Under Pressure

Published Jun 30, 2023

Jess speaks from her experience conducting deep ocean research to answer questions raised by UCS scientists and staff about the recent disasters of the migrant ship sunk in Greek waters and the implosion of the Titan submersible.


I want to start this special episode by sending condolences from the Union of Concerned Scientists to the families, friends, and colleagues of the more than 500 people seeking asylum who died on June 14th when their crowded ship overturned in Greek waters, and the 5 people who lost their lives in the catastrophic implosion of the Titan submersible on June 18th. Both events sparked global news coverage, and the Titan implosion received an enormous amount of coverage and has provoked intense discussion of adventure tourism, scientific exploration, and deep sea operations.

While UCS doesn’t directly conduct deep ocean research or humanitarian aid work, our work here does intersect with the use of submersibles to collect data on radioactive or environmental contaminants in the oceans, and with the use of undersea research for quantifying and comprehending climate change.

I’m Jess Phoenix, and this is a special episode of This Is Science.

I have a personal interest in undersea research. In 2008, I was invited to participate in a National Science Foundation-funded deep sea scientific research cruise to study iron-oxidizing microbes with a group of geobiologists, microbiologists, and a few geochemists. Now, I’m very much a fan of scientific field work. Getting out into the world and cracking rocks open with a hammer, sampling flowing lava by hand, and taking helicopters over active volcanic eruptions were my reasons for getting up in the mornings.

The ocean, though, is wildly more hostile of an environment than even the tallest volcano. To collect samples of the iron-oxidizing microbes for the biology team and to retrieve deep sea lava rocks for the geochemists, we needed a way to perform delicate grabbing and lifting maneuvers at depths of 5,000m – or over 3 miles below the ocean’s surface. The tool we used to get the job done was the Remote Operated Vehicle (or ROV) Jason2.

Jason was designed specifically to remove many of the hazards of crewed submersibles like the famous Alvin, and it gives scientists the benefits of excellent imagery, strong robotic arms, and bottom times of more than 24 hours. Jason is physically connected to its research vessel via a 10km (or 6 mile)- tether that carries power, commands, and data between the ROV, its “brain” Medea, a separate but essential craft that dives along with Jason, and the support research vessel. 3 people are required to pilot Jason, Medea, and the support ship in real-time. Scientists watch the dives and help make sure the research goals are achieved. The first iterations of Jason were operational back in the 1980s, so while it receives upgrades periodically, its fundamental technologies aren’t new.

So why am I telling you all of this? In part, it’s because deep ocean research is so remote from most peoples’ lives…even the lives of most scientists. The only environment that I think is directly comparable in terms of difficulty is space. It’s possible that the ocean seems less hostile to most of us than space, because we can swim, boat, and vacation on the ocean.

As every person who has worked in scientific exploration of the world’s ocean knows, there are very real, very severe penalties for treating the sea with anything less than a 100% focus on safety 100% of the time. On the cruise I worked on, one of our colleagues died. He had a heart attack, and we were only 14 miles off the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. The crew did everything humanly possible to save him, but no rescue helicopter could come. It took literal hours to pull the ROV off the seafloor, and by the time the ship could move our colleague was beyond help. It was absolutely devastating.

On the same cruise, one of our main research tools suffered a catastrophic failure. The piece of equipment is called an “elevator” and it is a large platform equipped with containers to hold samples that Jason collects under water. It is made of steel and has a tower that emerges from the center of the platform. The tower is equipped with ballast weights that Jason will remove when the sampling is done, and the top of the tower houses 2’ diameter glass balls encased in thick yellow plastic. When the ballast is discarded, the glass balls enable the elevator to rise to the surface, where the research vessels can retrieve it and the precious samples it carries. On one elevator deployment, everyone on the ship heard or felt a noise, and the ship seemed to rock as if a large wave had hit it broadside. Jason eventually found the elevator on the seafloor, where it was little more than a tangle of twisted steel. It seemed that one of the glass balls had ruptured, which caused a chain reaction that ruptured all 8 of the balls. Fortunately, neither Jason nor the elevator was carrying any human crew. We escaped unscathed, and a backup elevator helped complete the cruise as planned.

