Mars blows. With so much recent hype and excitement about popping a rover on over to our rusty neighbor, we seem to be overlooking a couple of important points. First, Mars is crappy. It’s cold; the air is, well, not air; and most importantly, there are no attractive scientists actually on Mars. Sure, there are the massively important technologies that we have developed as a byproduct of space exploration to get excited about. Space program spin-offs have given us LEDs, temper foam, grooves in the road, and freeze-dried food. OK, that last part sounded really exciting before I read it out loud. Anyhoo, Mars exploration could provide a mess of dimly lit, red-desert landscape photos for computer desktop backgrounds. It may divulge powerful revelations about our place in the universe. It might even give us evidence of life on other planets, which would be awesome because, well, ALIENS! But none of these are what we are really looking for. No my friends, what we are looking for is what Mars’ friendly neighbor has in spades: water.
Yep, turns out that the stuff that makes our home a different primary color is one of the most important combinations of atoms in the universe; at least to life as we know it. Add it up in large quantities, and you get (surprise!) oceans. The oceans are what inspired the caption “Blue Marble” for one of the first and most famous photographs of our little blue planet, taken in 1972 by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft. The oceans and the tiny plants that call them home regulate the temperature and composition of our atmosphere. 50 – 80% of the oxygen that we breathe comes from plant plankton. The oceans are the birthplace of life on our planet, as well as the origin of a troubling of drunken sailor stories. Groups of drunken sailors, and stories about them come in a troubling; like goldfish. …I’ve just decided.
OK, troubling sailor stories will have to wait.
It’s in the Water
Water is weird stuff. Good old H2O is a polar molecule (science speak for having a weak opposing charge at either end of the molecule), which gives it properties that cause it to have some funny ways about it. Water is sticky, corrosive, holds heat really well, is a great buffer, and it expands when it freezes. This last part is where water doesn’t behave like the other kids at molecule camp. When the molecules of most substances get colder, they contract like the body of my great grandmother; but not water. The shape and polarity of water molecules cause it to expand when it freezes. Any white-trash college boy in a hurry has learned this when he stuffed his Hamm’s (Kokanee, Coors, Foster’s) in the freezer to cool it off quickly, only to find that it has exploded when his last brain cell reminds him that he has forgotten about it. This seems common enough since everyone knows that the ice cubes in your cocktails float. Mmmmm, cocktails…
Oh, so umm, ice in the ocean also floats! If sea ice became dense when it froze, it would sink, which would cause it to pile up on the seafloor and freeze everything above it. This would create an uninhabitable frozen wasteland; reminiscent of that Goth girl you dated when you were 17. So water’s weird ways are fundamental to supporting life on Earth. Also, a shower of it might just wash away the frigid reminders of your dating career.
Etymology: From the Greek okeanos the great river surrounding the disk of the earth. The Greeks didn’t get out much, and thought there was a river surrounding the only landmasses they knew.
Temperature Range: 100°F (38°C) – 28.4°F (-2°C)
% Earth surface cover: 71%, so most of it.
Pressure at deepest point: 1,086 bars (15,750 psi)
Taxa represented: all of them
% Explored: 9%, what!? Ok 7%, or somewhere in between, depending on who you ask
There Be Monsters
If you look at Earth from just the right angle, there is no land in sight; one half of the planet is ocean. Look at it from the opposite view, and almost half of the other half is ocean. Isn’t it ironic that we have named our home after the dirt part that only covers about ¼ of its surface? Yeah, I really do think.
OK, shake off your memories of the lame parts of the 1990’s, and ask yourself:
“What the heck is in all that water?”
“I know. So?”
“No one knows…”
Seriously. The oceans make up around 90% of the available living space on Earth, but we’ve only explored an estimated 7-9% of them. For all of the maritime commerce, transportation, recreation, science, and troubling sailor stories, we’ve barely paddled the surface of the largest habitat in the known galaxy. Every time science dips its toe in the oceans, we find something new and important. Just when we thought we understood how life on the planet works, the oceans throw us for a loop. It was once thought that life could only be supported where there is sunlight for plants to grow and support a food web. Most folks learn that photosynthesis in plants is the basis for life on the planet in elementary school science classes. It turns out that toxic sulfur compounds spewing from volcanic fissures in the deep sea can be converted into sugars by bacteria that live there, and can support thriving ecosystems. In case you missed that last part, I said:
Hordes of deep-sea squishies grow big and strong on volcano juice!
