In case you missed it, watch the recording of this live event and check out more ocean exploration resources.
On November 4, 2021, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History offsite link, and NOAA hosted "Windows to the Deep – Live Conversations on the Blake Plateau." This virtual event highlighted the importance and value of the ocean during a live conversation with explorers onboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer.
Presidential Science Advisor and Office of Science and Technology Policy Director Dr. Eric Lander co-hosted the livestreamed event with NOAA National Ocean Service Exhibits Manager and Education Specialist Symone Barkley to further curiosity in ocean biodiversity and highlight the importance of the ocean for addressing the climate crisis, rebuilding the economy, and advancing environmental justice.
Read the transcript
KIRK JOHNSON: Good morning, my name is Kirk Johnson. I'm the Sant Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and I'm coming to you live from the National Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC. It's my pleasure today to host an event with NOAA to talk about ocean science and it's a great place to do that because the National Museum has been an ocean museum for many, many years. We have the Sant Ocean Hall, one of the world's largest collections of marine specimens, and numerous scientists who study the ocean in many different ways. One of our former board members was Dr. Jane Lubchenco who is a former NOAA Administrator. Today, we're going to have a really cool program. We'll start with a conversation between Symone Barkley, who's an Education and Exhibition Specialist for NOAA, and Dr. Eric Lander who's the President’s Science Advisor and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House. After they've chatted for a while we're going to go live to the NOAA ocean vessel called Okeanos Explorer which is located off the coast of the southeast United States, maybe 70 miles offshore, and beam live information in from that ship to the museum. Following that, there'll be a high level conversation between Dr. Rick Spinrad, who is the NOAA Administrator, and Dr. Eric Lander the Chief Science Advisor to the President of the United States. So have a fantastic time watching this and enjoy.
ERIC LANDER: The ocean. Well it’s pretty amazing. I came to understand much later in life just how cool the ocean was, and you know all about it, and so I’m hoping to learn a lot from you today about the incredible work that goes on in all the different ways about the ocean.
I was wondering if you could just tell me a little bit about how you got into any of this and what you love about it.
SYMONE BARKLEY: So I also love the ocean and I also think it's amazing and gorgeous. I didn't grow up near the ocean, though, I'm actually from Baltimore, and there's not really an ocean that's close by, but there are local waterways, the Chesapeake Bay of course. And so when I started learning about the Chesapeake Bay and realized that I wanted to learn more about the ocean, I watched nature documentaries on TV, and then I decided to go into a student summer program at the National Aquarium, which is also based in Baltimore City. And during that program I got to learn about all of the exhibits that were in the aquarium building, all of these species that were in those exhibits. So that really intrigued me, made me very curious, like made me very curious about the ocean and about the habitats. So that's really how I realized, you know, that it's important to talk about science and it's important to communicate about, you know, conservation, while I was at that aquarium doing this work.
EL: So you grew up in Baltimore. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York and I guess in theory we had ocean around us. You know there was this Belt Parkway that went around Brooklyn and if you looked to the left you know there was ocean. My experience with the ocean was maybe going to Coney Island or Jones Beach. So the ocean was like, you know, water off the coast. And I was probably familiar with the first 20 feet of the ocean, and not any fish or other kind of life in the ocean, and so you know I think that's probably true for so many Americans. They either grow up not near the ocean at all, or if they are near the ocean, it doesn't really mean so much to them. So, why is the ocean so important?
SB: Okay, so there are countless reasons why the ocean is important.
ERIC LANDER: Give me a countless number.
SYMONE BARKLEY: I’ll give you a couple right now. So number one, every other breath that we take comes from the ocean.
ERIC LANDER: Wait, wait,wait. So if I go [BREATHES] ocean [BREATHES] not ocean [BREATHES] ocean. So that's it, every other breath?
SYMONE BARKLEY: Every other breath is produced by marine photosynthesizers. So they produce oxygen in the water like phytoplankton and different types of seaweed. So first of all we should be thanking the ocean because it's literally giving us life.
ERIC LANDER: And the other breath is from the trees and things?
SB: Yes, from other things that produce, that are photosynthesizers. Absolutely.
SB: Amazing! And then of course on top of that you were talking about how you know you necessarily didn't live super close to the ocean, same as me, but more than 40 percent of the global population lives within a hundred kilometers of the ocean, and of the coast, which is pretty interesting. A lot of us are living near some body of water.
EL: The ocean's pretty useful.
SB: Yes, and the ocean is massive. Think about how much of this planet is water, right? And so in addition we also get a lot of our food and protein from the ocean, right. Ten percent of the world's population is dependent on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihood so I think we should thank the ocean for that, as well, tons of reasons to thank the ocean. Of course. Also, the oceans enable 80 percent of shipping so that's really important for all of the things consumers are buying, all those goods coming from the ocean, because they're being transported there. And then, 80%, I think this is astounding, 80% of all life on this planet is found in oceans,
EL: 80% of all life?
SB: Of the life, yes!
EL: That always blows my mind to think about. But of course when you think about land life, life on earth, it's just like this thin layer that we live on, and the ocean you got this whole column of water going up and down, so I suppose there's a lot more total livable space in the ocean.
SB: Right, which I think is very interesting. And we’re going to actually talk about the water column and see what's deeper in the ocean because there's tons and tons of species that are there so I love it. And then of course I cannot miss this really great fact, blue carbon sinks, like your mangrove forest, your seagrass beds, and other vegetated ocean habitats, can sequester up to five times as much carbon as tropical forests. So it's really great we're talking about climate and we're talking about, you know, climate change and the ways that we should be working to address it. The ocean is definitely one of the places that are doing that.
EL: So, we’ve got shipping, and we got food from the ocean, and we got it as a carbon sink, and so presumably it's pretty important we take care of the ocean.
EL: Because it's a resource for all this stuff, and so much of life on earth. So it's important people get interested in the oceans so that they actually know about it. How do we do that? You got interested in the ocean, but tell me more about how we get people interested in the ocean.
SB: So first I would say I, like me, where I got interested through informal education, right, through watching programs on television or through my time spent at the aquarium. Or, in museums like this one. So I would definitely say that spending time in informal learning institutions is very critical to really helping to build a personal connection. And then of course I also would like to talk about how when you are becoming interested in something, you normally become interested because you met someone who does the thing that you're interested in. You see a firefighter and you're like, oh yeah, I want to be a firefighter because that looks really cool. So you want to make sure that people are building personal connections, relationships with someone who looks like them to show them what kind of opportunities there are.
EL: So that could be me doing it.
SB: Exactly, so they can see themselves literally. I can see myself in that position. And so I was going to share a story, can I share a story with you?
EL: Yeah, yeah, I want to hear.
SB: So, when I was a Knauss Fellow.
EL: A Knauss Fellow. What’s a Knauss Fellow?
SB: It’s a marine policy fellowship and I was a Knauss Fellow in 2016. And during that time I actually participated in a program called the Expert-is-In and it was held here at this museum in the Ocean Hall.
EL: And you were the expert?
SB: I was the expert, that's what they called me.
EL: All right, no no no, sound great. You're a Knauss Fellow, that sounds like you're an expert.
SB: So I was in the Ocean Hall and my session was about sharks, because I studied sharks when I was in graduate school. I studied sand tiger and sandbar sharks. So I'm talking to a really large group and this is a group of mostly all black students and chaperones, okay, and so there's a picture of me like on this cart that I had. There’s a picture of me and it says my name and it says the Expert-is-In, Symone’s going to talk about sharks, and there is a picture of me holding a sand tiger, like the rope that we had it attached to on our boat. I talked to this group for 10 minutes, just chatting telling them about all the things, and finally a little boy in the group looks at me and he stops me in the middle of what I'm saying, and is like, Is that you? Is that you on that picture? And I’m like yeah, I’ve been talking to y'all for 10 minutes. I thought you would have caught on that it's me right, and like no that's really you, and yes, and he's like, Wait how do I get your job? How do I do that because I didn’t know that that was something that I could do. And so right there it really clicked to me that it’s really important that we share our stories. It’s really important that we talk about the experiences that we have, and that we show people no matter where they're from, you know, that you can do this too. That this is something that is achievable for you. That there are other options out there besides your same careers that you typically hear about. You know, this field is so massive and I would love for there to be more people here. Then of course you know when I worked at -- okay, this is another fun anecdote, right, this is my life, has a lot of full circle kind of stories. So I talked to you about how I was a volunteer at the National Aquarium when I was in high school.
