There are few places on Earth as dangerous as the Arabian Sea. Surrounding nations seem to war endlessly, and pirates with a propensity for violence patrol the waters, searching for loot and treasure. These conditions have long kept scientists and researchers far, far away.
Well, technological advances recently gave those with curious minds a chance to see below the Gulf of Oman’s depths for the first time. What they saw, however, was far worse than what they expected. In fact, their discoveries caused scientists to fear for the longevity of the aquatic ecosystem — and the human race itself.
The Gulf of Oman is located in the Arabian Sea, just south of Iran and north of Oman. The gulf (also known as a strait) makes up about 65,000 square miles of the sea and is approximately 2.3 miles at its deepest. It’s also incredibly dangerous.
This water is heavily used as a shipping route. It’s the only way to transport oil from the Persian Gulf and is the only water entrance from the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. This has long made it a point of contention for those in the region.
Ali Mohammedi / Bloomberg
Take all that, then add the invasion of Iran by Iraq and the North-West Pakistan conflict, and it’s no wonder scientists have steered clear. No one wants to explore in the midst of political turmoil.
On top of the political violence, the Gulf of Oman and the surrounding waters are known for piracy. With the area of interest being so vast and deep, scientists needed extensive time in the strait for their research. That just wasn’t possible — until now.
Pxhere via RT
Thanks to advances in technology, scientists saw an opportunity to change history. This tech allowed researchers to perform and collect extensive data while also staying far away from any known danger zones.
With this technology in mind, scientists with the England University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Sultan Qaboos University hatched a plan to study the waters of the Gulf of Oman. They would be some of the first to do so in over 50 years.
First, the UEA and the Sultan Qaboos University compiled what little existing data they could find about the region. There were some long-standing concerns about the water they wanted to investigate.
Bastien Y. Queste / Twitter
The team, led by UEA’s Dr. Bastien Queste, used two underwater robots, also known as Seagliders, to enter the dangerous Gulf of Oman. These two robot submarines were unmanned and controlled by a remote control above sea level.
Dr. Sergey Piontkovksi / Sultan Qaboos University
These were the perfect bots for the job. The Seagliders can dive more than 3,000 feet! They’re also better at collecting data and can stay submerged for much longer than human divers.
While deployed, the Seaglider scanned the water and then collected the crucial new data. When that was done, the information would be transferred back to the scientists via satellite.
The two underwater robots traveled the Gulf of Oman for eight months collecting data. Scientists were interested in oxygen levels in that part of the Arabian Sea and how that oxygen travels throughout the water. The Seagliders were the key to getting that information.
Dr. Sergey Piontkovksi / Sultan Qaboos University
As the scientists slowly began to receive the satellite data, they expected to see lower-than-average levels of oxygen — but not as low as the results they got! The alarming data was consistent across the board for a total surveyed area that was the size of Scotland.
The data showed that about 63,000 square miles of the Gulf of Oman were nearly depleted of oxygen, making it a dead zone. Dr. Queste said, “The Arabian Sea is the largest and thickest dead zone in the world.”
Oxygen is vital to aquatic ecosystems, yet scientists have been discovering dead zones like this one all over the world. Tragically, it’s believed that there are approximately 95,000 square miles of oxygen-depleted waters on the planet right now.
According to scientists, dead zones usually occur at depths between 650 to 2,600 feet. But climate change and various environmental factors can cause dead zones to be much worse than even that.
Josh Haner / The New York Times
As the climate changes and the Earth’s temperature rises, the oceans are heating up, and warmer water contains less oxygen. Worse still, when low-oxygen water is processed, nitrous oxide is produced instead of carbon dioxide, and that’s 300 times more harmful to our atmosphere.
Dr. Queste explained, “Our research shows that the situation is actually worse than feared and that the area of the dead zone [in the Gulf of Oman] is vast and growing. The ocean is suffocating.”
Bastien Y. Queste / Twitter
Dead zones don’t just pose a threat to wildlife. If the oxygen in the world’s oceans become “dead,” then people who rely on the ocean for food and employment will be drastically affected.
