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Interview: Oceanographer David Gallo Answers Your Questions 22

A while ago you had a chance to ask oceanographer and Director of Special Projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, David Gallo, about the mysteries of the deep and the tech we're using to get there. Below you'll find his answers to your questions.
by syphax

What's the most chilling thing you've observed underwater? By "chilling," I mean: some really weird-looking, previously unknown creature, remains of the Titanic, a squid attacking an ROV, etc. By "observed" I mean either directly, by video, or by evidence (e.g. ROV with large sucker marks)

Gallo: Almost every time we get a peek beneath the sea there something that fits your description of “chilling”. People think science is unemotionalbut much of what we do is also pure exploration. Exploration means you have NO idea what’s just outside the lights of the robot or submarine. I’d have to say that in my experience some of the most “chilling” moments were during our exploration of TITANIC and the seafloor around the wreck. When you look at the boat deck, or bow, or through any of the portholes you can’t help but wonder what happened there so many years ago. Still gives me a chill just thinking about it.

Beneath the Beneath?
by eldavojohn

Something that has often perplexed me is fossil distribution through time and tectonic shifts. For example, one can go to the middle of North America and find sea fossils. So, perhaps with your knowledge of what happens to things in the deep, are there untold fossils lying under the seabed floor? Perhaps a localized population of what once used to be land animals situated such that we have never seen these fossils at the vast bottom of the Pacific Ocean? If you can fill me in on why this is or isn't possible (I have no idea what plate shifts do to the top layer or what effects untold pressure has on fossils), I would be extremely interested! Thanks!

Gallo: t’s definitely possible..and probable. In fact there is a recent report of a “new continent” in the Indian Ocean

There are lots of fossils buried in the sediments of the sea. Most are marine plants and animals. Right next to land there should be fossils of land animals. One of the challenges is finding where ancient shorelines used to be. Over time sea level has gone up and down hundreds of feet. Some of the ancient shorelines are now deep beneath the waves.

The fact that we are still finding big chunks of continent that are now at the bottom of the sea means that there might well be fossils of all sorts of creatures that we don’t know about. Plate tectonics shows us that the face of the earth is always changing. Continents are moving around and as they do mountains and oceans are created and then destroyed. There’s plenty of mystery and stories hidden in the deep blue sea for sure.

Charnia an other ancient extremophiles
by BeCre8iv

What are the chances of finding precambrian life or its descendants in the deep ocean?

Gallo: Well, just think about Coelacanths, the “fossil fish”. They were thought to have gone extinct since about 65 million years ago but VOILAno one told them that.

The only thing I will say about “chances” of finding ancient life is that it’s definitely possible. It wasn’t that long ago that we discovered hydrothermal vent communities. We’ve explored less than 10% of the oceans, but in that 10% we find the worlds greatest mountain range, tallest mountain peaks, deepest and widest valleys, underwater lakes, rivers, and even underwater waterfalls. Even more bizarre is that in a deep, dark, hostile environment where we thought there should be no life at all, we find communities of animals that rival the tropical rainforests in diversity and density. One thing we know for certain is that there is life in even the deepest parts of the oceans. Life on this planet wants to happen.

So, I ask youwhat’s in that other 90%? Did we find all the exciting stuff? I can’t predict what animals we’ll find but I promise that the next decade will be an exciting one for ocean exploration. Already Jim Cameron’s dives into the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean (and to the deepest spot on Earth) have revealed all sorts of new species of life.

by Bayoudegradeable

Have you noticed any affects of acidification of the world's oceans?

Gallo: Ocean acidification is one of the most serious issues we are confronted with today. The oceans absorb more than 1/3 of the carbon dioxide human activity releases into the atmosphere. Some of that carbon dioxide reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid, which makes life unpleasant for lots of creatures. Think of it this way: over time human activity has changed the chemistry and temperature of seawater. Anyone with an aquarium knows that if you change the chemistry and temperature of the water you’re asking for trouble.

I haven’t personally noticed any affects of acidification but the data coming in almost all point to the need to take steps to change our habits or suffer the consequences. When you come right down to it, we humans need to understand that everything we do has an impact on the environment and there are consequences to our actions, both good and bad. Is that news? Yes, it’s news because we used to think that the oceans were “too big to fail”. Guess what, they aren’t.

On one hand we can party ourselves into oblivion by uncontrolled exploitation of the sea and on another hand we can love this planet by making decisions based on emotion rather than facts. The wise move would be to recognize the consequences, understand the trade-offs, and minimize our impact on the oceans and atmosphere.

by thereitis

Over time, have you seen the effects of the world's dwindling shark population?

Gallo: I’m not a shark expertbut I have lots of friends that are, and what they tell me is frightening. Apparently humans have decided to wage war on sharks. It’s a big mistake. Sharks play and incredibly important role in the ocean food web. Any idea how many sharks we kill every year? 100 million. 100,000,000. On average that’s more than 250,000 sharks EVERY day.

Here’s a recent article about the very issue.