SB: I actually worked at National Aquarium for a little bit over four years and managed their education programs after my Knauss Fellowship. Okay, so while there I also did lots of career days, you know, went to lots of schools throughout Baltimore City and talked about my work as a marine scientist, and while doing that I remember there was a young, I will never forget this, there was a young lady, her name was Lavender, and I was talking about my work as a marine scientist. She came up after me and she was like, Can I just let you know that I really appreciate you being here because there are not a lot of black marine scientists and I feel really happy to have met you and to see you today. Lavender, so it really just again reiterated what I learned three years prior, right when I was in Ocean Hall, that it's really important for me to continue to share my stories and for everyone to have a space where they feel like they can belong.
EL: Wow. I think whatever you do in your classroom, meeting real scientists, real people, and realizing, I mean look, for me growing up in Brooklyn, I grew up in a neighborhood ,you know a little bit before your time maybe but but I grew up in a neighborhood with no scientists, nobody with PhDs, wouldn't have known any of it, and New York City had a math science high school, and I got to go to a public free high school, and if I hadn't met those people I would have certainly never imagined myself doing anything like this so I don't think, you know, either of us can overemphasize how important it is. So I’m curious, are there organizations that are taking up the responsibility of doing this today?
SB: Yes, so I’m very happy that you asked that because contrary to popular belief there actually are a number of organizations that are really starting to build that sense of belonging in the oceans and marine science fields and a few of them that I would like to call out are Black in Marine Science, Black Women in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Science, Minorities in Aquaculture, Minorities in Aquarium and Zoo Sciences, Minorities in Shark Sciences.
EL: Wait, wait, wait! Minorities in Shark Sciences?
SB: I know.
EL: Did you have something to do with that?
SB: No, I didn't. I’m not part of the founding members of that group. But I know them very well, Hi Jada Hi Carly, so yeah I know many of the people who have started these groups and these groups really came out of, you know, wanting to build that sense of belonging, build a sense of community that we didn't necessarily have before, and so the list goes on to ensure that we get everyone not only interested in marine science but also appreciative and protective of the ocean. It’s really important that we prioritize the voices, experiences, and the research of people from groups across the world, right. From black people, from indigenous peoples, and people of color because we want to make sure that they can then reach back to their communities and build that connection. And we know that the climate crisis disproportionately impacts communities of color.
SB: And lower socioeconomic status, and so that's reflected as there being less green space in those communities. Even in my community, in my neighborhood where I live in Baltimore, we don't have a ton of trees outside of my house, right. Increased air pollution and food apartheid in our neighborhoods. There also isn't a lot of growth, there aren't a lot of grocery stores near me, so all of these things are you know what we talk about when we say environmental justice, when we talk about how that's so important, you know. So it’s very important to me, and I think it's important for all of us, to make sure that we are prioritizing these voices and that we are acknowledging the contributions that people of color have had to sustainability by reusing different materials right, and not just throwing them out. So plastic bags for example, people reuse them all the time and so we want to make sure that they are also being acknowledged for the work that they're doing to contribute to protecting our earth.
EL: Well, look, at my job in the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the White House. I agree with you this is so important that everybody get to participate in science and get the benefits of science too and it's not just a nice to have kind of thing, I think it's essential to science because if you think about what is science, but people coming along and making observations that nobody had made before, yeah that's what a discovery is and you're going to do it if you see things differently because you bring a different lens or a different perspective or different set of interests or something, and so if we don't have everybody involved we're cutting ourselves off from all these sources of inspiration. And then I also think as a country if we have only a small fraction of our country really engaged in science how are we going to compete in the 21st century.
We’re gonna need everybody part of this, this whole thing, and so you know there's of course the reason that it's fair and it's right to get everybody involved, but it's also self-interest as a country to make sure that everybody has the chance to be involved if they want to. And I think the emphasis you place on what is that on-ramp into science, it's different for different people. We got to make sure there are enough opportunities to come on in, to maybe like jump in the ocean and then splash around I suppose.
SB: Yes, absolutely. I think that we should get ready to talk a little bit about how we're going to transition into doing our live interaction.
EL: So, we’re going down to the bottom of the sea.
SB: Yeah, let’s get ready for that. I want to highlight one particularly inspirational deep-sea explorer, Dr. Dawn Wright who is the Chief Scientist at the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). She was the first black woman to explore the deep ocean in a human occupied submersible in 1991 and back then you know deep-sea exploration was in many ways kind of like a solo adventure. It was kind of closed off from the rest of the world, where the sub, you were disconnected from everything and everyone else, but technology development has allowed for new ways to explore the ocean and for everyone to be able to participate, for example, by streaming large amounts of data like video to share in real time.
EL: That is so cool and we're going to do that today.
SB: Yes, that's what we're about to do. That is so cool and it turns out that what we're going to see is a live feed that's going to keep going. It’s around all the time even when you and I aren't here, it keeps going.
SB: Yes, yes, it actually does. Folks can check it out even after we're done with this live interaction. They’ll be able to see it.
EL: They can do that on their cell phone when they're walking around?
SB: Yes, when you're doing anything you can be able to go down to the bottom of the ocean.
EL: That is so cool!
SB: I know, I know, I absolutely agree! So, NOAA Ocean Exploration is celebrating 20 years of ocean exploration in 2021 and is the only federal program exploring the deep ocean, and our basic understanding of deep waters and the seafloor. As the only federal program dedicated to ocean exploration, NOAA Ocean Exploration is leading national efforts to explore our ocean and making ocean exploration more accessible by filling gaps in the basic understanding of the US deep ocean and the seafloor. Using the latest tools and technology, NOAA explores previously unknown areas of our deep ocean, so these are places that we didn't know anything about.
EL: So, we’re going someplace that’s unknown?
SB: Yup, unknown! Making discoveries of scientific, economic and cultural value to strengthen the economic health and security of our nation. NOAA Ocean Exploration supports exploration in many different ways through grants and partnerships, technology development, and through its dedicated vessel NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. The Okeanos Explorer is the only federal vessel solely dedicated to exploring our largely unknown ocean for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge about the deep ocean. Such exploration supports key NOAA national and international goals to better understand and manage the ocean and its resources. Before we connect to the ship we are going to share a video on why and how we explore made by NOAA’s partners.
EL: So let's go look at the video.
VIDEO: Most people don't think about the bottom of the ocean. When you look at maps the ocean is portrayed as flat blue with very few features, however, this couldn't be further from what the ocean looks like. Picture huge mountains, exotic hydrothermal vent forests, and features that seem otherworldly supporting diverse life that is just as alien. The ocean covers 70% of the Earth's surface yet there are still so many things we do not know about its topography or ecosystem. There is more life in the ocean than anywhere else on earth. The water column is the largest yet least explored habitat and is home to animals that captivate the imagination as far down as three and a half miles. There are species of coral over 4,000 years old, mineral-rich superheated water, create towering chimneys that can hold as much life per square meter as a tropical rainforest. It is believed that hydrothermal vents like these may be where life on earth first began. There are predicted to be millions of unknown species whose contribution to ocean and human health is still unknown. The deep ocean has already given us compounds to treat diseases and develop diagnostic tools. Three quarters of the earth's volcanic activity occurs in the deep. Data gathered from deep-sea exploration can help predict earthquakes and tsunamis potentially saving thousands of lives. High resolution maps reveal new features and guide scientists to unexplored areas where further study can take place.
