Humankind’s curiosity about what lies up above in space has long outpaced its interest in what lurks beneath the surface of the Earth’s oceans. Such is the disparity that scientists today have more accurate maps of the surface of Mars than they do the bottom of the sea. Indeed, more humans have visited the moon than the bottom of the sea.
But humans would do well to learn more about what lies in the ocean’s depths—even if only to better understand what constitutes nearly three quarters of the Earth’s surface, the vast majority of which remains unexplored. Such was the case put forward by experts and industry leaders on Wednesday at the 54th annual World Economic Forum in Davos. The “Live From the Deep Sea” panel, moderated by TIME Editor-in-Chief Sam Jacobs, discussed the potential that existing technologies have to not only unveil the ocean’s unknowns but also address many of the man-made challenges that are adversely affecting Earth’s waters and the communities that rely on them today.
So limited is our understanding of the oceans that “we’ve only described about 10% of the species in the deep sea—as far as we know, because of course we don’t know how many species there are,” said David Obura, director of the Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean (CORDIO) East Africa, an organization that researches and monitors coral reefs of the Indian Ocean. Given the role the ocean plays in managing the Earth’s climate—both in its production of oxygen and absorption of carbon dioxide—he added that “we really need to understand the sensitivity and the wonder of the ocean in order to deal with the challenges that we’re facing through climate change and [in] trying to feed and sustain our planet in the coming years.”
The ocean constitutes humanity’s “biggest inheritance,” said Andrew Forrest, chairman and founder of mining and green energy firm Fortescue—an inheritance that he fears won’t be passed onto future generations, at least in its current form. “I want to see that the great explorers like [French oceanographer] Jacques Cousteau … have a really pristine, beautiful ocean to explore,” he said, “and that the industrial world doesn’t destroy it through lack of knowledge.”
Evidence of this destruction already abounds in the form of pollution, overfishing, and oceanic heat waves spurred by climate change. But part of the challenge in addressing this destruction is understanding the full extent of it—something that Jennifer Morris, CEO of environmental organization The Nature Conservancy, says existing technology can help with. “If we could see what we’re doing to the ocean, we would actually measure it and value it in a much better way,” she explained, noting that wider use of onboard electronic monitors on fishing vessels can help track—and, ultimately, reduce—issues such as overfishing and forced labor practices. She said that while some firms and countries have committed themselves to this kind of tracking, “it’s not happening fast enough. … We have the technology, but we’ve got to have the will to do it.”
Read More: Why We Need To Reimagine Our Oceans
Because humans are a land-based species, getting them to connect more intimately with the ocean and to care about what they cannot easily see can be a challenge. But here too, technology is playing a vital role. During the panel, in what was one of the few manned live broadcasts from the deep sea, attendees were able to hear from the Caribbean marine biologist and explorer Diva Amon, who joined the conversation live from a submersible nearly 350 meters below the surface of the Indian Ocean at the Aldabra Atoll, where she is examining the health of Mesophotic coral reefs off the coast of the Seychelles. The maps generated and data collected from the depths of the ocean are transmitted to the OceanXplorer, a 286-foot oil rig-turned-research-vessel that boasts the technological capacity to reach and study the Earth’s ocean floors using submersibles and remotely operated vehicles that can explore up to 6,000 meters deep.
Amon likened this broadcast to that of the 1969 broadcast of the Apollo 11 lunar landing nearly 400,000 kilometers from Earth. “Fast forward 54 years later, and here we are coming to you from about half a kilometer below the surface of the ocean,” she says. “What we’re hoping happens is that, just like in the last century that space exploration really just pushed people to be enamored with space, we’re hoping that ocean exploration—coming to you and sharing this last frontier of our planet, the deep ocean—really is going to inspire a new generation to care about the ocean.”
Investor Ray Dalio, the founder of the nonprofit ocean exploration initiative OceanX, says the ability to see the ocean in this way has already had a demonstrable effect. The release of the BBC documentary Blue Planet II, about 40% of which was shot from an OceanX vessel, prompted the British government to introduce changes to its laws concerning plastic pollution. “I believe that doing the science and then being able to show it and excite people so that people care and then they demand the things that we say we need to do,” Dalio said, “is an important path.”
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Write to Yasmeen Serhan / Davos at email@example.com