We have a problem in conservation biology (ok, to be fair, we have a lot of problems, but this is one of them). The biggest environmental challenges–climate change, ocean acidification, over-fishing, agricultural runoff, species invasion, and myriad other emergent issues–are global challenges. They respect no borders and require a cohesive, multinational response. Researchers, stakeholders, and conservation managers, on the other hand, are increasingly impeded in their work by more and more restrictive barriers to travel.
This isn’t new. The Global South has often been excluded from major international conferences hosted in European and American cities, which are expensive and hard to get to. Onerous visa restrictions from and to a multitude of countries have been in place for decades, but the events of this week have made it clear that scientific societies need to plan for and provide alternatives to a membership that may not be able to travel to a conference yet still need to participate.
On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.
Underwater robotics has come a long way since I started working on it in the early ‘noughts. From the massive industrial beasts of the old guard to the small, sleak, eminently hackable sprite of the Connected Exploration movement to this new crop of fully autonomous, decision-making and directive setting AI-powered drones of the last few years, everything keeps getting smaller, cheaper, and more capable. It’s a great decade to be exploring the deep.
Last month, we deployed our first swarm of artificially intelligent deep diving robots designed to patrol the abyssal plane, identify regions of unique biodiversity, and recommend critical ecosystems for international protection in advance of biomining operations. What’s unique about this project is that we’ve assigned all decision-making authority directly to the swarm. They get to decide where in the world they go and how and when they sample. This came after years of debate and negotiation with stakeholders from science, conservation, and industry, and has been accepted through international agreement as the most unbiased and equitable solution to the challenge of getting groups with vastly different goals to agree upon dividing up the deep. Read More
Building the Remote Lee. Photo by Andrew Thaler
James Cameron’s triumphant dive and (equally important) return from the Challenger Deep is a landmark achievement. In 62 years, only 3 people have ever visited the bottom of the Mariana Trench. While budgets for scientific exploration have been cut across the board, Cameron ponied up tens of millions to build only the second human-occupied submersible capable of reaching those depths. But the Deepsea Challenger is not the only visitor to Challenger Deep in the last few decades. In May, 2009 the ROV Nereus plumbed the depths of Challenger Deep. More than a decade before that, Kaikō, a Japanese ROV, became the first unmanned vehicle to reach into the Mariana Trench and return with video, sediment, and biological samples during several return trips.
And, while Alvin is in drydocks and human-occupied submersibles are tragically being mothballed across the country, more remote operated vehicles are exploring the ocean than ever before. They are being built and run by scientific institutions, private firms, public universities, high schools, industrial corporations, and individual citizens. My lab mate and I built one last winter, for fun. And while I agree with Al and Craig at Deep Sea News that ROV’s are not as “sexy” as human occupied submersibles, that is a marketing problem, because, like it or not, ROV’s are the real masters of deep sea exploration. If your goal is to learn as much as possible about the deep ocean, if you want the biggest return on your investment, if you want to involve a huge and diverse exploratory team, the ROV is king.