A map of our seafloor will be an invaluable tool in protecting our ocean. Thanks to game-changing technological advancements like submersible vehicles, autonomous underwater robots, sensors, and cameras we can now look into the ocean like never before. Gaining visuals and samples from our deep ocean is critical to unlocking a better understanding of the world's ocean. This effort can only be achieved through cooperation and collaboration. The ocean plays an important role in everyone's daily lives no matter where they are on the planet. Ocean exploration is about making discoveries that help us better understand the world we live in. Exploring our ocean is key to managing and protecting it. Vessels like NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, Ocean Exploration Trust’s Nautilus, and Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Falkor are helping to explore our ocean through open data sharing, live streaming, and robust public engagement programs are providing opportunities for everyone to get involved and make a contribution. Together with other science collaborators we foster interest in what lies beneath the ocean surface, exploring our ocean and better understanding what lies beneath. [Music]
EL: All right, we're back.
SB: I know.
EL: So, I'm really excited.
SB: Me too. So the Okeanos is off the coast of, sort of southeast, south central Florida. It's 250 miles, or something like that, out to sea and it's on an expedition that has a name, apparently they name expeditions which is cool, called Windows to the Deep 2021 Southeast US ROV and Mapping.
EL: That's what I was told at least and it set sail on October 26th, a little more than a week ago from Charleston, South Carolina to get out there. Well they are going to this big expanse called the Blake Plateau. So it's one of these big plateaus that goes farther out into the sea than most. You know most of the coast you’ve got this, just little narrow bit, but this one goes out like 250 feet before it falls off at this Blake Spur wall, this bit that sticks out. And here's what I learned so far and I didn't know this till we started prepping for this, but what I learned is that they are out there, NOAA is out there, mapping the seafloor, first by sound waves. It's using acoustic stuff, bouncing sound off the bottom, seeing how the sound reflects back and using computers to reconstruct what the shape of the floor of the sea must be to produce the reflection. It's basically like bat echolocation or dolphin echolocation, but I don't think they use any bats or dolphins in the process right, it's all done by computers now. And then if something, once they have a basic map they send out this ROV, the remotely operated vehicle.
EL: So no people.
SB: No people.
EL: No people. And this remotely operated vehicle, it’s so connected. Everybody's used to now, with the pandemic, being connected. You get on your favorite video conferencing thing, you know Zoom or whatever, right, and so apparently this ROV at the bottom of the ocean also knows how to log into Zoom, or whatever it's using, I don't know what it’s actually using there, and its video conferencing up. Actually, I think there's a cable that goes down, and then we're all getting to participate in the video conference with what's going down there. What blows my mind about that is just how many people can effectively be on board the ship without being on board. Like we're going down to the bottom of the ocean and we're here in Washington, DC and 10,000 people could go down to the bottom of the ocean, which is what you were saying before, must open this up to so many people, absolutely it's pretty remarkable. So if you want to link to it, I think in the YouTube description accompanying this, there is the actual link. I think we're going to be seeing it here, but anytime you want to, and you should save it on your phone so you can go there and look at it. So, anyway, it’s time to go to the ship. Are we ready to go to the ship? It’s going to be a couple minutes or so, they'll be ready for us?
SB: Yeah, I think so. I’m really excited to see…
EL: What's going to happen?
SB: What we’re going to do is we’re going to talk to a few of the folks who are on the ship. We're gonna ask them about their roles, their job, how they got into it. Kind of like what you and I just did.
EL: Oh, ok, good.
SB: A little bit of background and hopefully while we're doing that we'll get to see some of the live footage of what they're looking at on the expedition. I’m looking because it looks like they've appeared.
EL: Oh, they’ve appeared! And we're gonna be able to ask them what's going on?
SB: Yeah, we’re going to be able to talk to them, and ask them, and they're going to give us answers because you and I, we don't know, we're over here trying to figure it out.
EL: Alright, well there you are. Hello! Hello Okeanos Explorers there. Great to get to see you. Thank you. Do we have audio between us?
NICOLE MANNING: Can you hear us now?
EL: Now we can. Fantastic! Could Symone and I ask you to just introduce yourselves to everybody?
NICOLE MANNING: Good afternoon everyone, I’m Commander Manning. I'm the Commanding Officer of the Okeanos Explorer.
DEREK SOWERS: Hey everybody, my name is Derek Sowers. I am the mapping lead on this expedition for NOAA Ocean Exploration.
ALLEN COLLINS: And I am Allen Collins with NOAA Fisheries and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and I am co-biological lead on this expedition.
EL: Fantastic, and at some point you're going to start showing us the feed from this ROV, I guess.
NM: That is correct.
SB: So since we are going to be doing this live we don't know what we're going to see. We aren't sure what we're going to see, there's no way we can kind of predict what's going to happen.
EL: Surprise to us.
SB: Exactly, it'll be a surprise to us and likely be a surprise to them too, which is going to be really exciting. So as we are talking with them and having a little bit of conversation, if we might interrupt and say, Hey, can we talk about what we just saw on camera right there. We just want to make sure that our audience is aware that we'll get back to the questions after we are able to talk a little bit more about what we're seeing on the feed.
EL: Yeah, because if something really cool goes by we don't want to miss getting a chance to ask them about it.
SB: Right, exactly. Okay, so we're going to start. Commander Manning would it be all right if we start talking with you first?
EL: Okay perfect. So can you talk to us a little bit, you told us about your role, but can you tell us a little bit more about your responsibilities on the ship?
NM: Oh I sure can. So, as the commanding officer I'm responsible for the safety of the ship and the personnel on board. So we drive the ships. We have a cadre of NOAA Corps Officers. It’s a commissioned personnel system that operates the ship and navigates it safely to all of the research sites that the scientists want to go. There’s a lot of planning that goes into that. We work very closely with the Office of Ocean Exploration to map out those sites and then we take them there and we get them back home safe.
SB: Wow, so can you talk a little bit about how you are able to get a 9,000 pound ROV into the water because that sounds a bit insane to me!
EL: 9,000 pounds, wow!
SB: Yeah, exactly.
NM: Well I think of it as a very specially choreographed ballet between the officers on the bridge, the deck officers, the scientists, the engineers and the pilots, and we all work together. So we’ve got people on deck, and we've got a pilot, and then we've got people that are driving the ship, and in conjunction with all of those people we lift that 9,000 pound ROV off the deck with a crane, and we put it in the water as safely as possible. It’s a very expensive asset and so we work very hard to have procedures in place to make sure that no matter the weather we get that ROV in there, and out of the water, safely.
SB: So does the ship stay in place while the ROV is out exploring? Are you anchored? Can you tell us a little bit about if you're moving?
NM: Sure, our ship is a dynamic position ship. So we actually have computers on board that control our thrusters, and we have a bow thruster. We have two stern thrusters, and we have two stern props, and this computer operates all of those in conjunction with the position that we tell it to stand, so we don't have to anchor. The places that we go are actually way too deep for us to anchor. We actually have a computer that holds the ship in position geographically over the water.
SB: Okay, that is really cool.
EL: That is very cool.
SB: Because it makes sense that they're too deep to anchor. But to hear it out loud is pretty astonishing.
EL: Dynamic anchor, wow.
SB: Amazing. So acknowledging of course how curious you are about science, can you talk a little bit about the notable technological advances that you've seen during your career since you've been in this career for so long.
NM: I’ve been with NOAA for about 20 years now and I can speak specifically to some of the navigational advances that we've seen over the years. Since I first came into the NOAA Corps and first learned to be a ship driver, we’ve seen a lot of advances in terms of what I just spoke about before. The dynamic positioning system, as well as how we do collision assessment at sea. So we have to actually look at traffic, other traffic around us, shipping containers, sailboats, everything like that. We have to be able to see those and know if there's a risk of collision. So we have radars that help us with that, and we have automatic positioning systems. We have GPS. We have all kinds of great advances that tell us where we are in the space, in the ocean, because unlike on land we don't have street signs, and we don't have, you know, street markers that help tell us where we're at. So we have to really understand how to get our position out at sea.