Robert K. Brigham
But hope isn’t lost. Past research has used computer simulation to predict the expansion of dead zones, but not with great accuracy. Now, with Dr. Queste and his team’s research, a clearer picture may be possible in the future.
Until then, what they do know is that wildlife is trying to adapt to these changes. This often leaves them confined to smaller, unfamiliar strata. In the end, will we be able to use this data to prevent world catastrophe? Only the future knows.
U.S. Geological Survey / Flickr
Even with all of Dr. Queste and his team’s research, it won’t be enough to reverse climate change. Plenty of other crises are erupting throughout Earth’s waters, though innovators are coming up with ways to turn the tide. Look at the Great Barrier Reef, for instance.
As the largest reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef is a natural wonder, home to thousands of species. Tragically, though it is an essential part of our global environment, it is slipping away more and more each day.
Sunlover Reef Cruises
Global warming poses the biggest threat to the reef. As the Earth’s temperature climbs, many of the organisms there simply cannot survive. The implications are bigger than almost anyone can imagine.
The most visible side effect of the heat is coral bleaching. Unfavorable temperatures force the coral to shoot off the algae that sticks to it and helps keep it alive. While the bleaching looks chillingly beautiful, it results in nothing but mass death.
Before long, the coral dies along with most of the ecosystem. Scientists discovered that over half of the Great Barrier Reef is now decimated. Though modern technology is largely to blame, some machines are fighting this dangerous trend.
The New Yorker
Roboticist Matthew Dunbabin, left, unveiled a plan to start making the Great Barrier Reef a safer place for coral. He proposed that they start small and target one of the nastiest natural threats under the sea.
Unlike other dwindling species, the crown-of-thorns starfish was doing just fine. The venomous animals feast on the coral and rapidly multiply, becoming one of the few reef populations to actually grow.
Thanks to a $750,000 grant, Matthew developed a means of keeping these vicious predators at bay. In 2014, he proudly debuted the RangerBot, an underwater android that looks like a toy submarine. However, it’s anything but a toy.
RangerBot’s computer can easily identify crown-of-thorns starfish from a distance, but it also packs a punch. Months earlier, scientists learned that certain types of mammal bile are poisonous to these reef predators.
So, Matthew loaded RangerBot with the bile and equipped it with an extendable needle. Once it located a starfish, the robot could inject the serum into each of its twenty arms.
With just a few pokes, RangerBot would administer a swift demise to the starfish! Brilliant as the idea was, maneuvering the robot was tricky. And if Matthew missed any of a starfish’s arms, the beast would survive.
Even the groundbreaking technology behind RangerBot couldn’t save the reef. Stopping the starfish wasn’t a comprehensive enough solution, that much was clear. Matthew asked his colleagues for some help.
His friend Peter Harrison, a marine ecologist, assured Matthew that RangerBot was far from a lost cause. Maybe they could start using it differently. For example, what if the robot gave life instead of death?
Peter had been studying a strand of heat resistant coral, species that could theoretically survive the areas most affected by climate change. Once artificial intelligence pinpointed the hardiest types of this coral, divers went in to collect samples.
Meanwhile, Matthew made some upgrades to his precious creation. Instead of unleashing its deadly needle, the robot would travel along damaged sections of the reef and emit tiny coral organisms.
Matthew and Peter dubbed it Larvalbot. Using the heat resistant specimens gathered from other parts of the world, hopefully, their submersible would be able to repopulate reefs everywhere. By 2018, it was ready for its first test.
LarvalBot made its maiden voyage at Vlasoff Reef, not far from the northeastern coast of Australia. Its basic systems all appeared to be functioning properly, but then the moment of truth arrived.
Once it reached the ideal spot, the robot dispersed coral spawn all over the damaged reef. Its tank empty, Larvalbot made its way back to the surface. All Peter and Matthew could do was wait.
Initial signs were encouraging. The baby coral organisms settled in, but truth be told, it is still too early to judge whether the operation is a success. Researchers need more time to determine if the new population will survive.
But if the coral population does start to bounce back, Matthew and Peter have an aggressive plan for Larvalbot. They hope to deploy millions more spawn all over the Pacific, and there’s no time to lose.