Research cruises have very rigidly defined roles. The ship’s crew handles all onboard safety including safety around launching Jason, Medea, and the elevators. The scientists are responsible for ensuring research chemicals like nitrogen are handled and stored properly. Good communication is key, and so is knowing when to back off and let the experts in each task do their jobs. One mistake in the vastness of the ocean may be all it takes for someone to lose not only years of research, but potentially human lives.

These cruises aren’t cheap, either. I asked one of Jason’s pilots how much the submersible cost, and he told me it was about 7 million dollars. The National Science Foundation had an officer on board, and I asked him how much it cost to operate the cruise daily. He said $100,000 per DAY. We cruised for over 3 weeks, so you can do the math.

Funding for scientific research is precious, and the scientists I’ve worked with have taken great care to make sure funding dollars are spent wisely. Getting that money to do research that improves our fundamental understanding of our planet and how it works is difficult. There isn’t enough money allocated to cover ALL of the critical research that needs to be done. As I’m sure many of you know, projects with military, public safety, or profitable applications tend to receive more money than those that appear to be purely scientific. What that means is that when a scientist or research organization is fortunate enough to receive funding for their studies in extreme environments like erupting volcanoes or the deep ocean, you’d better believe they’re going to go out of their way to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

So, let’s talk about the Titan. I asked my colleagues at UCS to send me their questions about deep sea research, the media coverage of the event, and what the loss of this submersible and her passengers means for scientific exploration.

Dr. Rachel Cleetus, Policy Director in UCS’ Climate and Energy Program, referenced the media coverage of utterly tragic deaths of hundreds of migrants on a ship in Greek waters that received a relatively small amount of news time when compared with the coverage of the Titan during the days it was missing and afterwards. She asks, “What is wrong with the world that some people register as important, as real humans, and others are just disposable?”

Now I don’t have the final answer to this question, but I think it has much to do with our very human inability to process disasters of the magnitude we saw with the migrant ship. It’s easier for our brains to see pictures of 5 individuals and process their names and stories than it is when the group is referred to only as a dehumanized block…”migrants” or “asylum seekers.” It’s also very likely that there’s a human instinct to gravitate to things that have the potential for a positive outcome. While the Titan was missing, it became a sort of Schroedinger’s sub…the people inside were both alive and not in society’s collective consciousness for days. With the migrant ship, we heard the reporting simultaneously with reports of the death toll, which kept rising with each update. Of course, there’s also the glam factor. Rich people visiting the most famous shipwreck in the world in one of the planet’s harshest environments is much more appealing for the public to discuss than it is for us as societies to reckon with our failed immigration and humanitarian policies.

My colleague Dr. Dylan Spaulding, Senior Scientist in our Global Security Program, echoed the sentiments of many I’ve seen in the scientific community since the tragedies. He writes, “I think there is good reason to debate the role of private companies in these spaces where research is both expensive and inaccessible.” He goes on to point out that rich people can potentially democratize access to environments like the oceans or space, but that often the research value may be slim to none and leans more towards adventure tourism. This could have implications for fragile field sites and environments that have become focal points for elite ecotourism like the Galapagos or Antarctica.

That’s certainly a valid concern, as good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes. It’s really important to make ethical decisions around research, and to carefully examine what even constitutes research and where the dividing line between tourism and research lies for each endeavor. From my perspective as a scientist, research produces demonstrable, quantifiable gains in information about or understanding of a subject and is undertaken for the purpose of enhancing knowledge. Can tourism be combined with research expeditions? Yeah, I believe so, but it is incumbent on the scientific organizations directing the research to ensure the safety and integrity of all participants, scientific and commercial, as well as the safety and integrity of the location and research subjects. It’s not enough to get people there and back. You have to minimize risk and minimize harm to the greatest possible extent.

Another line of questions comes from Dr. Sulgi Park, who is also a Senior Scientist in our Global Security Program. She asks what is the deepest we can explore using available technology, and what about using emerging ones like plasma drilling?

