Mapping the Deepest Part of the Earth in the Mariana Trench

When Dawn Wright plummeted to the bottom of the world in an almost indestructible chamber, the Sable Abyss of the Sea reminded her of the vast darkness of the universe. I jumped into a point on earth that I had never dared to see. Her mission is to map part of the mysterious Mariana Trench.

“These are very hostile places, they’re not built for humans to live in,” says Wright, a marine geologist and principal scientist at Esri, a mapping software company based in Redlands, California. ‘ said. “But we now have the technology to explore these spaces.”

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In July, Wright made history by becoming the first black woman to descend more than 15,000 feet to Challenger Deep, the region of the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific and the deepest known point on Earth. Marine scientists like Wright have spent decades trying to create a picture of its dark and strange depths, with varying degrees of success. But her quest to conquer Earth’s watery void has the potential to reveal secrets about our own planet’s well-being and shed light on the secrets of other worlds. That’s why I chose to embark on the unknown universe of the ocean. All new discoveries made during the mission to Challenger Deep will contribute to her Seabed 2030 project, a United Nations initiative aimed at creating a public map of the world’s ocean floor by 2030.

“It’s like a postage stamp or a puzzle piece,” says Wright. “The puzzle is not complete until all the pieces are found and placed.”

discovered in 1875 by HMS Challenger, Challenger Deep is at the southern end of the Mariana Trench. The curved shape of this strait is considered a structural marvel. The entire trench lies where the Pacific tectonic plate subducts or bends under the Philippine plate. A recent mission focused on a relatively unexplored area of ​​Challenger Deep called the Western Pool. Its geology, rarely surveyed compared to other regions of the trench, was investigated to identify how its structure differs from other seascapes.

A map of the Mariana Trench showing a box highlighting Challenger Deep at the southern tip of the trench
Challenger Deep is at the southern end of the Mariana Trench. Jesse Allen/Center for Coastal and Marine Mapping, University of New Hampshire/NOAA

journey into darkness

The expedition was arranged and piloted by Victor Vescovo, former US Navy Commander and founder of the private subsea technology company Karadan Oceanic.Wright and Beskovo boarded a deep-sea submersible limiting factor, A commercial submersible with a compact titanium manning sphere, large enough to comfortably seat two adults.

The pressure on the seafloor is about 16,000 pounds per square inch, which is equivalent to flying 25 jumbo jets at their maximum weight, Wright said. A typical submersible usually descends very slowly to reach its target, but because it takes much longer time underwater to reach its destination at a normal pace, limiting factor It descended fairly quickly, at a speed of about 1-3 knots, or 1-3 nautical miles per hour. This is equivalent to an elevator descending in a residential building at a speed of 100-300 feet per minute. (In other words, the ride is pretty smooth.) A trunk pump stirs water into the empty chamber above the titanium hatch. If the water constantly pushes out the air, the submarine will sink into darkness. But not an uncontrolled fall. Thrusters on either side of the fuselage allow the pilot to move in any direction necessary to clear the seafloor.

A submarine hangs on a boat crane
Front view of the two-man deep-sea submersible, the Limiting Factor (also known as Triton 36000/2). With two people on board, she can dive to 36,000 feet. Karadan Oceanic, EYOS Expeditions

Once the submersible submerged on the ocean floor, it used sonar to capture a grayscale topographical image of the area. Normal sonar equipment does not work well at depths greater than 4 miles, which is still considered surface waters up to about 330 feet. But Wright, who was in charge of operating the tool as a mission specialist, says the sidescan sonar system they used was designed specifically for their submarine.. Compared to regular sonar, sidescan sonar uses two sound beams to create a higher resolution image of its surroundings, unlike the single cone-shaped sound beam that typical sonars use. Create a. Earlier this year, the same system was used to locate her sunken USS destroyer escort, Samuel B. Roberts. Wright’s expedition was the first to operate a system throughout the depths of the ocean, or to depths that humans had never gone before.

The rover descended into the Western Pool with a small lander and spent hours filming video of the cave and taking water samples. We were even able to observe the local ecology, including jellyfish, shrimp-like crustaceans known as amphipods, and plant-like organisms. A colony of animals called hydroids. During this microsurvey, Wright was able to create a detailed contour map of the area. This map will ultimately help scientists understand the health of our planet.

Undersea image of two white tubular sea creatures attached to rocks
A genus of two white tube-dwelling sea anemones Galateanthemum Found growing from basalt formations in Challenger Deep. Courtesy Karadan Oceanic

sea, sky and beyond

Today, less than 25% of the ocean is surveyed to the latest standards using modern ocean scanning technology. Having such a definitive, data-intensive map will allow scientists to learn more about how climate change is affecting the Earth’s ocean bodies. “Extreme weather around the world is mitigated by the ocean,” Wright says.

[Related: How a two-person sub and a repurposed Navy ship discovered the deepest shipwreck yet]

The oceans absorb about 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide, and without these essential carbon sinks, climate scientists say global warming would get infinitely worse. As such, the health of the ocean, especially its deepest depths, is an important indicator of irreversible global damage such as climate change.

“The more we know about these deep places, the more details we can learn about how these processes actually cycle,” says Wright.

A black woman in diving gear and a hat excitedly waves next to a man holding a rope in Substeady.
July 12, 2022, the lights on the day of the dive. Verola Media Courtesy

From space, it’s easy to see that Earth is primarily a water planet. Data collected from the deep ocean is helping scientists investigate Earth-like environments on alien oceans and nearby planets. For example, her Lia Siegelman, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, says that using the laws of the ocean to study the physics of other worlds can help us understand our place in the universe. provide a unique perspective for For example, using images captured by NASA’s Juno Her mission, Siegelman recently discovered how Jupiter’s polar energy system resembles Earth’s cyclones.

“By linking two geophysical bodies, we can ask questions about our planet,” she says. “This universality of things is what I find very challenging and fascinating.” As space and ocean technology will continue to develop in the future, Siegelman will one day use her knowledge to create a spaceship for Europa. We hope to have the opportunity to study and compare the marine habitats of distant icy moons such as and Callisto. “It will also help us better understand the intricacies of our universe.” opportunity,” says Siegelman.

But even back home, the vast ocean remains one of the most important habitats to explore. Wright hopes that her journey to the mouth of the earth will motivate others to follow in her footsteps and even follow in her footsteps: “They pave the way for them.” You can see me as the person who gave me.”

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