Saturday, March 24, 2012

James Cameron's Deep Sea Challenge

According to Facebook and Twitter, it could happen this weekend, weather permitting. Academy Award-winning director and cinematographic visionary James Cameron is getting ready to plunge to the deepest known point in the ocean. If successful, he will be the first person in over 50 years to pull off this mission. And yes, he will be taking 3D cameras along for the ride.

‎"This quest was not driven by the need to set records, but by the same force that drives all science and exploration … curiosity." - James Cameron

For someone who's been preoccupied with marine biology since childhood (i.e. me), this is bigger than the moon landing. This is bigger than anything—A human being submerging into the deepest of the deep sea to witness firsthand the most profound mysteries of the ocean, and of our planet. I truly couldn't imagine anything more exciting! And of all the people on Earth to go, James Cameron is the best candidate to bring back for the rest of the world what he will have seen in what I'm sure will be visually compelling stupefying motion picture footage.

For those of you who haven't been obsessively following every status update, blog post, and technical detail of this odyssey, here's a brief overview of what exactly it is.

The Destination

The aptly named Challenger Deep lies a cool 10.9 km below the surface of the ocean, making it 2.1 km deeper than the highest peak of Mount Everest is tall. Challenger Deep lies at the southern end of the Mariana Trench, a tectonic subduction zone in the Western Pacific.

The Expedition

It is extremely difficult and dangerous for a manned vehicle to dive to such extreme depth, which is why it has only been done once before. In 1960, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh descended to Challenger Deep in the bathyscaphe Trieste, a trip that took nearly 5 hours for a visit that lasted only 20 minutes.

They took no scientific equipment, no cameras, and the majority of the visit they spent sitting in a cloud of "snuff-coloured ooze"—sediment disturbed from the seafloor. A gruelling technological feat at the time, the aim was simply to show that it could be done. Fifty-two years later, technology has improved leaps and bounds.

Cameron's descent will take a mere two hours, leaving six hours to explore the unchartered deep sea, after which he'll return to the surface. This won't be a one-stop shop—he'll repeat the dive several times.

Cameron will be piloting the "Deepsea Challenger" solo. The vessel is equipped for scientific exploration, including a mechanical arm for sampling. It will return to the surface with biological and geological samples, as well as high-resolution 3D footage.

The Vessel

Compared to the Trieste, the Deepsea Challenger is a shrimp. But it's also a technological powerhouse. The "vertical torpedo" of a sub is positively buoyant, thanks to specially designed foam that keeps it afloat. To weigh it down, steel plates are attached electromagnetically. The vessel will descend in a corkscrew pattern at 150 meters per minute, which is more than three times faster than some current remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

To ascend, the steel plates will be cast off by simply flipping a switch to cut the electromagnetic current that binds them to the ship—this can also be done by remote control from the surface. The weight system is cleverly designed, because if anything goes wrong and the submarine loses power, the weights will drop automatically.

Life Beyond the Abyss

The deep sea is one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. There is no sunlight, the temperature is just above freezing, and the pressure is 1000 times greater than at the surface. And yet, life exists here.

On their 1960 descent, Piccard and Walsh discovered a new species of shrimp, and saw what they described as a flatfish one foot long and six inches wide. ROVs Kaiko and Nereus have since obtained evidence of sea cucumbers, worms, and foraminifera (single-celled, soft-shelled protists).

One of the goals of the Deep Sea Challenge is to discover new lifeforms capable of surviving in such extremes. An environment like this poses severe challenges, and requires radical adaptations. Probably the biggest question on biologists' minds is can fish survive in this environment? More specifically, can solid bone exist under such extreme pressure? Let's revise that one more time: Can calcium exist out of solution (i.e. not dissolved in water) under such high pressure? That answer could be revealed as soon as this weekend!

The Last Frontier

Only 3% of the ocean has been explored by humans, yet it makes up 71% of the Earth's surface. Aside from the surface, the average depth of the ocean is 3.68 km, making the total estimated volume of the Earth's oceans is 1.3 billion cubic kilometers. Think about that figure for a second. There is a ton of ocean left to explore!

The Mariana Trench is by no means the final destination of ocean exploration. It represents the biggest known challenge to humankind in ocean surveying, and it represents an obstacle, that once overcome, will open the doors to widespread exploration of the rest of the ocean. I hope that once we've scrutinized what we consider now to be the biggest challenge offered by the ocean, the rest of it will seem far less intimidating, and we can begin to close final the chapter of unchartered territory on planet Earth.