Through a process called chemosynthesis, organisms flourish around deep-sea hydrothermal vents by incorporating bacteria into their own tissues, which feed them by converting these toxic chemicals into food. This process supports entire ecosystems, that we newcomers to the evolution game thought were impossible. This sounds bizarre until we remember that roughly 3 billion years ago, before we had cockroaches, rednecks, and Spam, the Earth was a roiling ball of nasty chemicals. Somehow the first gobs of glorp came together to form amino acids, cells, and finally the very first life on our planet. Life originated in the oceans. It makes sense that somewhere in the deep dark depths, there would be living things that are adept at making the most out of the Earth’s noxious exhaust. Despite all of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans have served as an evolutionary reservoir for living things to start again. Since the dawn of natural selection, life in the ocean has been reinventing itself over the eons into the stuff of maritime legend. With so much of the ocean that remains unknown to humans, who knows what they’ve been growing down there?
Science knows a little…
The Doctor is in (the Ocean)
If a real live Kraken, sea serpents, and ALIENS! aren’t enough to tickle your claspers, then how about curing cancer? Humans have been conjuring medicines from terrestrial nature for centuries, yet the oceans have remained relatively untapped. Cold temperatures, crushing pressures, and our unfair inability to breathe underwater make it a difficult place to explore. Advances in diving technology, genetics, and microbiology are opening up a treasure trove of possibilities for medicine, textiles, and a line of spin-off technologies that may make freeze-dried food look positively unappetizing. Current marine-life-derived medical applications include; compounds from sea squirts, sponges, and bryozoans for treatment of various cancers and tumors; compounds from gorgonians (kind of like a colony of sea anemones) to reduce swelling and accelerate healing; pain killers from cone snails; sponge compounds used in AIDS treatment; vitamins from microalgae; and corals and mollusks used to make cosmetic and orthopedic surgical implants. With so much left unexplored, we stand to gain a lot by investing in ocean exploration over space exploration. The oceans have been cooking up critters with complex biochemical defenses and processes for survival, that we’ve barely begun to comprehend. From fishes that live at temperatures below freezing and immortal jellies, to symbiotic mating and having one’s gender determined by whether or not you land in the mud as a baby; we consistently discover new innovations in the sea both terrifying and beautiful.
Beauty is Really Deep
Not convinced? It is estimated that up to 80% of all life on the planet lives below the waves. The oceans are home to the blue whale, the largest animal ever to live. They contain the longest mountain range on Earth, the Mid-Ocean Ridge, which is continuous throughout all of the oceans and spans a distance of 65,000 km (40,400 mi). The oceans regulate the temperature and composition of our atmosphere, and act as both a heat and carbon sink. Worldwide fisheries provide us with the greatest percentage of protein consumed by humans. Ships carry the majority of trade between countries. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth, and can be seen from space (maybe even from Mars). Then, there’s the view. No, not that sexy scientist in the wetsuit; the ocean view. Something in the human mind is simply attracted to blue. We are attracted to water and to oceans. Almost half of our population lives within 90 miles of a coast. For us, the ocean reduces stress. The term “ocean view” imbues a 50% increase in premium on everything from dining and food service, to hotel rooms or property. We just like them. Come to think of it, everyone looks just a little sexier in a wetsuit.
Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message
It is a scientific marvel that humans have been able to put a rover on Mars. Really. It’s red, and rocky. It has a big red mountain. Seriously, it’s a really big mountain. …that is red.
The waters that make our little marble in the galaxy blue, contain the secrets and the fuel for life. Until we truly reach the stars and find out otherwise, it is the only life we know of. The oceans are literally the engines of our planet. Let’s take care of them, so that they can take care of us.
Now sing about trouble!
This is clearly dedicated to my favorite blog: Why? Because Science. Its author/genius mastermind (and sometimes pen pal) Thea Beckman has taken an unbearable hiatus due to continued learning opportunities. If you haven’t read it, you should. Bestowing her the highest honor in the words of my people, “Her has a good brain.”
Sometimes in the morning, I think of poor Thea Beckman at home in Cape Town, and I panic when I realize that there’s a darkness covering half of the planet that’s headed her way.
Dear Hagfish, I’m so sorry. I got distracted. Soon, so soon.