EL: Wow. Now you're the Commander, so you are in charge, and as you put it, you're responsible for the safety of the whole crew and presumably for getting this vessel back, and the 9,000 pound ROV, and all that. But I heard from folks that you like looking at the live feed from the ROV, and even though you are not personally responsible for the science mission, you really are excited about this. I was wondering if I could just ask you what excites you about this. You say you're a ship driver but you're driving a really pretty amazing ship and it sounds like you really love that mission.
NM: Right, well I actually have a background in biology too so again you were talking about all kinds of the different careers that you can go into with a background in biology, and certainly being a Corps Officer is one of them. That is very much a non-traditional route, rather than academia, so I am absolutely fascinated with the biota on, in the seafloor just as much as the scientists are. And we have incredible scientists that come out and I don't know if you've ever listened to one of those live feeds but they do talk to all of the discoveries that they see under the ocean and I learn something new every time they go down there. And I do sort of get sucked in to the live feeds, just like people on land do, so we get to see what the ROV is seeing as well, and it's fascinating stuff.
EL: Wow, now you've done this for about 20 years. So first let me say congratulations on 20 years of service in the NOAA Corps. You know it's a real gift to the whole country that you do this, and to the world, because what you make possible with the ship. I'd love to know what have you enjoyed most about what you've gotten to do, and I’m kind of curious what might you do next?
NM: Wow, there’s a lot I enjoy about this job. I could speak to all kinds of things. The travel, going to different, you know, international port calls, but for me it's just being a part of the bigger whole or the mission of NOAA. And I’m always attracted to the basic research. I started out at the National Institutes of Health which is all about basic research, and I am a big proponent of it, and I love the mission of the Office of Ocean Exploration because they are about basic research, which is as you know in the federal government that's always very difficult to pursue. And for me I think that some of our greatest discoveries come from when we're not looking for something, and it's that we suddenly find it, so for me it's kind of a dream come true to be a part of this mission. And I think that's what I really enjoy the most. That I in my small way can help out.
EL: Wow! And next steps? What I mean, do you have things you might do after you stop commanding a vessel?
NM: Yeah, so after I get off the ship I do go to a different assignment. I’ll stay in the operations world for a bit and then after that I'll probably go back to school.
EL: Oh wow! Fabulous! Biology?
NM: Yeah, I’m thinking of either marine management or marine policy.
EL: Well, congratulations and good luck with that. Wow.
NM: Thank you very much.
EL: Wow. Thank you Commander Manning. It’s really great to get to talk to you and maybe if it's okay we could turn to Dr. Derek Sowers. So Derek, if I can call you Derek, if that’s alright, you should call me Eric. I only go by Eric. So tell us what you do on the ship. What's your role? What's your responsibilities?
DEREK SOWERS: Well the first thing we do when we explore is we need a good base map, an accurate map of what we're actually exploring, and that's falling into my realm of mapping. So on the ship that we're on here, we have the state of the art scientific sonars that can map the shape of the seafloor, give us insights into the subseafloor geology that we're over, as well as map concentrations of life in the water column. So we use all these sonars to really get that first exploratory picture of the area we're in, and then we take those maps and we find features of interest, and we further plan out a very safe and exciting ROV dive. And that's what we've been doing this cruise, is using those maps to inform where we put down the vehicle, and really get a close look and see what's down there and share it with as broad an audience as we can.
EL: So we’re going to this place, the Blake Plateau. Why is that so special? Why do you have us going there, I mean we're very excited about it, but tell us why you picked this destination for us, and maybe for NOAA and everybody else too.
DS: Sure. First of all, where it is, Blake plateau is, just a reminder for the audience, it's off the southeast United States, off a populated coastline. Until recently we didn't even have a basic high-resolution map of what was out here. For hundreds of square miles, this is US territory under jurisdiction of the US. We just didn’t even have a good map until recent years. It's been known for some time that there was an important deep-sea coral ecosystem but we just recently had funding, the ship time, the expertise to go and create a base map of this area. What we have found here and been able to document and map is one of the most extensive cold water coral mound ecosystems in the world discovered thus far. We’re talking about an area about three times the size of Yellowstone National Park, which is nearly continuous coral mound features, kind of as far as you can see. Just a huge area and what makes these corals really amazing is they form over thousands of years. Some of the individual corals can be up to seven hundred years old. What happens is they, the coral skeletons will die, and then a new generation will grow on top of them, and over thousands of years you get these mound formations. And we have thousands and thousands of square miles of these. So, if you could drain the ocean and look you would see this amazing seascape that we just can’t see. But we can see it with sound and that’s how we use the sonars on the ship. And this provides a lot of habitat for a lot of different marine organisms so it’s really important, really fragile, really slow-growing habitat and that’s something that we see throughout this region that we’re exploring now.
SB: Yeah, I know. We both jumped when he said it’s three times as big as Yellowstone. What? That’s insane! Also, you talked about how the coral provides habitat but can you maybe share about how mapping is used to share other information? What kinds of decisions? What kinds of real-world applications does mapping provide?
DS: Sure. We strive to provide this information quickly. It is all public information. Most importantly we want it to be actionable information for NOAA and other management agencies to make good decisions. So, we are knowing what resources are out and doing good management decisions, doing good conservation science. In this case, the information has been provided directly to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. They have the management authority to choose how to protect that habitat and they set up Habitat Areas of Particular Concerns to protect vulnerable ecosystems from anything that would damage them directly, bottom impact disturbance. That's how that information is being used in a very practical sense. In recent years, we have been able to find many of the coral mounds that are outside of the current protection area so they're discussing now what to do with that information.
SJ: Wow. So it definitely impacts everybody, even me and you. It doesn't just impact those animals that are living down there. Can you tell us a little bit about what is your most exciting part of the job?
DS: I think for me, imagine your job is to go places no one has ever been. Say you were going to Yosemite National Park for the first time and you were the first people that could get there, could make a good map of the area, share it with everyone and really see what's there. That's what we get to do as part of our job. It's just underwater. I feel really lucky to be in that role. Actually there is more of America underwater than there is in all 50 states combined. So we have about 53% of America's ocean is not yet even mapped, let alone having a look with something like the ROV.
EL: Fifty-three percent of the ocean isn't mapped?
DS: Just America's oceans.
DS: In America's jurisdiction and far more than that globally in international high seas. There is a huge amount to explore. That’s another important thing for our audience, this is an amazing field to be in because there is so much opportunity. Many times when we dive, we find new species using state of the art technologies. We need people with all kinds of expertise, technical. You can see this is a team effort out here and there is a role for everyone to make it work.
SB: I am glad you said that. I do think it's really important for us to be making sure that our audience knows there are opportunities for you to come into this field. This field is so vast. We have already heard about all the different jobs and roles that someone can have in doing this type of work. So there is so much more. You could discover a new species.
EL: You think about the surface land here and how, oh I don’t know, in the past people would go out and be explorers and find out about new parts of land. It's not so much the surface of the Earth that's unknown to us anymore. But you are saying the majority of discoveries are still to be made with regard to the ocean, with regard to the habitat, things that live there.
DS: That's a great way to put it.
EL: It's amazing. It's like we landed on a new planet. It's just our planet and it is all out there. That's pretty fantastic. When you say you can find new species, how often do you find a new species? … And do you get to name it? When you discover, do you get your name on it?
DS: Every field season. A couple dives every expedition. They're not named after most of us that go out to sea, but it is pretty common that either it might be new or the scientists we can engage with don't know what it is yet. It starts that scientific process. We think we found something new. We need to study it more. We are getting that first look and then we drive science in many new directions.
EL: You were talking about these coral mounds, three Yellowstones worth of coral mounds or something and that it was a habitat for species. What kind of stuff lives in those coral mounds?
