It’s October 20, 2020, and Dr. Robin Beaman is onboard the Falkor, a research ship operated by the Schmidt Ocean Institute. Sailing along the dazzling waters of the Australian coast, Dr. Beaman is leading a team of scientists who hope to unlock more secrets of the ocean. To aid them in this endeavor, they’ve kitted out the vessel with sophisticated technology which monitors the vast underwater space beneath their ship. And now these instruments have detected an anomaly. Beneath the craft, something is looming – and nobody has seen anything like it in over a century.
This thing in the water is enormous, measuring roughly 1,640 feet from its base to its tip. These dimensions are immense, but they can be difficult to envision. So, for a sense of scale, we can say that by way of comparison, the Empire State Building in New York City tops out at about 1,450 feet, trailing the underwater discovery by almost 200 feet.
Incredibly, this gargantuan find is far from the only breakthrough made by scientists onboard the Falkor this past year. Experts from the Western Australian Museum have also spent time on the vessel, noting around 30 previously undiscovered species during their voyage. It’s been a big year, then, for the Schmidt Ocean Institute.
Word of these 30 creatures new to science came out in April, but that was just the beginning. A few months later, the Schmidt Ocean Institute was again announcing news from the Falkor. Scientists carried by the vessel had come across yet more exotic and never-before-seen species.
Generally speaking, though, for all our advances as a species, we know remarkably little about the oceans of Earth. Astronomers have managed to capture an image of black hole in space, we’ve sent manmade vehicles to Mars, and individuals have personally walked along the surface of the Moon – yet our own waters clearly retain many secrets. But thanks to groups such as the Schmidt Ocean Institute, we’re now starting to learn more.
New technologies are helping us to explore the depths of the ocean. From the Falkor, for instance, researchers are able to launch underwater robots to do the tough work. These machines are essential for deep-sea exploration, as they can handle the intensely frigid, pitch-black conditions of the seafloor, where all but the hardiest of venturers are crushed to a pulp by the sheer weight of the volume of water above them.
The past year has demonstrated the power of technology and how it can be applied to underwater exploration. This has delighted Wendy Schmidt, who established the Schmidt Ocean Institute alongside her spouse Eric. Speaking in a statement following Dr. Beaman’s vast discovery, she reflected on what the latest technological advances mean for our understanding of the seas.
Schmidt remarked, “The state of our knowledge about what’s in the ocean has long been so limited. Thanks to new technologies that work as our eyes, ears and hands in the deep ocean, we have the capacity to explore like never before. New oceanscapes are opening to us, revealing the ecosystems and diverse life forms that share the planet with us.”
Understanding our ocean ecosystems is perhaps a more pressing matter today than ever before in our history as a species. Back in March 2020 the World Meteorological Office published a report entitled Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2019. Noting that 2019 had been the second-hottest year since records began, this report dedicated an entire section to the planet’s ocean.
The report stated that 2019 was a year of unusually high temperatures in the world’s oceans. Globally, vast swathes of the planet’s waters suffered a “marine heatwave,” with almost two months of the year considered to be unusually warm. The upper layer of the ocean was particularly heated throughout 2019, at times breaking previous records.
The issue with all this is that increasing temperatures in the ocean significantly affect the Earth as a whole. The wider climate of the planet is impacted, not least because the water expands as it heats up, causing sea levels to surge in height as a result. What’s more, ocean ecosystems experience some striking shifts thanks to the rising temperatures, which can lead to extremely negative outcomes for some organisms within them.
The World Meteorological Office report stated that from 2009 to 2018, the ocean swallowed up just under a quarter of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions. This helped to ease some of the immediately obvious effects of climate change, but it came at the cost of a massive hike in the acidity levels of ocean waters generally. Ultimately, a variety of sea organisms and their habitats suffered as a consequence.
Analysis of the oceans has told us that the levels of oxygen within their waters are dropping. And it doesn’t take a science degree to realize that this isn’t a good thing for the living things in marine habitats. According to predictions, it looks as though coral reefs are set to experience huge amounts of damage because of these changes.
Such reefs are fascinating marine formations, made up of the skeletons of tiny creatures collectively known as coral. When robust, the structures play a vital role in allowing algae to flourish. Basically the organisms supply various chemicals that serve to screen the marine plants from sunlight’s more harmful elements, much like sun lotion protects human skin.
Like almost every plant, algae produce their food via photosynthesis, a process that, as we all know, yields oxygen as a waste product. In turn, the coral thrives in such highly oxygenated environments. In this way, the relationship between coral and algae is defined as symbiotic. Indeed, it’s no real exaggeration to say that algae are responsible for coral’s magnificent colors.
