Mapping the deepest point on Earth in the Mariana Trench

When Dawn Wright descended to the bottom of the world in an almost indestructible room, the abyss of a sable in the ocean reminded her of the darkness of the vast space. In the depths of the Pacific Ocean, Wright dove to a point on Earth that few humans have dared to focus on. Its mission: to map a slice of the mysterious Mariana Trench.

“These are very hostile places, and there is no place where humans are made to live,” says Wright, a marine geologist and chief scientist at Esri, a mapping software company based in Redlands, California. “But we now have the technology to explore these spaces.”

[Related: Inside Five Deeps’ record-setting quest to reach the bottom of each ocean]

In July, Wright made history by becoming the first black woman to descend more than 35,000 feet into the Challenger Deep, an area of ​​the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean and the deepest known point on the planet. Marine scientists like Wright have spent decades trying to map its dark and eerie depths with varying degrees of success. However, the quest to conquer the watery void of Earth has the power to reveal secrets about the well-being of our planet, and shed light on the mysteries of other worlds. That’s why Wright chose to embark on the unknown ocean world. Each new discovery found during the Challenger Deep mission will contribute to Project Seabed 2030, a United Nations initiative that aims to produce a publicly available map of the entire world’s ocean floor by 2030.

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

Discovered in 1875 by HMS Challenger, Challenger Deep is located on the southern end of the Mariana Trench. The curved shape of this ocean valley is a structural marvel: the entire trench is located where the Pacific tectonic plate erupts, or bends, and sinks below the Philippine plate. The last mission has been narrowed down to a relatively unexplored area of ​​Challenger Deep called Western Pool. Its geology, which is rarely exposed compared to other areas of the trench, has been surveyed to see how its structure differs from the rest of the seascape.

Challenger Deep is located on the southern end of the Mariana Trench. Jesse Allen/University of New Hampshire Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/NOAA

Journey in the dark

Victor Veskovo, former commander of the US Navy and founder of the private undersea technology company, Caladan Oceanic, arranged and led the flight. Wright and Veskovo climbed into the deep immersion vehicle limiting factorAnd the Commercial submarine with a compact titanium hull is large enough to comfortably accommodate two adults.

The pressure at the ocean floor is about 16,000 pounds per square inch, Wright says, the equivalent of 25 jumbo jets flying at full weight. Typical submarines usually descend very slowly to reach their target, but because it would take a long time to reach their destination far below the surface at a normal pace, limiting factor It descended fairly quickly, at a rate of about one to three knots, or one to three nautical miles per hour. This equates to an elevator landing at about 100 to 300 feet per minute in an apartment building. (In other words, it’s a very smooth ride.) Trunk pumps pump water into an empty chamber above the titanium hatch, and as the water continually pushes air out, the submarine descends into darkness. But this is not an uncontrolled fall: thrusters on each side of the craft allow the pilot to move in any direction required to clean the sea floor.

A submarine hanging from a crane on a boat
Front view of the two-person deep immersion vehicle, Limit Factor (also known as Triton 36000/2). It can dive to 36,000 feet while carrying two people. Caladan Oceanic, Eos Expeditions

Once at the bottom, the submarine used sonar to take gray topographic images of the area. Ordinary sonars don’t work well for more than four miles, which up to 330 feet deep, is still considered a surface ocean. But Wright, who was in charge of operating the instrument as the mission specialist, says the side-scan sonar system they used was specifically designed for their submarine.. Compared to regular sonar, side-scanning sonar uses two beams of sound to create a high-resolution image of the surroundings, as opposed to the single-cone sound beam that typical sonar uses. Earlier this year, the same system was used to discover the sunken USS Destroyer Escort Samuel B. Roberts, the deepest shipwreck ever found and correctly identified. Wright’s expedition was the first to operate the system to the full depth of the ocean, or as deep as humans ever went.

Down in Western Pool, the craft, along with a small lander, spent hours videotaping the cave, sampling water, and even spotting native biologists like jellyfish, shrimp-like crustaceans known as amphipods, as well as plant-like plants. Animal colonies are called hydroids. During this precise survey, Wright was able to create detailed oceanic maps of the region that will eventually be used to help scientists understand the health of our planet.

Picture of the sea floor of white tubular sea creatures attached to a rock
Two white anemones living in the tube of sex Galatheanthemum Found growing from a basaltic rock formation at Challenger Deep. Courtesy Caladan Oceanic

The sea, the sky and beyond

Today, less than 25 percent of the oceans have been surveyed by modern standards, meaning using the latest ocean survey technology. Having such a specific and data-intensive map helps scientists learn more about how climate change is affecting Earth’s marine bodies. “Extreme climate all over the world is tempered by the ocean,” Wright says.

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

The sea absorbs about 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide — and without these basic carbon sinks, climate scientists say global warming would be infinitely worse. This is why the health of the oceans – especially its furthest sources – are important indicators of irreversible global damage, such as climate change.

“The more we know about these deep places, the more we know the details of how these processes are actually spinning,” Wright says.

A black wetsuit woman waving a hat excitedly next to a man holding the ropes firmly to the submarine, while lowering into the submarine
Wright on July 12, 2022, Dive Day. Courtesy Ferrola Media

From space, it’s easy to see that Earth is essentially a watery planet. Data from the depths of the ocean helps scientists explore alien oceans and other Earth-like environments on nearby planets. For example, Lia Siegelman, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, says that using the laws of the ocean to study the physics of other worlds provides a unique perspective for understanding our place in the universe. For example, using images taken by NASA’s Juno mission, Siegelman recently discovered how Jupiter’s polar energy system resembles hurricanes on Earth.

“By connecting two geophysical objects, you can ask questions about our planet,” she says. “The universality of things is something I find very rewarding and wonderful.” As space and ocean technologies continue to evolve in the future, Siegelman hopes to one day have the opportunity to use her knowledge to study and compare ocean habitats for distant icy moons, such as Europa or Callisto. Finding connections to distant oceans in our solar system and galaxies beyond could also help researchers better understand the intricacies of our universe. “It’s such a great time to be an oceanographer that you can probably, soon, look at ocean circulation on other planets or other moons,” Siegelman says.

But back home, the vast ocean remains one of the most important habitats to explore. Wright hopes her journey to the Earth Mau will motivate others to follow in her footsteps and beyond. “They can look at me as someone who paved the way for them.”

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