DS: We see all sorts of other types of corals will grow on them. Deep sea sponges are prolific throughout this area. We have a lot of crustaceans that live in there. I would defer to my biological expert over here on the exact species. That's Dr. Collin's specialty. Maybe we can transition over to him and he can answer your question in more detail.
SB: Perfect. Thank you so much. We appreciate it. That was amazing. We were both shocked listening to some of the things you were sharing with us. Allen, can you tell us a little bit more about what kinds of things are living in those coral communities and then we'll get to more conversation for sure.
AC: Sure. Inside those deep-sea, deep water coral communities, there are lots of fish, tons of arthropods, pretty much almost every phylum you can name. It is incredibly diverse. There are lots of nooks and crannies. There are just every different kind of organism you can imagine is living in there animalwise. Not so many photosynthesizers at that depth where there is no light. One of the things I am really interested in is what we are showing here which is the water column that is above the benthic habitat including the cold-water coral bioherms. As you had mentioned at the beginning of the program, this is the largest inhabitable space on the planet. Ninety five percent of the habitable space on the planet is taken up by the water column and it is home to literally quadrillions of organisms that make their home out there. Their biological processes are so important for pretty much the entire planet.
SB: So can you talk to us a little bit about what makes an organism -- you can give some examples, whatever organisms you want to talk about. Can you tell us what makes them able to survive in these deep-water habitats? Because we know, when Eric and I were talking earlier, we were like we can't go down there. We wouldn’t be able to make it.
EL: We would get squished!
SB: Can you tell us about how these animals are able to survive or these species are able to survive in this environment?
AC: Sure, sure, I would be happy to. They have to face so many different challenges. When we send our cameras down there, we always send them with lights so we can see. One of the things that gives us is this false impression of what it's like. Once you get below 1,000 meters from the surface, there is no light at all coming down from the surface. So it is dark. There’s high pressure. And it's a huge space so there is not very much around. It is very sparsely populated. A lot of the adaptations that different deep-sea midwater organisms have are related to those problems. So we see the development in multiple different lineages, fishes, crustaceans known as amphipods are these incredible eyes, also in cephalopods, enhanced abilities to perceive very very small amounts of light in the environment. And then there are all sorts of ways that these organisms try to find each other. Jellies, which is one of the things I study, they take two basic modes of trying to find their food. There are some that hold tentacles in front of them and just cruise through the water. When the tentacles meet a prey item they sting them and then are able to eat them. Then there is a whole other set of jellies that basically deploy long tentacles of nets. So they're basically sitting and waiting for prey to stumble along into their nets and then that's how they find their food. There, as I said, there is no light below 1,000 meters, so a lot of the organisms are able to create light. So there are a lot of adaptations around that as well. With the jellies and with other organisms, many times if they are feeding on bioluminescent prey, you can imagine that if you don't want to be seen and you put a lot of bioluminescent prey in your stomach that you are then going to be this light bulb for bigger fish. So we see over and over again the development of these dark red pigments to the stomach, and that basically holds the light in and then prevents the organisms from being seen.
SB: Ok, that was very cool. The stomach is a dark red, basically to hide the light from the animals or organisms that they're consuming. That’s amazing. This is utterly amazing. If you want to speak to any of the things we are seeing right now, you are absolutely welcome to speak to any of those.
AC: Sure. We’re seeing a siphonophore there. That's one of the organisms that will deploy, it’s a colonial organism that deploys a big net. It actually has, some of them have little side tentacles that act as lures. Some that are bioluminescent lures or physical mimics to attract prey. Yeah, exactly. And there we see a nice shrimp and it's got its bent antennae there and those are really, they use that to sense the movement around them in the water which allows them to detect either prey or predators.
EL: What is that thing? That's pretty cool.
AC: This is pretty cool. This is actually a sea cucumber. It's a relative of starfish and crinoids and sea urchins. The sea cucumbers, there’s a group of them that can actually get up in the water column and swim around and look a lot like a jelly.
AC: We just saw a little jelly running away there. Here are squids which of course are very popular with lots of people because they're smart. They have big eyes. That's a comb jelly, Bathycyroe, that we see quite often. That's not a true jellyfish. It's in a whole other phylum called Ctenophora. It’s very abundant, we’ve seen quite a lot on this expedition.
SB: Wow. So we were actually just showing you all some canned footage that the ship has collected previously, so those were not things that we were seeing live.
EL: Right. These were the home movies from the Okeanos.
SB: That was lovely though, that was amazing.
EL: That was gorgeous.
SB: Allen, sorry.
EL: Can I ask about these jellies.
SB: Go ahead!
EL: Bringing up these jellies, I have been told that he and I have this background. He trained in math and went to biology and I trained in math and went to biology and you ended up studying amazing jellyfish. You are a jellyfish expert. You keep mentioning jellies. Can we draw you out to tell us about jellies?
AC: Sure. They are my favorite organism so I am happy to talk about them.
EL: More than people? I can understand that, perhaps, yeah.
AC: I should say while we are on that topic one of the best parts of my job that allows me to study jellyfish is how many young scientists I have been able to mentor and work with. We share all this curiosity about jellies and try to figure stuff out together. That's turned out to be my absolute favorite part of my job. It's not something I expected going in but it is what I feel right now.
EL: So it’s both humans and jellies. Now tell us about the jellies!
AC: Yeah. The jellies! They're in the phylum cnidaria and they have these stinging capsules like all organisms in this phylum. These microscopic stinging capsules are used in a whole variety of ways, deter predation, to help them when they're feeding. These are such useful little structures, a lot of organisms that feed on cnidarians have figured out how to steal them. They put them through their digestive tract and wind up putting them in the backs of their bodies as their own little stingers that they've basically stolen from cnidarians.
EL: [LAUGHS] Stolen stingers. Alright, wow.
AC: Stolen stingers, yeah. One of the other things that I continually find fascinating about jellies is how people often have a negative connotation with them, they're taking over the ocean, or people have experiences with being stung, or are afraid of being stung if they go into the ocean, and yet at the same time when there are jellyfish exhibits in aquaria, people always flock to them and love them. The motion is this sort of controlled chaos, it’s always flowing, it’s like staring into a fire at night. It is really mesmerizing. So people love jellies and then they are also sort of afraid of them. I just like that dual nature.
SB: I know. I know. This is amazing. I did not know that about the other organisms being able to kind of steal the stingers. That is very cool. We are actually going to show some coral mound video next. That's what you are seeing right now. And then we will show footage from yesterday's dive. Allen, while we still have you, I would like to say congratulations. I know that you have been in these expeditions for many years but I understand that this is your first time out on the large research vessel. Can you talk to us a little bit about what it feels like to finally be out there?
AC: It feels great basically! For a long time I have participated as a shoreside scientist. What the biological leads do like myself and my co-lead Stephanie Farrington, we are basically trying to narrate these dives but at the same time we are in constant communication with scientists who are back on shore via either a chat room or they can call in. Sometimes I even get texts from people basically with a little note about what we are seeing because we don't always recognize, biology is so huge there are a million or so species that we expect there are about a million species in the ocean and we only know about 250,000 of those. So, we’re constantly relying on other scientists. Here to finally get the opportunity to be the biological lead and be out on the ship, it's kind of a dream come true sort of situation.
SB: Wow. Okay. So, I know, it was a lot. We are laughing because it is just insane to think about, right? Oh, there are like one million species but we only know 250,000. That's insane but it is so cool to also know that you all are able to communicate with scientists that are back on shore, that are working with you to help you be able to identify some of them. That's kind of using your collective brain power which I think is amazing. It talks about how this work is like what Derek had mentioned, that this work is a collaborative effort. It is really about building that community to do this together. You can't do it alone.
SB: Yeah. Great work. Oh my gosh. So, I am trying to get a glimpse at what we are seeing right now. Is this from yesterday's dive?
