Strange Frontiers, So Close to Home


An icebreaker in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. | Courtesy Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation

The marine scientist Cassandra Brooks has put together a really amazing time-lapse video, taking less than five minutes to show two months of progress aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer, an NSF icebreaker, in the frozen Ross Sea. It is well worth a watch.

In an upcoming episode of Fw:Thinking, we're going to talk about the future of exploration. The most obvious future frontier is, of course, space -- the final, the farthest, and the most dangerous. But it's worth remembering how much of our own planet is purely alien and almost totally inaccessible to us. To cross a frozen Antarctic sea and study open-water polynyas like in Brooks' video, you need an icebreaker vessel, which has to have a reinforced hull and an extremely powerful engine -- some polar icebreakers have on-board nuclear power plants to generate enough thrust to push through the ice. No joke. Check out the points in the video where the ship has to repeatedly back up and re-gather speed to cut the shelf.

But Antarctica isn't the only place on earth hiding secrets behind a wall of inaccessible terrain and deadly environmental conditions. Literally most of the planet could be put into this category. Think about the oceans: Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the surface of the earth. And how much of the oceans have we explored? Almost nothing. According to marine experts like Sylvia Earle and Bruce Robison, definitely less than 10 percent, and probably less than 5 percent of the world's saltwater environments have been seen by human explorers. In one of these interviews, Robison adds the qualification that if we're talking about "having actually laid eyes on it out the window of a submersible or looking through a scuba mask, [it's] probably less than 3 percent." And why? Some of the holdup is the same thing that keeps most would-be ice tourists out of southern polar seas. It's just a harsh, dangerous world -- these conditions are striving with great vigor to kill you and to destroy your equipment. At the bottom of the ocean, for example, you've got to deal with a lack of oxygen, freezing temperatures, complete darkness and enough water pressure to crush your body (or a poorly made submersible) like a peanut shell. Deep sea exploration is dangerous, and because it's dangerous, it's expensive, and because it's expensive, it's rare. So rare that most of the great waters are left untouched.

You can look at this in two ways: It's either sad and frustrating, because the lack of exploration impedes conservation efforts and scientific research, or it's exciting, because there's so much left for us to discover -- without even leaving our atmosphere. While we're busy wondering whether or not there's unknown alien life in other corners of the galaxy, it's easy to forget there are hidden places on this planet where we more or less know there is, and it's just waiting to turn our ideas of the limits of Earth-bound life upside-down.

Is there any place on Earth as thoroughly unexplored as the deep ocean? Probably not, though I wonder to what extent you could call places like the roasting core of the Sahara desert "explored" -- land that has, in large part, probably been traveled at some point in history by very brave or suicidal people, but it remains mostly uninhabited and there seems to be a lot left to learn about it. For instance, it was only a few years ago that the 100-million-year-old Kebira crater was discovered. It's currently considered the biggest crater in the Sahara, and it wasn't discovered by fieldwork, but by studying satellite imagery. Considering how hot the central Sahara gets, it's easy to forgive researchers for relying on images taken from space.

What other terrestrial habitats might hold as many mysteries? Feel free to leave ideas in the comments.