The vast expanse of water that covers more than 70% of the Earth is a place of mystery and wonder. In recent decades, technology has opened up the ocean like never before. Deep-sea submersibles can now take people to the ocean’s cavernous depths; autonomous vehicles are mapping a geology that humans have only dreamed of exploring.
The ocean is vital to life on Earth, regulating temperature and producing half of the world’s oxygen through photosynthesis by marine plants. It provides major shipping routes and is an important resource for minerals, fish, and other goods. Scientists are working to understand the ocean and its role in the Earth’s system, and to preserve it for future generations.
In the past, oceanographers had to travel to the ocean in ships that sailed from one coast to another, or by diving with scuba gear to explore the seafloor. Now, scientists use sophisticated robotics to study the ocean and record underwater sounds and images. A National Geographic Explorer and biorobotics expert, Marcello Calisti, for example, is developing an underwater robot that moves in a manner inspired by octopus locomotion. This type of robot can move quickly and efficiently through the ocean, avoiding obstacles while gathering data.
But robotics offer only a snapshot of the ocean, and scientists need instruments that can sample the ocean continuously. Researchers have developed a suite of sensors that can do everything from measure water temperature and acidity to image plankton to record whale calls. These tools are critical to understanding the health of our planet’s largest ecosystem.
Scientists are also trying to understand the effects of human activity on our oceans. The ocean absorbs a significant amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and this process is making the water more acidic. This changes the water’s pH and binds up carbonate ions that corals, oysters, and other shelled organisms need to build their skeletons. This is known as ocean acidification, and it is an equally serious threat to the ocean as climate change.
Human activities such as fishing, oil drilling, and chemical pollution are also affecting the ocean. These pollutants reduce the amount of oxygen in the water and kill marine plants. They also cause the degradation of seafloor habitats, such as coral reefs, and they increase the temperature of the ocean. This thermal pollution leads to the deaths of animals and plant life that cannot adapt to higher temperatures. This is a huge threat to ocean biodiversity. In order to combat this, governments and organizations have begun establishing marine protected areas (MPAs). But these MPAs need more funding to be effective. Without them, the future of our oceans will be in jeopardy.