that between climate change and pollution, their health is in peril.

So why is $17.8 billion going towards space exploration, and $5 billion to oceans? Many people point to the wonder of space to explain the fascination. People look up at a beautiful starry night and dream about what might be out there, or fantasize about being one of the few humans to become an astronauts and view Earth as a pale blue dot. Especially back in the 1960s, when we first sent men (and only men) to the moon, we glorified astronauts while kind of forgetting about the deep sea divers who were trying to determine what was happening on the sea floor. Even then, people like John Steinbeck argued for spending more on ocean exploration, but for most, the vast darkness of the sea floor is less adventure-inducing than the starry skies.

That’s not to say there isn’t great work being done. There’s a new $94 million consortium led by the University of Rhode Island that will support ocean exploration, and a $5 billion action fund by the Asian Development Bank to support sustainable “blue economies,” just to name a few.

Want there to be more? Even if you think there’s not much you can do in a landlocked area, there’s plenty you can do to help support ocean exploration and conservation. Check out resources to help you support the sustainable policies and businesses that are working to protect oceans, and speak up to your families and classmates about the importance of funding more research expeditions. After all, sometimes all it takes is a little curiosity about the deep blue sea to lead to incredible outcomes.

About the Author

Rachelle Dragani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn with extensive experience covering the latest innovation and development in the world of science. Her pieces on topics including DNA sequencing, tissue engineering and stem cell advances have been featured in publications including BioTechniques: the International Journal of Life Science Methods, Popular Mechanics, Futurism and Gizmodo.