AC: I believe so.
DS: Yes, this is that deep mound site.
EL: What are we seeing?
AC: What we are seeing are boulders that have fallen off the side of this mound. I’m trying to see. Oh there, we are focusing in. The resolution is not…sorry.
DS: We should mention that all of the dives we are doing are on our website too. You can replay them and we play highlights of the neatest things we saw on each dive.
AC: Now that we have zoomed in, I can see a lot better what we are looking at. This is a dead stalk for a deep-sea coral and then lots of organisms are colonized on it, hydroids, and then we see a really nice hermit crab that had climbed up from the bottom on to the stalk, the dead stalk.
EL: What's that hermit crab going to eat? What's its diet down there?
AC: It's picking up lots of little stuff from around it. It will pick off little bits of whatever it’s walking over and so it’s sort of a detritus feeder, or just picks stuff off the bottom.
DS: We should mention that those particles that Allen was just describing, they call that marine snow. All the life that happens up in the sunlight zone, actually, all the particles kind of rain down upon the deep sea and a lot of the life down here, that's the linkage with the sun-driven ecosystem above. That's how they get their food. They're particle feeders so they’re, a lot of the organisms have little things to catch those small particles, to ingest them, and get energy out of them. All those deep-sea corals we were talking about earlier, most people think of corals they think of things in tropical areas with sunlight. These are a different type of coral. They don't need any sunlight, they just are totally sustaining themselves off particles that are coming from above. And like Allen mentioned earlier, they're living in total darkness. So a very different unique ecosystem.
EL: I never knew that.
DS: We’ve just scratched the surface of global distribution of deep-sea corals since we haven't been able to map and explore most parts of the ocean we don't yet understand the full extent of where these ecosystems are distributed throughout the world.
EL: So you don't have to generate all the food down there because it is just raining down on you all the time. That's, that’s pretty amazing.
AC: It’s all connected.
DS: The other thing that we see in this particular area we are exploring, the Blake Plateau, is most folks are aware of the Gulf Stream that comes through here, comes around Florida and up along the east coast and out towards Europe across the Atlantic, that has more volume of water that’s moving than all the freshwater rivers in the world combined. That's full of some of the food source and it is moving it at a high speed through the ecosystems. So it is just pumping food into this area and that's where we tend to see the densest corals on the seafloor.
AC: Right there we are looking at a precious coral, Corallium or Hemicorallium. I am not sure of the genus. And that was has actually, you can see it's been knocked over either by the currents or something like that. Then I just wanted to talk about, also about, the marine snow that's raining down. It's nutrients but also that's how carbon from the upper part of the ocean gets locked into the ocean floor, sequestered away, so that it’s taken away. It's a really important part of the carbon cycle on the planet.
EL: So, that's a long-term storage for that carbon, a carbon sink down there on the bottom of the ocean.
AC: Yes, it is. Exactly.
EL: What happens with trawling and stirring up that stuff? Would that be bad?
DS: I think there is some recent studies and literature about that trying to estimate the amount of carbon that could be released from some of those activities. It is definitely an important consideration on what management actions we take in the ocean and how that affects our climate mitigation efforts, you know, globally.
SB: Yeah, you know it’s funny. We actually had a question from, we were able to ask our audience if they had any questions ahead of this. We had a question from Erin and the question actually was, you know, how does the deep ocean impact climate? And I think you all have just hit on that a little bit. You talked a little bit about how it does impact climate and how, you know, the deep ocean does sequester the carbon. So, thank you for doing that. You unknowingly answered Erin’s question. So there you go, Erin, you got your answer. But can we, we are watching video footage from yesterday and we had planned to show you some live footage. Can we just talk a little bit about why we are watching yesterday's footage and we aren't going live right now. Can you all share with us what's happening?
DS: We actually have an exciting update on that front. We literally just reached the seafloor live.
EL: Just now! Woooo! Seafloor! It’s so cool.
AC: This has been incredibly difficult...
DS: I don't know if you can see behind us on the video screen. We have just touched down. We have some dark colored boulders, some very rough seafloor terrain we just landed on.
EL: This is live from the bottom of the ocean. Wow.
AC: It sure is. So, possibly, possibly, if they zoom in on that rock, we will probably see, I assume a lot of that white stuff is our small sponges that are encrusting on the rock. We encountered so many just beautiful sponge gardens yesterday not too far from this locality.
DS: Something to keep in mind here, the vehicles are down at about 9,000 feet, roughly. hey're attached to a cable running back up to the ship and that has fiber optics in it. That's how we are getting this live video feed up to the ship and then it is beamed to satellite and back to shore and that’s how it’s shared on the Internet link. So, very exciting. We call this telepresence. It's like being somewhere where you are not. We get to take people with us to see when we are out here.
NM: I just wanted to add that this is an incredibly difficult technical dive that they're doing right now because of the currents in this area. It's taken this long to get to the bottom because the challenges of driving the ROV in high current. So, we have a lot of incredibly skilled pilots that work for the Global Foundation of Ocean Exploration and they are highly trained and highly skilled, and very talented engineers that operate this vehicle for us.
EL: So they're sitting there now driving this vehicle, up on the Okeanos, but they are sort of driving this thing and making decisions about where it is going and trying not to hit something. What is that?
DS: We were just pointing to the front row here where the pilots are actually sitting.
EL: Oh they're right there.
SB: Yeah, right there.
EL: Hello pilots! I don't want to distract them because I don’t want them to hit the, the thing. Thank you, pilots.
AC: Yeah, they’re concentrating.
EL: Yeah, okay. I’m not going to distract them. There’s some swirly thing?
DS: A little bit more context about this dive, we are actually on the edge of something called the Blake Spur where the continental shelf drops off into the deep ocean abyss. It's about a 2,000-meter wall, so it’s greater than 6,500 feet. Very, very steep. That's more vertical relief than the Grand Canyon. We’re basically diving on, if you can picture it, the top of a submarine Grand Canyon right now and the currents are kind of swirling around the top now and making for the challenging dive that the Commander just described. And, there’s been very little exploration work out here. I think we are the first deep submergence vehicle that have actually been able to dive on this amazing feature. It's really exciting to be here today.
SB: I know. We are just engrossed in looking at this. And we aren't really seeing a ton of a whole bunch of moving around but it's so cool, right. People talk about how exploring the deep ocean is kind of like exploring another planet. You know, a lot of people make that comparison. And, I get that same feeling. I kind of feel that same way right now.
AC: Yeah, it's absolutely true. What we see here are, you know, as I said, lots of sponges encrusting on this rock. The mobile fauna is probably largely either small, tucked away in the rocks, or … even yesterday we didn't see many fish. They have different habitats where they're more abundant.
EL: Some of these guys look like they’re a little blue and maybe some other things look like yellowy or orangey or something. Are those different species of sponges? Or, what are they? They're pretty.
AC: Almost certainly those are different species. The sponges will grow with not a defined shape, but a characteristic shape. It’s sort of, amorphous but around a type. Many of them have different pigments. So they definitely will appear different colors. Yesterday we saw a pinkish red purple sponge down at great depths and that was really a shocker, it was pretty interesting.
SB: Wow. You can even see their different textures, right? You can tell that if you were to touch them, right, they all wouldn't feel the same.
AC: Yeah. Sponges are a group that we are still learning a lot about. We know about 10,000 different species and the unknown sponge diversity is estimated to be many times more than that. They are challenging to identify. Taxonomically they're a difficult group. They do have different textures but they also have their skeletons are made up of these little tiny skeletal elements, tiny spicules. And they arrange them in different ways. They have different shapes and that's often how we tell them apart. So via video it is very difficult to make, you know, a fine precise definition of, or you know, identification, of a particular sponge.
EL: Could you go grab one of those and bring it back to the ship?
SB: I was just about to ask that!
EL: Yeah, cause I want to see these. You know, I work on DNA and genomes, so if you want to tell these things apart you could sequence the DNA too.