The complementary functions of coral and algae are delicately balanced, meaning that disruption can be catastrophic to both. So, as the ocean’s temperature soars, algae end up generating toxins that damage coral. This, then, has negative impacts upon the algae themselves. The phenomenon is known as bleaching, as it leads to the coral losing their brilliant colors and turning milky in appearance.
It has to be said that not all bleached corals will necessarily expire for good. Sometimes, their health can bounce back, provided the warm temperatures to which they’ve been exposed go down once again. If the waters stay hot, though, then the outcome really doesn’t look good for the structures.
It’s not just global warming on its own that threatens to destroy coral reefs. Other human interference can also contribute to coral’s decline, like large-scale fishing or when harmful chemicals flow into the water. Intense storms can also make things worse, as can certain organisms that live in such underwater ecosystems.
Dr. Erika Woolsey is an ecologist who specializes in coral reefs, and in 2017 she delivered a presentation on the subject. Here, she stated, “Coral reefs… provide food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people around the world, they protect shorelines from erosion, and they contain compounds that are used to treat human ailments… Even though they cover less than 1 percent of the sea floor, they harbor about a quarter of all marine biodiversity.”
Perhaps the most well-known structure of its kind is the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Sadly, this incredible formation has been far from immune to the negative impact of rising ocean temperatures in recent years. In fact, since 2015 three significant bleaching events have left their mark on this famous landmark, which is actually most properly described as a system of thousands of individual reefs.
The Great Barrier Reef is situated off the shores of northeastern Australia. And it’s vast, stretching down the country’s coastline for roughly 1,430 miles. We can say for sure that the structures support the lives of at least 9,000 species, though the true figure is probably far higher. Discoveries are continuously being made there, after all.
Even if we look at the Great Barrier Reef from a purely economic perspective, its importance can’t be overstated. The structure attracts roughly 1.6 million people to the region annually, which funnels money into the area. This is meaningful for the people that live there, but of course the reef’s worth can’t simply be measured in financial terms alone.
The sheer extent of biodiversity that can be observed in the Great Barrier Reef is staggering. The place is home to creatures that everybody knows about, such as turtles, sharks, dolphins and even crocodiles. But on top of that there are also lesser-known species of worm and sea snake there, not to mention all the smaller organisms that make up the coral and algae.
Given the threats to this vital marine ecosystem, we can say that research focused on the Great Barrier Reef is essential. It seems that the Schmidt Ocean Institute agrees with this sentiment, seeing as how the group’s recently been involved in studies related to it. Of course, the group’s also been looking into the seawaters of Australia more broadly.
As previously noted, the Schmidt Ocean Institute has overseen some amazing discoveries in Australia over the last year alone. By April some 30 undiscovered species had been noted by the group’s researchers, with perhaps the most exciting being a siphonophore. Incredibly, this astounding superorganism measured roughly 150 feet in length, making it the longest creature on record.
Siphonophores are amazing things, made up of colonies of individual entities known as zooids. These creatures replicate again and again, until finally they can collectively be classified as one superorganism. The particular 150-foot specimen that was discovered by the researchers aboard the Falkor was a type of siphonophore known as an Apolemia.
The researchers also managed to record the presence of previously discovered organisms that had never been seen in Australia before. Examples of such creatures include the long-tailed sea cucumber and the Dana octopus squid, which glows in the dark. As well as that, varieties of squat lobster, barnacle and mollusk were found.
One of the scientists who worked on this particular research voyage was Dr. Nerida Wilson. Speaking in a statement, the scientist reflected on the discoveries that she and her colleagues had made. She said, “We suspected these deep-sea areas would be diverse, but we have been blown away by the significance of what we have seen.”
Schmidt Ocean Institute co-founder Wendy Schmidt, meanwhile, stated, “There is so much we don’t know about the deep sea, and there are countless species never before seen. Our planet is deeply interconnected – what happens in the deep sea impacts life on land, and vice versa. This research is vital to advance our understanding of that connection – and the importance of protecting these fragile ecosystems.”
In September 2020 Schmidt Ocean Institute researchers revealed that they had recently been investigating the deepest parts of the Great Barrier Reef. Here, they stumbled upon yet more new species, including types of sponges and black corals. They also analyzed the geographical features of the area, hoping to gain a greater understanding of how such characteristics have affected the life found there.
