The Tech/Environment Balance

The ocean is an ever present part of my life. I’ve almost always lived next to it (sometimes on islands), I’ve often played in or around it, and I’ve always been aware of how vast it is and how little we know about it, with an estimated less than .05% really mapped and understood — we know more about the surface of distant planets than we do about the ocean. The ocean is a place that’s dear to my heart, but also, of course, critical to the global environment; the vast majority of CO2, for example, is actually processed by marine organisms, not by trees and plants on land (which is not an argument against the continued existence of trees and plants on land, as they offer numerous other benefits in addition to snacking, so to speak, on CO2 (yes, I understand how photosynthesis works)).

This is one reason why seafloor mapping is so critical. We need to understand what’s going on there, for both directly applicable reasons and more abstract scientific ones. What happened during the formative millennia of Earth’s current configuration? What lives down there? What’s it really like in the depths of the ocean? Where do all of these strange and wonderful creatures come from? What sorts of things lie hidden in the silt? Which conditions are ‘normal’ for the ocean, and which are not? It’s especially critical now, as we see the global climate in flux, to understand the ocean’s role, and how the ocean is shifting in response to climate change — and the ocean may hold keys to understanding the history of global shifts in climate.

An initiative last year radically expanded the scope of seafloor mapping, offering new details with a resolution and depth we hadn’t had before. Researchers used satellite altimetry to create detailed maps, taking advantage of the face that structures deep beneath the waves exert their own gravity. While the results aren’t visible to the naked eye, there are in fact bumps and troughs on the ocean’s surface that can be attributed to, well, what lies beneath.

The science behind it is absolutely fascinating, and it improves the scope of imaging significantly. Instead of having to rely on towed arrays and imperfect satellite images, the researchers could take advantage of multiple broad altimetry passes to perform detailed surveying. The equipment and technique is likely to improve in coming decades, allowing for more and more detailed images. From a scientific and nerdy perspective, it’s supercool. The researchers found seamounts and dead volcanoes and signs of seafloor spreading and all kinds of things they had never seen before, even in areas they thought they knew well. It’s like a realisation of my ultimate dream: Opening the refrigerator, whose contents you thought you knew well, only to discover a plate of pad thai.

The more detailed mapping, however, came with a dark side. Better maps mean, well, better maps. Which is fantastic for the oil and gas industry.

Oil and gas companies rely on mapping to identify areas of potential future exploration, taking advantage of a wealth of engineering research to pinpoint the target areas most likely to be productive. With imprecise mapping, much of the ocean remains impenetrable — it’s not worth the effort to survey, run exploratory wells, and hope a site comes up with something, even with the escalating cost of oil and gas and the dwindling known reserves.

But when someone else does the mapping for you, and helpfully releases it in a published paper, the rules of the game change. Much of the surveyed area, of course, is far below the reach of existing oil and gas equipment — you can’t drill in the Mariana Trench. But other areas can reveal themselves on maps like these, which provide a detailed review of seafloor topography, cutting through the layers of silt and right to the heart of the seafloor itself. Moreover, as oil and gas equipment and technology improve, the oil and gas industry will be able to expand the scope of its work, and there the maps will be, waiting, providing insight into the best places to exploit for their hidden wealth.

Clearly, this could have serious potential repercussions for the ocean. The existing state of oil and gas exploration in the ocean is rife with leaks and other problems, aside from the horrific Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010. While technology is improving out of a sense of social responsibility and in response to public scrutiny, it has a long way to go, and as it stands now, there’s no guarantee (and there may never be, because engineering may be precise but it’s never perfect) that the ocean will be completely protected. A single misfit gasket, a defective part, a broken seal, an inattentive rig worker…it doesn’t take much.

From a scientific perspective, this research is amazing and important and should be discussed. Even from an environmental one, it has tremendous merit — knowing what’s going on in the ocean provides so much insight into the global environment, climate, geologic history, and more. Yet, both environmentalists and scientists should be concerned about the potential for the abuse of this research. As freely available as it is, and as important as the public discussion may be, it also leaves a gaping opening to precisely the industry that may play a large role in the ocean’s demise, both directly and indirectly. That is a tragedy, in a world filled with many tragedies, and it creates an awkward doublebind. I don’t think this research shouldn’t have been done, or should have been hidden from public view, but the results are undeniably more complicated than the publication of fascinating information and the techniques used to uncover it.

Image: Ocean Beach, Christopher, Flickr