AC: Yeah, we do make collections and we are able to bring those back to the ship and then Stephanie and I, we have been preparing them so we can send them back to the Smithsonian so they can be studied by specialists in the groups. I think today it is a little too challenging to collect although I am not 100% sure about that. That's always a conversation that’s going on. And then one of the other exciting things that you mentioned related to DNA is we have been taking water samples on these dives. This first expedition where we are doing that regularly. And we are going to extract DNA from the water samples. It turns out that organisms will shed skin, or loose DNA out into the water and then we can collect that water, extract DNA and then sequence it and then get another signature that helps us characterize the organisms there. It also will help us get a good handle on the amount we don't know because we certainly will find lots of unknown sequences for which we cannot find a perfect reference match in our known library. And that will tell us where we need to work harder in terms of understanding biodiversity.
SB: I know. [Laughs]
EL: This is so crazy. How long are you going to be out there? How many more days your got?
AC: We’re going to be out here…
DS: November 15th.
AC: Eleven more days.
EL: Oh, I am going to log on and catch the feed from the Blake Plateau and points beyond.
SB: Yeah, me too. This is amazing. I am so glad we got to… first I’m very happy that we got to talk to you all. And I am glad that we were able to get some of the live footage up too. That was perfect timing, that was fantastic. Thank you to everyone who has joined us.
EL: Well, thank you and good luck on the rest of the expedition. And thanks for everything you are doing for everybody around the world. It's really cool. Have a good voyage!
DS: Thank you. It's been great talking with you.
AC: Our pleasure.
EL: Wow. That was cool.
SB: That was so cool. I was really about to ask the same question. I know they can make collections. I was wondering, have they been doing that or would they be doing it in the future, so I am glad you asked that. This is amazing.
EL: Yeah. I’m just going to say, I think, cause I am a member of President Biden's Cabinet and might be the first Cabinet officer to go 10,000 feet under the ocean.
EL: At least, I am going to claim that.
SB: Yes, you should claim that!
EL: Yeah, I’m going to claim that!
SB: It was also cool, we are really in the perfect location for them to do this, for us to have done this interaction because they were saying that they're going to make collections and then they will bring them back to the Smithsonian.
EL: We can come meet their collection here.
SB: We could.
EL: Because we got to meet the Director of the museum at the beginning.
SB: Right. We'll be back. Perfect.
EL: I am just sort of recovering from the excitement of the journey.
SB: Me too. That was outstanding. I will be watching that in the future. Okay.
EL: So now, hello Rick Spinrad. We are honored to be joined by NOAA's Administrator and Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. It looks like it’s really an ‘under’ secretary, are you under the water there? No, Rick Spinrad is a distinguished scientist who is the Administrator of NOAA. Thank you for joining us today. Frankly thank you for letting us visit one of the vehicles and visit with the people in the NOAA Corps. So, you were watching this thing too while Symone and I were. What were your favorite parts about all this?
RICHARD (RICK) SPINRAD: Oh man, well first of all, Eric and Symone, thank you for letting me join you on this. It is a terrific opportunity and Eric, I don’t think we’ve ever had a President’s Science Advisor on a dive before, so thank you for doing that. It’s such a great experience. I also want to throw out some thanks to Captain Manning and the whole crew. You know what you see there is really the pointy end of this big, big sphere of technology and science and information. And, when you see these images, the archived images, but even more exciting, right, the ability to be there in real time some 3,700 meters down or so, it just kind of makes your head explode to think that there is that much that we don't know about basically our own backyard. So for me, every time, and I have seen hundreds and hundreds of hours of these kinds of videos, never twice the same thing. It doesn't matter where we go in the world, and so, I mean, to be honest, I think I've got the best job in government because I get to watch this stuff all the time. What a treat.
EL: I bet you have to do more than just watch the movies. I think you are responsible for, say, continuing to improve the technology. Commander Manning told us about how much change there had been in the last 20 years that's made this possible. What's NOAA got planned for how to accelerate this kind of ocean science and ocean technology in the years ahead?
RS: It's really exciting. I started my government career working for the Navy in ocean sciences. I can tell you that some of the things you saw, even though we are talking about a 9,000-pound vehicle, we didn't have that capability in vehicles that were four or five times that size just 20 years ago. A lot of things are technologies from other areas that we're taking advantage of. Miniaturization, new battery technologies, information technology. But, the real, I think the fundamental change that we are seeing right now is the use of what we call uncrewed systems. And that remotely operated vehicle is that. Years ago if you wanted to get anything close to what you just saw, you would go down in a submarine, you would only would be able to stay for a certain amount of time because you only had a certain amount of oxygen. And then you’d have to come up, and you don't know what you saw. You don't know if it was representative of the whole environment or just a quirky new thing. Now we call it being resident. You can actually stay down there for hours, days if you want. And so what we are starting to do in technology is use this uncrewed or autonomous concept for everything from aircraft to under water vehicles, even some really new cool concepts for making measurements at the surface of the ocean. So I love to rib my friends in space exploration community because we always get fascinated with this, well first of all I can guarantee you on every dive we will find a new species.
EL: They don't find them in space that often, not that many new species!
RS: They don’t! And the other thing I love reminding them of is we do this work, we work really well under pressure. I mean… We’re good under pressure. Two and a half tons per square inch. Imagine that! Two and a half tons per square inch. We do it in the dark. The temperature down there was almost freezing. And here is the best part. We can't use radio frequency communication. So you have to use acoustic communications or something else. So, we have a real challenge in exploring the oceans that our colleagues over on the space side don't understand. We love making sure they know that.
EL: Just saying, yeah. So, one question that came up and Symone, you know noted that we received it on the Internet, I think, on Twitter actually, from Erin about climate change and how the deep-sea ecosystems contribute. Maybe I can ask you the broader version of Erin's question is, you know, tell us about how climate change is affecting the oceans, what the oceans can do to help prevent climate change? I mean, it is such an important question when you realize what a big portion of the Earth the oceans make up, so. Tell us, cause I mean right now the climate change meeting is going on in Glasgow. I’m even going to go over this weekend to be there for a few days of that meeting. I am really curious what you and NOAA are doing and learning.
RS: Yeah, the climate change issue is a critical one. And, I will be joining you there as well, Eric. I will be over there on Saturday I think. Part of the argument I am making for the government here, for the American people, is that the oceans are a critical component of the discussion on climate change. You framed it nicely in terms of the impact on the ocean and then how the ocean can also help address some of the challenges. The impact… The way to think about it is the oceans absorb about a third of the carbon emissions, carbon dioxide it goes into the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning. About a third of that goes into the ocean. One of the consequences we know about that is that it can make oceans slightly more acidic. In fact, the oceans are now about 30% more acidic than they were say 50 or 60 years ago. We don't fully understand yet what the impact of that is on the ecosystem. The other thing the oceans do is they absorb the heat. They absorb 90% of the heat, the additional heat associated with climate change. To give you some sense of how much energy that is, it turns out that that's the same amount of energy as if we lit off four Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs every second.
EL: Every second?
RS: Every second.
EL: That does not sound like a good idea.
RS: That's a lot of energy. So, the oceans absorb all that. It has consequences. And part of the challenge for us is just understanding where all that heat is going. So, we are developing systems to measure that. But now let me give you the other side of the coin. Because I am the eternal optimist and I really believe that the oceans can play a critical role. In fact, many people may have heard, if they’ve heard nothing else about a lot of the discussion going on now, they've heard this discussion about keeping global warming to below 1.5 degrees centigrade. And it turns out that you do that by capturing the carbon. And the oceans can capture carbon through phytoplankton, through mangroves, through other things and we estimate oceans can account for about 21% of the solution to keep the global temperature down at or below 1.5 degrees. That's just what we call the blue carbon piece. Then there’s all of the roles that the oceans can play in renewable energy whether it’s through offshore wind or tidal energy, all of that. Then of course the oceans are going to be critical for sustaining the biomass and the biodiversity. You have just seen that in the video you saw. How many different species did we see in just five minutes of video? So the oceans are both the… bear a lot of the brunt in climate change but I also think they can be part of what we call the natural solutions to climate change.