The researchers actually managed to retrieve a sample of the rock that sits underneath the Great Barrier Reef. Such a feat had never been achieved before, so hopefully it’ll prove to be revealing down the line. Given that it’s thought to date back 40 or 50 million years, it’s bound to be of some scientific interest.
The scientists also encountered a Rhinopias agroliba, a particularly uncommon fish never before found swimming near Australia. And in addition to all these discoveries, the researchers also worked towards creating a map of the seabed. This was no small undertaking, considering that the area upon which they were focusing was three times the size of Sydney.
The executive director of the Schmidt Ocean Institute is Dr. Jyotika Virmani. Delivering a statement on her organization’s activities, the scientist reflected, “These maps, samples, and images are fascinating and provide a new understanding of the geological diversity and biological wealth of a region that is already world-renowned for its natural beauty. The data will help marine park managers to protect these ecosystems that are so vital for our global biodiversity and human health.”
The Schmidt Ocean Institute’s mapping operations led to yet another incredible discovery in October. It seems that there’s no end to the things we have left to uncover in the depths of our oceans. This time, the group had found a previously unrecorded coral reef. And to be honest it’s not the sort of thing you might have thought it would be all that easy to miss. In fact, it’s a structure so large it’s taller than the Empire State Building in New York City.
The coral reef stands near the Great Barrier Reef, but isn’t actually a part of it. It stands on its own, meaning that it’s the first structure of its kind to be found in more than 120 years. Technology is largely behind the discovery; having first been spotted during underwater mapping of the area, a submersible robot dubbed SuBastian was then deployed to investigate it.
The reef has been characterized as resembling a blade, with a wider bottom than its top. This lower end, in fact, is a little under a mile wide, rising to a height of 1,640 feet or so. The whole thing is underwater, with its tip sitting about 130 feet from the surface.
The project’s head researcher Dr. Beaman expressed his joy with the find. He said, “We are surprised and elated by what we have found. To not only 3-D map the reef in detail, but also visually see this discovery with SuBastian is incredible. This has only been made possible by the commitment of Schmidt Ocean Institute to grant ship time to Australia’s scientists.”
Executive director Dr. Virmani, meanwhile, has expressed her own excitement. Noting just how much we have to learn about our own planet, she praised the technologies involved in this research. After all, they’re helping to open up new realms of knowledge of the seas.
Dr. Virmani said, “To find a new half-a-kilometer-tall reef in the offshore Cape York area of the well-recognized Great Barrier Reef shows how mysterious the world is just beyond our coastline. This powerful combination of mapping data and underwater imagery will be used to understand this new reef and its role within the incredible Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.”
More research was still to be undertaken after the discovery of this new coral reef, so perhaps we’ll soon be treated to yet more incredible news from Australia. These habitats are so important to the world that learning as much as we can about them is a vitally important task. In doing so, perhaps we can find ways to limit the damage that climate change looks set to inflict upon them.
Of course, it’s not just Australia’s waters that boast wonders worth protecting. Scientists recently located a stunning natural phenomenon deep beneath the waves off America, for example. A team of U.S. experts was performing a mapping exercise of the area, you see, when they discovered a massive body of water hiding beneath the Atlantic Ocean. And the implications of their find could conceivably impact upon the whole world.
This body of scientists had been assembled from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Columbia University. Attempting to analyze electromagnetic waves, the team had been aboard a vessel sailing from New Jersey to Massachusetts. And from there, they noted something that could end up saving countless human lives.
The experts subsequently reported their findings in a June 2019 publication entitled Scientific Reports. And following the dissemination of the group’s research, a number of media outlets took note. Many then commented upon how the scientists’ newly discovered ocean – provided it’s treated appropriately – could help to sustain the Earth’s ever-rising population.
So who are these experts? Well, a key organization involved in the research, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), is committed to learning about marine life. Set up some 89 years ago, the group studies geological processes at the heart of our planet – as well as specifically investigating the Earth’s oceans. It’s the largest organization of its kind in the United States, in fact.
A number of vessels associated with the WHOI actually sail across the globe. The range of craft at the organization’s disposal includes a pair of big research boats as well as some smaller ships too. And it even possesses a number of autonomous craft capable of traveling underwater.
The organization can also trace its origins back to 1927, when the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recommended that the nation initiate a program dedicated to the study of the planet’s oceans. Then, three years later, the WHOI was established. And in 1931 the RV Atlantis, the group’s first craft dedicated to research, entered into service.
