Much of the Earth remains unexplored
“Earth” yes has always been an odd choice of name for the third planet from the Sun. After all, an alien studying it through a telescope would notice that two-thirds of its surface is covered not by land at all, but by oceans of water.
Because humans are animals that carry the land, most of the Earth is still under research. Marine biologists believe that the oceans could host more than 2m species of marine animals, and they have so far recorded a tenth of them. Mariners like to point out that scientists have mapped almost all of the Martian surface, but less than a quarter of the sea floor.
A new campaign hopes to change this. Launched in London on April 27, Ocean Account aims to discover 100,000 new species of marine animals over the next ten years. It is supported by Nekton, a British marine research institute, and the Nippon Foundation, Japan’s largest charitable foundation. Her first ship, the Norwegian icebreaker Kronprins Haakonsailed on April 29, on to the Barents Sea.
The campaign is currently underway for two reasons. One is that the longer scientists wait, the less there will be to catalog. Climate change is heating the oceans, as well as making them more acidic as carbon dioxide dissolves into the water. Already about half of the world’s coral reefs – which are thought to be home to about 25% of the ocean’s species – have been lost. Oliver Steeds, founder and chief executive of Nekton, says one of the priorities of the Ocean Census is to catalog species thought to be most at risk from climate change. Otherwise, he says, the danger is “the forest burning down and not knowing what was there before.” [it] was lost.”
The second reason is technological. Marine biologists discover about 2,000 new species each year, a rate that hasn’t changed much since Darwin’s day. The Ocean Census is betting it can go faster. “Cyber taxonomy”, for example, includes feeding DNA sequences from animals to computers, which can quickly decide whether it is a new species. The ability to describe new creatures, as well as simply catalog them, has also improved. Flexible cameras on remotely operated vehicles, for example, allow scientists to take laser scans of deep-sea creatures such as jellyfish without removing them from their habitat. Just as the great pressures of the deep sea are deadly to humans, bringing such a shell to the surface for examination reduces it to gooey slime.
The Ocean Census is not the first attempt to systematically study life in the oceans. The Census of Marine Life, which began in 2000, was a ten-year effort to discover new species. The Global Ocean Sampling Expedition, which ran from 2004 to 2006, aimed to record microbial life in the sea by sampling waters from around the world. (It was financed by Craig Venter, a biologist-cum-entrepreneur, and he did it on his personal yacht.)
It is impossible to predict exactly what the new effort might reveal. But history suggests that it will be fruitful. Fifty years ago scientists discovered hot vents on the sea floor that were home to organisms that lived happily in conditions that, until then, were considered hostile to life Today, these vents are one plausible candidate for the origin of all life on Earth.
There are also more practical benefits. Many drugs, for example, are derived from biological compounds. An ocean full of uncatalogued life will surely be a rich seam from which more can be mined. One type of sea snail, Conus maguswas recently discovered to produce a pain killer 1,000 times more powerful than morphine.
To help make use of its data, Ocean Account plans to make it freely available to scientists and the public, who will be able to scour it for anything useful or surprising. The point of searching, after all, is that you never know what you’ll find. ■
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