Humans are not known for backing down from a challenge, and exploring the deepest parts of the ocean is certainly a big one. It’s appropriate then that the deepest part of the ocean in the Mariana Trench is called the Challenger Deep, and both remotely operated and crewed vessels have conducted research at depths around 10,900 meters, or over 6.7 miles deep.

We’ve actually been able to peer beneath the ocean floor using drills, and one of the most prominent scientific efforts in that area is the International Ocean Discovery Program, or IODP. I’ve had the privilege of touching a core sample obtained by an IODP cruise that contained the actual K-Pg Boundary layer, (formerly known as the K-T Boundary) which is evidence preserved in the rock record of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which is the one that did in the dinosaurs. This layer is characterized by a high content of iridium, one of the rarest elements in Earth’s crust. Thanks to deep ocean exploration, I could literally put my finger on the “smoking gun” that shows why the only dinosaurs left today are birds. As far as plasma drilling, it’s a potentially game-changing deep drilling technology that allows drilling to be done without direct contact between the drill and the rock. Plasma drilling uses ionized gas at over 6,000 degrees Celsius or 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit to crack the rock into pieces. It has potential applications for geothermal energy, which makes it likely to receive attention in the next few decades.

I want to wrap up with a question from Margo Dunn, our Associate Director of Digital Engagement. Margo writes “This has long been a question in academia at least, but since we study what can get funded, and more and more wealth consolidation means more funding power in fewer hands, what impact does that have on science – are we only studying what funders think is important? Are we going where the science takes us or where the funding leads?”

Margo, you just nailed one of the important concerns of science in the 21st century. There has always been a conflict between the research that needs to be done (as much as possible, if you ask me) and the research that actually happens. Research isn’t cheap, and that’s even truer when you’re working in hostile environments. As someone who has planned remote expeditions, I’ve had to account for everything from horse thieves (make sure someone on the team has a gun) to diarrhea (make sure you bring your own antibiotics). Everyone has to eat, have places to sleep, and be equipped with the right safety gear to do their job, and that’s before you start getting into scientific equipment. Some of it is as simple as having a $30 rock hammer, and other times you’ll need to figure out how to schlep a rented, very fragile $100,000 gravimeter through a jungle on your back, or…you know, take a submersible to the bottom of the ocean.

Of course, it’s much easier to get funding for the “sexy” or highly visible research. Whether the work could lead to profits can also influence what gets done. This is evident in how much money gets poured into breast cancer research versus lesser known, childhood cancers like Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a brainstem cancer in children that is incurable. Many more of us know someone who has been impacted by breast cancer than by DIPG. Both are equally worthy of research, but equal funding just isn’t there. The same is true across the sciences, which means that as scientists and research organizations we must must MUST do our best to carefully steward every dollar of funding we do get.

This is also why I and many other scientists have made the focus of our careers communicating the realities of science to the public. For a long time, scientists have been cut out of the public conversation for fear of being seen as political, which could lead to censure and ostracization as in the case of Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb and subject of an upcoming major film. Because of the history of science and scientists not having a voice in the conversation when it matters most (for example, about the dangers of tobacco use or the realities of climate change), we have to prioritize responsible science communication to ensure the public, private donors and foundations, and government decision-makers understand why what we’re doing matters.

To wrap this up, I just want to underscore the importance of deep sea research, and the critical, absolutely essential need to prioritize SAFE, scientific undersea exploration above all other objectives, scientific or otherwise. It doesn’t matter what you find in those vast murky depths if you don’t get a chance to share it with the world. Good science comes with a great deal of responsibility, and it is my fervent hope that we never see the marvelous, mind-blowing feats of human ingenuity that allow us to explore the farthest reaches of our planet…and our universe…as safe, boring, or anything less than relentlessly demanding and overwhelmingly awe-inspiring.

To all those who have lost their lives to the ocean venturing forth into the unknown in search of sanctuary in a foreign land, fulfilling a duty to their god or country, or following the quest for knowledge of our world, I leave you with this bit of T.S. Eliot’s poem East Coker.

“We must be still and still moving Into another intensity For a further union, a deeper communion Through the dark cold and the empty desolation, The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.”

We’ll be back July 11th with a full episode of This Is Science. Until then, take care and be well, science lovers.