Even though I haven’t personally seen the effects of the world’s dwindling shark population, it’s very clear to biologists that we are disrupting the oceanic food web and that will spell big trouble in the future.

Sunken ships drifting underwater?
by twosat

Many years ago, when I was aged about 12, I recall reading about a ship that had sunk and was drifting around underwater. I have heard about shipping containers doing this sort of thing, but I was wondering if you had ever seen a ship or a boat drifting around underwater.

Gallo: This is one of those things I think about whenever I’m out at sea. A friend once told me that he was on the deck of a ship that was basically sitting in the same location far out to sea. He noticed a large flock of birds circling an area of water. With time the birds got closer and closer to his ship, eventually they were all around the ship he was on. He looked down into the water to see if they were feeding on fish and what he saw made the hair on his neck stand on end. There, completely beneath the waves was an old wooden sailing ship that was apparently being pushed along by currents. As this ship passed beneath him he could make out the deck, the hatches and what was left of the masts and rigging. There were all sorts of fish that were going along for the ride as well. The whole story creeped me out but its something I always keep in mind while out at sea.

Alvin replacement?
by dj245

Back in 2008, WHOI was working with Lockheed and the American Bureau of Shipping in developing a replacement/successor to the Alvin submarine. What happened to that project and how will WHOI develop its underwater exploration capability in the future?

Gallo: As I write this the newly upgraded ALVIN is aboard the Research Vessel ATLANTIS and is off the northwest coast of the U.S.. It’s been a long road but we are finally on the verge of a new era in ocean exploration. As you know, ALVIN is a part of the National Deep Submergence Facility and carries 3 people several miles deep into the ocean. Aside from the passengers, the submarine carries a science payload of sensors, sampling gear, and imaging systems. Even though the basic ALVIN design has been around for decades, there is every reason to believe that ALVIN will remain the most productive human occupied deep sea exploration vehicle on earth for a long time to come.

As you are probably aware, in addition to ALVIN the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has recently taken delivery of James Cameron’s Deep Sea Challenger submarine. Jim’s dive in this vehicle, to the deepest region of the Mariana Trench means that there is no place beneath the sea that is beyond human reach. The entire ocean is now open to human exploration. To compliment the human presence we also have the robotic vehicle NEREUS. NEREUS has also visited the Mariana Trench.

We are entering a new age of undersea exploration – one in which the deep-sea presence will consist of humans and robots working together complementing each other’s capabilities. At Woods Hole Oceanographic we have a suite of remotely operated vehicles, autonomous vehicles, drifters, gliders, and more, each capable of carrying a suite of sensors into the deep.

More recently we have just formed the Center for Marine Robotics (CMR), which is designed to facilitate the creation of the next generation of robotics and promote the use of robots to solve real world needs. You can read about CMR here.

ROVs and AUVs
by GonzoPhysicist

It's very difficult for me to see a reason for send human beings exploring when the state of remote and autonomous systems is improving so rapidly. What organizations and platforms show the most promise in this field and where is the most improvement needed?

Gallo: Great question. If it’s all about data. then robotic systems are your clear winner. There’s no way humans in a submarine can really compete (on paper anyway) with a properly used suite of robots. Robots can stay longer, carry more sensors, move faster, survey precise lines, etc etc..

HOWEVER, if it’s about inspiration and making the best use of the human brain, I think the human presence is the way to go. “Being there” may be inefficient and the benefit may be intangible, but to me there is no substitution. Think of it this way. It’s the same reason we still go to live sporting events or concerts. You can get a MUCH better view and probably sound from the comfort of your couch, but there is something about being there in person that is positively fantastic. It may be important to explore everything with robots, but it’s just as important to supercharge human curiosity and experience. Plus, I don’t know any young people that want to be robots when they grow up. So, I’m conceding that robots are fantastic and will revolutionize our view of the deep, but to me that means the human presence to interpret what it all means is all that much more important.

We are still looking for radical breakthroughs in power, propulsion, navigation, telemetry, etc etc etc.. Any advantage we can get against the physics of seawater would be welcome. Most people don’t realize that the ocean is deep (average depth 2.5 miles), dark, and hostile (the pressure at depth crushed TITANIC the same way you can crush and empty paper cup in your hand). At Woods Hole we have formed the Center for Marine Robotics (CMR, see preceding question) to accelerate the pace of innovation. There are new ideas coming from all sorts of new entities. Just to name a few the Wave Glider from Liquid Robotics Inc., the OpenROV robotic kit, and even James Cameron’s Deep Sea Challenger Submarine are all in there own way surprising, disruptive and very welcome advances in ocean exploration.

Challenger DEEP's Future Mission
by minibnz

I saw an announcement that James Cameron has donated the Challenger Deep Submarine to WHOI, As one of the lucky people to work on this vehicle during its construction, here in Australia, I was wondering if you can tell us if there is any plans to use this Awesome Machine to explore any other parts of the planets Oceans. or is it destined to sit on display in a museum? I know how much hard work went into that machine, it would be a shame to not use the MOST Capable deep sea diving vehicle on the planet, to its fullest potential.?

