Since Christopher Columbus and his fleet sailed across the Atlantic in 1492 (and before Columbus), humans have explored and settled nearly all the land that exists on the Earth’s surface.
But what about the environments that lay underwater? Have we seen it all when it comes to these big, blue reservoirs? How much ocean have we explored?
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Ocean Exploration: Uncharted Territory
Despite what you might think (and what you’ve might’ve learned about the Age of Exploration, imperialism and other eras in history involving substantial ocean travel), we’ve actually explored very little of the Earth’s expansive ocean.
In fact, more than eighty percent of our oceans are unobserved and unmapped.
Given advancements in technology over the last few decades and certainly over centuries, this certainly comes as a surprise.
Considering the ocean makes up more than seventy percent of Earth’s composition, this fact is even more shocking.
Sea travel has been an integral part of human society for a long time, which one would assume means we’ve seen all that there is to see when it comes to the ocean.
This simply isn’t true, though. We’ve only scratched the surface.
Why Has So Little of the Ocean Been Explored?
Truthfully, the answer is complex and multi-faceted.
First of all, it’s quite expensive and difficult to explore the depths of our ocean, even with the technology we’ve developed.
Using devices such as a sonar to generate maps of the seafloor, these maps can only be so effective on their own. In total, they’ve accounted for less than 10 percent of the global oceans that have been mapped (out of a twenty percent total).
Around the United States, sonar has mapped close to 35 percent of the coastal waters.
We have used nautical maps and charts to provide rough estimates of the ocean land that lays beyond our purview, but those are also subject to some scrutiny, since they can’t pick up on important features like shipwrecks and seamounts that can aid in measurements.
Developing proper underwater vehicles to be able to explore large swaths of the ocean has also proved elusive for scientists over the years.
Not to mention, the air pressure is extreme the further down you travel under the ocean. Think about what it would feel like to have 50 airplanes on top of you. That’s roughly how much air pressure resides under our oceans, way more than the human body can handle.
To give you another example of how difficult ocean exploration is, it would be easier to send someone to space where there’s less pressure and more visibility. And sending people into space isn’t always easy!
In tandem with poorer sunlight as your underwater depth increases, these factors have posed as significant roadblocks to ocean exploration that not even modern technology has figured out how to mitigate.
What Do We Know About Underwater Environments?
We don’t know very much.
Using modern technology, scientists can map water temperatures, color and sea levels. These are only surface measurements, however.
Deep diving suits are only equipped to be able to handle about 2,000 feet of underwater depth, which pales in comparison to some of the deepest parts of the ocean such as the Mariana Trench in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which is nearly seven miles deep!
This severely limits our ability to fully observe and explore the ocean floor and the types of life that reside there.
Will We Ever Explore the Whole Ocean?
With each passing year, we learn more about the ocean and what lies beneath it.
According to NOAA, progress is in fact being made on this front, especially as we’ve discovered new features, creatures, past indicators of ocean topography and other resources that have aided these advances in ocean studies.
We can count the number of species that live underwater (about 700,000 to a million, and almost 2,000 new species being accepted into scientific circles every year) and how much of the global seafloor we’ve mapped (and how much we still have to left to map), but we’ll never know the exact how much is left to explore.
This is because Earth’s oceans are expanding and changing every day, faster than humans can physically keep track of.
Our inability to reach the bottom of the ocean (for now) is what will ultimately hold us back. The air pressure and lack of sunlight pose two legitimate obstacles to true, unhinged ocean exploration.
Until technology is developed to the point where these obstacles can be avoided, or made less of issue, much of our oceans will remain unexplored.
Ocean Exploration: Final Thoughts
When it comes to the ocean and ocean exploration, it’s important to make the distinction between surface level and the ocean floor.
Over the years, we’ve sailed the surfaces of our ocean and have used our expansive water reservoirs to explore and settle new lands.
However, there is still much to be discovered about our oceans, particularly that which lies beneath the surface.
Technology may be advancing and some estimates can be made, but we have a long way to go until we can truly realize the full potential of the ocean and the entire ecosystems that call these large bodies of water home.
Humans have conquered land and sea surface exploration. Perhaps we ought to work towards ushering in a new Age of Exploration with the seafloor as our focus.