Throughout human history, new frontiers have always united us and highlighted our strengths as a species. As we gaze ever further into the hidden corners of our planet and investigate our solar system and the space beyond, it's easy to forget that an unexplored frontier still exists close to home: the one fundamental thing that sustains us, our ocean.
The ocean is the lifeblood of our planet. It is what makes Earth so unique within our solar system, yet we know more about the surfaces of the Moon and Mars than we do about the detail of the ocean and the marine life therein.
In 1977, Marie Tharp's subsea maps revolutionized our understanding of our planet's geology and sparked massive public interest in the ocean. Today, the entire ocean floor has been mapped to a maximum resolution of around 5km - revealing the world's highest mountains, deepest valleys and countless species previously unknown to science. Yet only 0.05% has been mapped with sonar to the highest resolution.
Meanwhile, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on space exploration, while it's estimated that an order of magnitude less has been spent on ocean exploration. This needs to change. So much is still to be discovered.
I propose that we look to the ocean to seek inspiration and knowledge to accelerate our space age frontier. My vision is to engage the marine and space research communities with subsea infrastructure and offshore industry to create a permanent human presence in our ocean.
Benefits for all
The Industrial Revolution supercharged human progress and social development into the 19th century. Since then, the energy sector has continued to define the global economic and political agenda, igniting major technological advances that influence all aspects of modern life.
By 2030, the global space market is forecasted to be worth £400 billion, employing hundreds of thousands of people and driving downstream investment in a wide range of technologies. In the same way that space programs drive long and complex supply chains in non-space companies, a project to create a permanent human presence in our ocean could also deliver jobs, economic growth and develop a wide range of collaborative sea/space technologies.
We know the ocean is rich in resources. Environmentalists want to protect biodiversity and the integrity of the subsea dimension, while oil and gas companies want to learn how to access, harvest or lay claim to valuable reserves as safely as possible. By working together - focusing on the primary driver of ensuring human progress and survival - I believe that the two can be reconciled in a way that allows regulated, sustainable exploitation.
Accelerating research into underwater habitation should become the focal point of both human progress in space and the future stewardship of the planet. For many years, I have championed the need to develop a self-sustaining underwater habitat to facilitate a cooperative platform.
From such a platform, we could discover and study new marine species, with the hope of finding novel compounds for improving health and treating disease and viruses. Working from static or moveable underwater habitats, we could research how marine ecosystems change and adapt over time. This could complement established environmental communities, such as Sylvia Earle's Mission Blue, Richard Branson's OceanElders and Wendy Schmidt's Ocean Institute.
Underwater habitation research would also develop technologies that will allow us to live, dive and explore deeper for longer.
Pioneers of the global ocean community such as Ian Koblick have pushed the boundaries of undersea habitation. In July 2014, a team of explorers led by Fabien Cousteau lived underwater for 31 days as part of Mission 31 in the Aquarius Reef Base. Later that year, professors Bruce Cantrell and Jessica Fain broke a new world record after spending 73 days aboard Jules' Undersea Lodge - first created by Koblick in the 1970s - as part of their Classroom Under the Sea project.
In 2012, James Cameron scientifically explored the deepest point on Earth - Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. He's since donated the Deepsea Challenger submersible to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and continues to work with their scientists and engineers to develop the sub's technologies for future deep-sea expeditions.
We owe it to the next generation to unite the key stakeholders to develop parallel aims and objectives. Bringing together global partners to develop a new underwater habitat could be a platform for a massive expansion in exploration and innovation, with technical and scientific benefits. Fundamentally, we must all start preparing for change.
Subsea 365: Turning dreams into reality
The International Space Station (ISS) was conceived as a permanent human presence in space and is arguably humankind's greatest achievement. It continues to succeed in developing collective knowledge that will hopefully enable our species to oversee and safeguard our planet's health and give us the determination and technical ability to colonize other (exo) planets. On March 27, two astronauts began the first 'year in space', doubling the length of normal ISS missions.
But building self-sustaining undersea structures would also enable us to develop future technologies for exploring space and other planets. Mars colonization projects have already taken place in the Rockies and Antarctica, and undersea experiments developed by NASA help astronauts adequately prepare for an unfamiliar, zero gravity, zero oxygen world.
Farsighted, innovative and sustainable initiatives are required to generate global support from all sectors - the public, charities, policymakers and industry. These approaches must also attract public engagement as well as key financing from philanthropists and investors. The Catlin Seaview Survey, for example, is a fantastic project to engage the public and gathering partners to act upon vital ocean issues.
The growing fear is that if we don't act willingly now, together, we will be forced to act apart as a result of a catastrophic collapse in global socio-economic order.
Building bridges between environmentalists, policymakers and the energy industry to each stakeholder's advantage is the key to a sustainable future. It's absolutely essential that we find common ground before our differences trigger irreversible consequences for all life on Earth. It's never too late to keep trying.
The Subsea 365 project aims to unite a wide range of global partners - drawing on the success of the ISS - to drive vital public engagement to promote ocean conservation and exploration. Over the next few months we will be seeking partners and sponsors eager to collaborate with us to design and create a subsea habitat capable of supporting human life underwater.
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