Energy, News, and Climate / Science / Technology

MH 370 and the case for oceanic observation

Despite the human race perceiving the seas as the ‘first frontier’ since the establishment of our species, NOAA estimates that 95% of the world’s oceans remain unexplored. From what you know of satellite capabilities and many of the resources you’ve seen on this very blog, this statement might be confusing and even unbelievable. But I assure you, the oceans are bigger than you think, and temporal variations in our dynamic Earth can make the little we do know about them irrelevant within decades.


NOAA’s map of geographical surveys of the world’s oceans. Even at a global scale, there’s plenty left unexplored. Think about how empty this looks if you zoom in!

You may posit an appropriate question – why is knowing about the oceans important? In the case of MH 370 and our relative ignorance of the body of water it most likely crashed in, I would say that a functional oceanic observation system could have done wonders for the search. When compared with the fact that we can identify a Boston Marathon bombing suspect amidst mountains of chaotic surveillance footage, the realization that a submarine can crash into a seamountbecause it didn’t know it was there is frankly ridiculous. If more was known about our ocean systems, tragedies such as these could be avoided with a quickness.

We’ve already written one article about MH 370, with a glimpse into the effect of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch not just on the search for this plane, but also for the grander ramifications of holy crap why is there so much trash in the ocean. These are very important concepts, and it follows again, that maybe if so much of our ocean didn’t fall into the ‘abstract abyss that no one talks about’ category, maybe the sheer amount of litter in the sea wouldn’t have come as such a surprise. My point being, ocean observation should be on the to-do list of any scientist or politician worth their weight in salt. We are accumulating information about our oceans, but at a snail’s pace. With more data about ocean circulation, seafloor topography, and general geographic water quality, the oceans could become a source of scientific knowledge rather than a black hole of sea hydras. Grand strides are already being made on the east coast in the form of the oceanographic observation system SEACOOS: a network of ocean observers who compile their localized data to create a relatively large scale perspective on oceanic behavior.

Our marine sciences department recently had a speaker whose self-proclaimed ‘dream’ was to establish such a network of global oceanic observatories. I agree that this goal is important to advance scientific inquiry. The obtaining of relevant data is often the major hurdle of scientists trying to do science. But an idea like this shouldn’t be framed in a sense of academic progress – that’s way too exclusionary. Oceanic observation needs to happen because we live on this planet. We interact with it, we change it, and on occasion, we lose ourselves in it. The only way to find ourselves again is to know where we stand – or in the case of the oceans – float.


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