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. 

U.S. Navy

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.

NSF

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.

Marine Institute

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. 

Oman Observer

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.

Marine Institute

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.”

CBC

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. 

Shutterstock

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.

Third Monk

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.

Tim Schoon

Until then, what they do know is that the 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