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Sailors have been circling the high seas for centuries now, but what could be found beneath the sunlit surface of the ocean remained a mystery until much more recently. In fact, it was not until 1875, when the Challenger Expeditionthat humanity had its first concrete idea of the real depth of the ocean.
Today’s chart, another fantastic piece of xkcdis a unique and entertaining look at everything from the ice-encrusted shore of Lake Superior to the blackest and most inhospitable trench (now named after the expedition that first discovered it).
The chart is packed with detail, so we’ll only highlight a few points of interest.
Deep thoughts with Lake Baikal
Deep in Siberia, adjoining a mountainous part of the Mongolian border, lies one of the most remarkable bodies of water on the planet: Lake Baikal. There are a number of qualities that distinguish Lake Baikal.
Depth: Baikal, located in a huge continental rift, is the deepest lake in the world at 1,642 m (5,387 ft). This extreme depth contains a lot of fresh water. In fact, it is estimated that 22% of all the fresh water in the world is in the lake.
Age: Baikal (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is estimated to be over 25 million years old, making it the oldest lake on the planet.
Clarity: Interestingly, the water in the lake is exceptionally clear. In winter, visibility can extend more than 30 m (98 ft) below the surface.
Biodiversity: The unique ecosystem of Lake Baikal is home to thousands of plant and animal species. In fact, over 80% of these species are endemic, meaning they are unique to this region.
Who is Alvin?
Since 1964, a research submersible named Alvin has been helping us better understand the deep ocean. Alvin explored the wreck of the RMS Titanic in 1986 and helped confirm the existence of black smokers (one of the weirdest ecosystems of the world).
Although most of the ship’s components have been replaced and improved over the years it is still in use today. In 2020, Alvin received an $8 million upgrade and is now able to explore 99% of the ocean floor.
We know more about the surface of Venus than about the ocean floor. The potential for discovery is enormous.– Anna-Louise Reysenbach, professor of microbiology, PSU
The deepest point in the ocean
The deepest point in the ocean is the Mariana Trenchat 11,034 meters (36,201 ft).
This trench is located in the Pacific Ocean near Guam and the trench’s namesake, the Mariana Islands. While the trench is the most extreme example of ocean depths, relative to surface-level distance, its depth is shorter than Manhattan.
Obviously, the context of surface distance is very different from vertical distance, but it serves as a reminder of how narrow the “explorable” band of the Earth’s surface is.
The ancient Greek word, ábyssos, roughly means “unfathomable and bottomless gulf”. Although there is a bottom (the abyssopelagic zone comprises about 75% of the ocean floor), the enormous scale of this ecosystem is certainly unfathomable.
Objectively, the abyssal plain isn’t the prettiest part of the ocean. It’s almost featureless and lacks the panache of, say, a coral reef, but there are still very compelling reasons why we’re eager to explore it. Resource companies are primarily interested in polymetallic noduleswhich are basically manganese-rich formations scattered on the seabed.
Manganese is already essential in steel production, but demand is also being driven strongly by the growing market for electric vehicles. The first company to find a cost-effective way to harvest nodules from the ocean floor could reap a significant windfall.
Baby drill, drill
The demand for resources can force humans into very inhospitable places, and in the case of Deep water horizonwe’ve hunted for oil at a depth beyond even the famous Mariana Trench.
Drilling this far below the surface is a complicated business, and when the drilling rig was commissioned in 2001, it was hailed as an engineering marvel. To date, Deepwater Horizon holds the record for the deepest offshore hole ever made.
After rigging infamous explosion and subsequent spill in 2010, this depth record for drilling can stand the test of time.