The future is underwater
A trip to Mars?
Today, an international team of scientists (an international six-man crew consisting of one Russian, one Frenchman, one Italian-Colombian and one Chinese) was been locked into a set of windowless steel capsules for 520 days to take part in a simulation of a flight to the planet Mars, by subjecting them to the cramped, stressful conditions of interplanetary travel. This is part of President Barack Obama’s goal of sending astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s. Inside the labyrinth the crew members will undergo a vigorous regime of exercise and scientific experiments, all the while monitored by scientists on the outside. Their only communication will be via delayed Internet transmissions.
The concept of sending humans to Mars is pretty exciting, I must admit. On the other hand, I am not sure what we can learn by sending humans to Mars that we can’t learn by sending robots to Mars. It is certainly an impressive, and very expensive, feat to put humans on Mars. It was also an impressive and expensive feat to put humans on the moon, and what we found there, was rocks. I’m not sure that there’s anything humans can find on Mars aside from more rocks (these ones are red), and possibly traces of water – both of which properly programmed robots can find and bring back to Earth.
The unexplored underwater
Where I really think we should start putting our money is underwater. There’s a lot more than rocks underwater (though there are those too), and generally I believe that the future of the human race will be found in the oceans. This isn’t to say that we’ll all be living down there (though some of us will). We may still spend our time on land breathing oxygen like we were meant to do, but that doesn’t mean that a good portion of how we eat, and how we do what we do, won’t take place underwater. Maybe even a majority of it.
Energy from thermal vents
At the bottom of the world’s oceans are a series of commonly found hydrothermal vents, giant cracks in the planet’s surface from which geothermally heated water flows. These are commonly found near volcanoes. Ironically, hydrothermal vents are also said to exist on Mars.
Hydrothermal vents have as of late been exploited for their mineral deposits. In certain cases, large deposits of massive sulfide ore have been found by hydrothermal vents, and mined appropriately. What I believe these vents will be exploited for in the future is the energy they will be able to provide mankind. Hydrothermal vents, which as I have mentioned are very common, serve as a nearly endless source of flowing, superheated water. Energy can be harnessed from these vents both from the flow of the water, and from the temperature of the water that flows. All that remains to be worked out is how to harness that energy, and how to transport it to the surface with minimal loss of energy.
Some ecosystems have been reliant on the energy coming from hydrothermal vents for millions of years. While most life relies around the energy coming form the sun, there are ecosystems below the sea that thrive without the need for any solar energy at all. Some even say that life first originated in these systems. Living off these energies is not hard to imagine.
Food from the deep
Food from the deep can come from numerous sources, but here are two good ones: From fish, and from seaweed.
Fish are abundant in the oceans – in fact, it is estimated that there are 5,000 fish species, and hundreds of thousands of other marine life forms in our waters that are yet to be discovered. Not to say that we need more species of fish to eat – simply that, as they say, there are plenty of fish in the sea!
Nature presents to us natural fisheries, in the form of vortices of water (or eddies) that form off the coasts. These eddies are rich in nutrients and, in some cases, contain natural fisheries; fish are attracted to the nutrient-rich waters and will live, spawn and die within the eddies. Some say that the eddies are one of the factors of success behind the success of salmon in the open ocean. It’s not hard to imagine maintaining natural fisheries in these eddies, into the future, supplying a great deal of food for humankind.
Edible seaweed is another resource as of yet largely untapped, though cultures in Japan, China and Korea have been eating seaweed since prehistoric times. One type of seaweed, Nori, has the highest protein compared to other seaweeds, and is also rich in calcium, iodine, iron, phosphorous, potassium, manganese, porphyran (whatever the heck that is), copper, zinc and vitamins A, B, C, E and K. Granted, it doesn’t taste super on its own, but I am sure that in the future we’ll have found a way around this – or, due to population concerns, a necessity to put up with the taste for the sustenance it provides.
In the future, seaweed will likely play an important role in the diets of many cultures, even outside of Asia. It’s easy to grow and extremely abundant, and would be simple to farm.
Oxygen from water
Electrolysis is the process of splitting water into its molecular components of oxygen and hydrogen. In the future, this process will likely be used to create hydrogen for powering vehicles and for creating fresh oxygen in polluted cities or in underwater communities. While the process is not an efficient process today, scientists have been developing newer, more efficient methods to pull oxygen from water. As techniques improve, the concept of powering underwater bases using power from the solar, wind or geothermal energy becomes more and more realistic.
It is my hope that, while our nations rightfully spend money to explore the cosmos and discover our future in space, they also spend money figuring out the ways to take advantage of, while respecting, those amazing resources that are our vast, largely unexplored oceans. We will see incredible opportunities in our future to harvest our oceans for energy, food, air and water – all those things we need to live – while doing so in an environmentally responsible way.
I look forward to it!