The WHOI website has elaborated on the group’s goals. “The ocean is a vast and challenging place to work, but knowledge about the ocean is crucial to life on a changing planet,” it states. “[The WHOI addresses] questions ranging from climate change to oil spills to ocean acidification.”
Of course, more than two-thirds of our planet’s exterior is made up of oceans. Yet a great deal of this underwater realm has still never been properly investigated. That’s why the ocean continues to reveal hidden secrets to this day. Features known as aquifers, for instance, have recently been discovered beneath the seafloor. And this is exactly what the group from WHOI found underneath the Atlantic.
Interestingly, an aquifer can be simply defined as an area of rock beneath ground that’s capable of holding water. When aquifers are found underneath land, then, they can be seen to possess water that has seeped into the earth below. This liquid – which might have derived from rainfall or thawed snow – trickles down from above, stopping only when it reaches more impermeable rock.
The easiest way to comprehend or envisage an aquifer is perhaps to picture a sandy beach. Now imagine that you were to drive a shovel through this shoreline. Quite quickly, you would arrive at an area of damp sand beneath the arid surface, right? Well, this area can be thought of as an illustration of an aquifer.
Aquifers fall into two categories, though. The first is as an unconfined aquifer, which is topped by rock through which liquid can pass. These tend not to be full of water. A confined aquifer, on the other hand, is found in the middle of two slabs of more impermeable rock. They are full of water, which might have traveled there from another aquifer, a lake or a river.
It’s possible to tap into the water held within aquifers through the use of wells too. And so aquifers can be considered as a potentially important source of water for human usage. They are sometimes easily depleted, however. They can also become polluted by toxins traveling down from the ground above.
A famous example of a significant aquifer is the Great Artesian Basin – which is found across 660,000 square miles beneath the surface of Australia. Said to possess the greatest length and depth of any basin of its kind around the globe, the Great Artesian Basin provides water for a significant part of Australia. Areas such as Queensland, for example, are particularly reliant on its supplies.
In the east of the Sahara Desert in Africa, too, a hugely significant aquifer network can be found beneath the surface. This is the so-called Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS), which is located within the borders of a number of nations: Chad, Sudan, Egypt and Libya.
The NSAS is said to be a hugely promising source of water for the nations beneath which it resides. In fact, one of those countries has already initiated a scheme to tap into its supplies. Back in 1984, you see, the Libyan government started work on the Great Man-made River Project.
The Great Man-made River Project is reportedly made up of in excess of 1,000 wells and a system of pipes spanning close to 2,000 miles. This being the case, it could be the biggest irrigation scheme on Earth. And Libya’s leader at the time once reportedly characterized the project as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
The NSAS that the project taps into is said to be vast too. It was created at some point in the planet’s most recent ice age and could provide water for a good while yet. However, there’s apparently a danger that it might be exhausted within the next century or so.
Aquifers found beneath the surface of land – such as the NSAS or the Great Artesian Basin – are significant sources of water for humans, then. But if they’re used up, huge problems will be posed. Numerous areas around the globe could be subjected to bouts of drought, for instance.
In fact, it’s been predicted that insufficient water supplies will be among the most critical ecological problems of the near future. Issues such as growing populations, climate change and human industry are all capable of exacerbating the situation. And many millions of people already find it very difficult to obtain drinkable water.
As a result, any discovery of a new source of drinking water on our planet is potentially of huge importance. So when experts announced in 2013 that large supplies of freshwater existed beneath the Earth’s oceans, there was cause to take note. Particularly as it was suggested that the amounts were more significant than anything tapped into in recent memory.
Dr. Vincent Post, who was heavily involved in the research surrounding the announcement, has stressed the potential of these water supplies. “The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s sub-surface in the past century since 1900,” he said in December 2013, according to News Atlas. “Our research shows that fresh and brackish aquifers below the seabed are actually quite a common phenomenon.”
Experts have suggested that approximately 120,000 cubic miles of water may be found within these hidden supplies, in fact. It’s thought that the water itself also contains low levels of salt. This means that it can be treated with relative ease and turned into water suitable for humans to drink.
These previously hidden supplies are said to have been created when the Earth’s oceans lay lower than their current levels. It’s been suggested that around 20,000 years ago the planet’s ice caps started to thaw and sea levels consequently rose. But freshwater subsequently remained lodged underneath these higher oceans – held between layers of sediment.
Dr. Post also added that rain had had an influence. “When it rained, the water would infiltrate into the ground and fill up the water table in areas that are nowadays under the sea,” he stated. “It happened all around the world, and when the sea level rose when ice caps started melting some 20,000 years ago, these areas were covered by the ocean.”