Gallo: We are indeed the proud custodians of James Cameron’s Deep Sea Challenger Submarine. What an incredible privilege to take ownership of Jim’s amazing dream come true. Jim’s solo dive into the deepest part of the Marianas Trench was a spectacular achievement. We need to stop thinking of JUST the submarine and that historic dive because I think what Jim and his team accomplished was even more important. In effect, by diving successfully into the deepest spot on earth they have opened up the entire ocean to human exploration. One of the reasons Jim chose Woods Hole to take custody of Deep Sea Challenger is precisely because he knows it won’t just “sit on display in a museum”. We have already had several meetings with Jim and his very talented team and in fact have already used components of the Deep Sea Challenger System on one of our expeditions. I think that as we continue to share knowledge and ideas back and forth with Jim’s team, we’ll develop an entirely new approach to extreme deep exploration. More likely than not I think that ultimately a new set of vehicles will emerge. I’ve mentioned the Center for Marine Robotics (CMR) several times but I haven’t said that Jim Cameron has joined the advisory board. and that almost guarantees that whatever we do will be revolutionary. I can tell you that Jim and his team are now hard at work on the Avatar series BUT Jim promises that before too long he’ll be back piloting Deep Sea Challenger again.

Human Ocean and Sea Habitability Possibilities
by Tha_Big_Guy23

Having watched the show SeaQuest as a teenager, and recognizing the participation from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (For the first season anyway), I wanted to ask about the feasibility of humans actually inhabiting the oceans and seas as depicted in the television series. I realize that the technology to bring the ship itself to reality is quite a bit ahead of where we are now, but do you think it's possible in the near-future that humans will begin to colonize the oceans?

Gallo: I can tell you that if we set a goal to colonize the oceans, we will get that done. The scientific and engineering talent definitely exists. The question is, why? Right now there is a good deal of land that is available for human occupation and frankly we are mismanaging the land we presently occupy. We can do a lot better. Specifically we need to understand that the atmosphere and the oceans are our lifeblood and if we change the chemistry and temperature of either or both (and we have) we are asking for trouble. I can think of reasons we might want to, or need to, move into the sea, but it would be pretty costly. I hope, before we get to that point, we decide it’s in the best interest of humans to think as a species on a tiny planet rather than as competing nations. To me our greatest threat is our own arrogant and ignorant behavior. That being said, here’s an interesting, but maybe useless bit of information. If you give everyone on earth (7 billion people) an airline seat (12 cubic feet), you can fit everyone comfortable into a box (cube) that’s one mile on a side. I knowpopulation is more nowbut the point is that we are like microbes on this planet and just like microbes we have managed to make the planet “sick”.
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Interview: Oceanographer David Gallo Answers Your Questions

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  • by FilmedInNoir ( 1392323 ) on Wednesday August 07, 2013 @12:53PM (#44498981)
    Why did Sea Quest only last 3 seasons? And that 3rd was like, WTF! High-tech submarine pirates and Michael Ironside? Really? :P
  • (comment aimed at the editors, not the contributor, who just needs a new space bar)

    People think science is unemotionalbut

    Charnia an other ancient extremophiles

    t’s definitely possible...

    ...a “new continent” in the Indian Ocean [full stop goes here]

    VOILAno one told them that.

    So, I ask youwhat’s in that other 90%?

    I’m not a shark expertbut I have lots of friends that are

    Sharks play and incredibly important role

    its something I always keep in mind

  • There, completely beneath the waves was an old wooden sailing ship that was apparently being pushed along by currents


    I've heard of this as well. But it usually turns out to be a wreck floating very low in the water. Or someone passing over a sea mount with a wreck atop it. How can one tell that its the submerged ship slowly moving in the current and not themselves?

    • GPS?
      • by PPH ( 736903 )


        Perhaps. But Gallo's account didn't make the time frame of the account clear. Perhaps pre-GPS. I Googled for this and didn't find anything after a short search. I'd think such an observation in modern times would warrant numerous pictures and perhaps a log entry with position.

  • I thought the /. community was better educated. Oceanography has nothing to do with most of the questions asked. Acidification, yes! Sharks, not so much... I missed the original question phase, or we would have had a few more on point questions: 1. What do you think about geo-engineering. Do you think its plausible, if not possible to artificially target open ocean prochlorococcus growth as a way to increase CO2 absorption, and if so, what do you think the risks would be? 2. The recent work in Infraso
    • This scientist understands the emotion that moves people. While I am very much concerned with the chemistry of the oceans, if it weren't for things like the animals (sharks) and creepy ghost ship stories (humans being a part of the ocean historically) nobody would much care about the ocean including myself.

      And then you go on about future for whales. What, do whales deserve attention but not sharks? I guess I just do not follow your train of thought here.

To write good code is a worthy challenge, and a source of civilized delight. -- stolen and paraphrased from William Safire