While aquifers found underneath oceans are comparable to those under land, tapping into them can of course prove even more difficult. “There are two ways to access this water,” Dr. Post suggested. “Build a platform out at sea and drill into the seabed. Or drill from the mainland or islands close to the aquifers.”
Dr. Post has, however, stressed the importance of human activity not corrupting these water supplies. This could occur, for instance, as a result of people extracting oil from the beneath the surface of the planet. If the aquifers are appropriately managed and preserved, though, they potentially hold the key to staving off any immediate threats of global drought.
And it’s been suggested that aquifers can be found beneath oceans all over the world. In June 2019, in fact, reports of a potentially vast one off the coast of the United States began to emerge. Although its precise size was said to be as yet uncharted, it was nonetheless seen as potentially significant.
The aquifer in question is thought to span around 50 miles from the coasts of Massachusetts to New Jersey. It’s been proposed that it might even be the most significant aquifer so far located beneath any ocean on Earth. Apparently, if the aquifer were a lake on the Earth’s surface then it would be the sixth largest in the world. It measures approximately 15,000 square miles, after all.
The initial indications of an aquifer being located in this area originated over 40 years ago, mind you. During the 1970s, in fact, people drilling the area in search of oil occasionally happened upon freshwater in the ocean. It wasn’t clear at the time, though, whether or not these instances were indicative of anything more significant.
Some years later, a geophysicist named Kerry Key contributed towards the development of innovative methods for searching for oil. His approach sought to utilize electromagnetic imaging in order to explore beneath the seabed. Eventually, though, Key started to consider the notion that his techniques might be used to find freshwater reserves as well.
So in 2015 Key and a colleague from the WHOI named Rob L. Evans set sail. Together with some other peers, the pair started investigating the waters from New Jersey to Massachusetts. And eventually, the group of experts came to the conclusion that a huge aquifer lay beneath the ocean floor.
A Ph.D. student from Columbia University named Chloe Gustafson was also involved in the research. “We knew there was freshwater down there in isolated places, but we did not know the extent or geometry,” she said in June 2019, according to Fox News. “It could turn out to be an important resource in other parts of the world.”
The researchers involved in the study subsequently claimed that this particular aquifer emerged as a result of thawing glaciers. “Sea levels were much lower [during the last ice age], exposing much of what is now the underwater U.S. continental shelf,” Columbia University noted in a press release. “When the ice melted, sediments formed huge river deltas on top of the shelf, and freshwater got trapped there in scattered pockets. Later, sea levels rose.”
The experts have also claimed that the aquifer is maintained by a process called overland flow, as water flows over the Earth’s surface. According to Key, when rainwater travels through the shore, it can be sent towards the sea by tidal forces. To illustrate this, he provided an analogy of water traveling from the sides of a sponge to its center when it’s squeezed from top to bottom.
The water within the aquifer off the coast of America is said to be at its most fresh when it’s closest to the mainland. As it edges further out to sea, though, it’s thought to blend more with the seawater. In fact, there have been suggestions from the team that the water close to the shoreline is actually as pure as freshwater from other sources on land.
Even the saltier water at the far edge of the aquifer could potentially be treated to become drinkable, though. And this might prove to be an important means of obtaining new sources of clean water. “We probably don’t need to do that in this region,” Key has said. “But if we can show there are large aquifers in other regions, that might potentially represent a resource.”
Key and his colleagues reportedly want to broaden out their investigations into the subject, though. And perhaps their future findings could contribute towards the discovery of similar aquifers in other places. Examples such as Saharan Africa, the south of California and Australia have all been mentioned as potential locations to find sizable aquifers.
Water found in aquifers beneath the seabed still needs to be treated to make it drinkable, however. But this would nonetheless likely be a simpler and more efficient process than removing salt from pure seawater. Dr. Vincent Post, who was involved in the 2013 claim that freshwater lay beneath numerous seabeds, has elaborated upon this idea.
“Freshwater under the seabed is much less salty than seawater,” Dr. Post told VOA back in 2013. “This means it can be converted to drinking water with less energy than seawater desalination. And it would also leave us with a lot less hyper-saline water.”
It’s possible that aquifers beneath the ocean could help ease a worldwide water emergency, then. But these sources are not infinite, as Dr. Post has emphasized. “We should use them carefully,” he warned. “Once gone, they won’t be replenished until the sea level drops again, which is not likely to happen for a very long time.”