SB: So, Thank you so much, Dr. Spinrad. Earlier, I mentioned that climate change disproportionately impacts communities of color and I mentioned how important it is to center the experiences of marine sciences and build connections with the communities that will be impacted. Can you tell us a little bit about how NOAA supports communities in addressing the climate crisis?
RS: Yeah, thank you for that, Symone. And let me also personally thank you for your story you shared with us at the start of the broadcast. It's such a wonderful example of how NOAA and our organization can reach out and make sure young people understand what the opportunities are. So part of what I am alluding to is our role in the educational arena. We have a number of programs, educational partnership programs and science centers around the universities, the historically black colleges and universities, and minority serving institutions and we are looking at how we can use these even more effectively. How can we give students, under and unrepresented minorities, the opportunity to experience the kind of things we have been seeing on the video here? The other thing we are doing, and I think this is critical and it’s a key component of the President's agenda and that is reaching out and listening. We are really good in the government at talking. We also need to listen. And so, what we are doing in NOAA is doing a series of what we call climate equity round tables. And we are going to different parts of the country to hear from impacted communities and vulnerable communities. And they may be suffering inordinately from things like urban heat, consequence of climate change, or flooding, or droughts, or fire. And, so, in order to build the products and services that we at NOAA are responsible for, we are reaching to parts of the country and communities that we have not reached to before with the goal of being more equitable in the development and delivery of our products. And last point there are a lot of people think you listen and then you kind of shut the door and build a product and deliver it. No, what we are saying is we’re going to co-develop which means things like using what's called traditional ecological knowledge. When you talk to communities, they have great knowledge, especially some of the indigenous communities in places like Alaska. They've been living there for generations. They can contribute to how we develop client products and services. That's the outward looking piece and also the inward looking piece in terms of diversifying our workforce at NOAA as well.
SB: Thank you so much for that. I am going to change gears slightly. Today we imaged what is relatively a really small area of the seafloor. Can you talk about how this work fits into the larger picture?
RS: Absolutely. I love the comment Derek made in the broadcast a minute ago because I was going to say the same thing. The way I phrase it is most of the United States is under water. People think I am being figurative when I say that. It is literal. More than half of our country's real estate is under water because of the Exclusive Economic Zone going offshore about 200 nautical miles. That's about 4 million square miles that we really need to understand. Imagine it is 200 years ago, 215 years ago, and you are talking to Lewis and Clark. They really don't know what they're going to see in terms of landforms, species. It was a core of discovery. That's where we are with respect to our ocean. One of the really exciting things is we have just been -- figuratively we have been aboard the Okeanos Explorer, that ship just reached a milestone of having mapped 2 million square kilometers of ocean floor. That's an extraordinary amount but it is still a drop in the bucket. So we in the United States have a major initiative for mapping the ocean floor and doing it aggressively. We are working with the private sector. One last point on that, think about what we started with in this discussion, the use of an autonomous vehicle. So the really exciting thing right now is maybe we don't have to rely exclusively on ships that are tootling along at about five or seven miles per hour mapping the ocean floor. Maybe we could put out hundreds of these autonomous vehicles and get that mapped even quicker. It's an important objective. We need to, if we are going to conserve, if we are going to protect, the land that's part of our country, we need to know what it looks like. We need to know what's there. And we need to know how it is changing.
EL: Can I switch gears for a second, Rick? We got a question on Twitter from the National Ocean Protection Coalition asking about why biodiversity is so important and how we can best protect areas with high biodiversity like, for example, this one. I know this connects with a big goal that President Biden has set for the country of protecting 30% of the land and 30% of the ocean to be able to be in a natural state, to be able to serve as kind of a reservoir for replenishing the bounty of our nature. Thirty percent of the ocean and 30% of the land by year 2030. I think it is called 30 by 30 [30x30]. It's important to make sure that we stem extinction crises so we have areas that are preserved, safeguard water and food supplies. Because if you do that, then the other areas that you are using become more sustainable because things can move in from it, all sorts of these things. I am curious if you are going to pick 30% of the ocean, at least say in our Exclusive Economic Zone. What kind of information do you need to make those choices? Presumably you will not pick lots of little tiny bits. You are going to choose wisely. Since you and all your colleagues at NOAA are responsible for collecting all this information, I wonder if you can share with us how you are going to guide that kind of decision making about ensuring we protect that much, but also the right things.
RS: That's a great question, Eric. I think the best approach is to think about how we have done that on land historically. When you go back to the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt and others who said we need to build a National Park System. Why is Yellowstone protected as a national park? In part it is because of the biology, the very special species that live there. In part, it is because of the nature of the landforms, the incredible geysers and hydrothermal systems. And it's because of the uniqueness of these. I would say the same thing applies to that other portion of the United States and the world for that matter. If people have captured anything from that video that we were so fortunate to see just a few minutes ago, they probably got the sense that gee, the ocean bottom out there, in what for most people is just a boring part of the globe, is really actually pretty fascinating. And so, if that part of the world looks like that, what other really interesting environments do we have? Part of the justification for the 30 by 30 conservation approach that you just described is making sure that we can sustain those highly productive rich environments. If we don't know where they are, how are we going to do that? You can't conserve something if you don't know where it is and what it is part of. So, we feel strongly, that we at NOAA have a full spectrum of responsibility. Part of it is exactly what you saw. Get out there with an exploration vehicle, a dedicated exploration vehicle. This isn't just some pastime. We are doing this 24/7, 365 with the Okeanos Explorer and intend to keep doing that. Find those areas, which takes a lot of time and effort to do. And then, the other part is we have a responsibility in the government to establish some of these protected areas. We have the National Marine Sanctuary System within the US and we have the National Estuarine Research Reserves. So, we have a few mechanisms that we can build these special areas into. You may have seen it is not just the sort of physical and biological features. We just announced the establishment of a new sanctuary on the Wisconsin shore and it is the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary. It is not just about the physical and biological resources. It's also about cultural resources.
EL: Wow. So Rick, I am going to put you on the spot. We only have two minutes left. What is your personal favorite spot in the ocean?
RS: [LAUGHS] The bottom.
EL: No, no, no, no. You’re the Administrator of NOAA. You have been to the oceans and sailed the seas. What do you like? What is your favorite spot? If you could pick one spot to be looking at, what would it be?
RS: So, Eric, my background, my career is as a physical oceanographer and what I really studied early when I was a solid scientist publishing papers was to understand what we call radiative transfer which is really a fancy way to say how light penetrates the sea. My answer will be a little less ambiguous than what I first said. It will be wherever there is something of a unique feature associated with light. For me that means both the twilight zone, that deep part where you can't really tell where up is and down is. But the other thing is wherever there is bioluminescence. Just one last comment. Earlier in my career I had the opportunity to do a dive in a manned submersible, as we called them, in the Gulf of Maine where there are bioluminescent phytoplankton, and I convinced the pilot to sit on the bottom of the Gulf of Maine where it was really dark and then to turn all the lights off on the submersible, turn the props this way, and spin them. We got a fireworks display of phytoplankton.
EL: I love it. You are someone who follows the light. I love it. Symone, it is so cool to get to work with you here and do this together and go to sea with you.
SB: This is amazing. Thank you. To our audience, please check out the resources that are linked in the YouTube page.
EL: Good-bye everybody until we go to sea again.
SB: Bye everyone. Thank you for joining. [Event concluded]
For more ocean exploration educational resources, check out:
Creep Into the Deep collection from NOAA Ocean Today
Deep Sea Dive collection from NOAA Ocean Today
Ocean Exploration and Bioluminescence collection from NOAA Ocean Today
Ocean Worlds Full Moon Watch Party from NOAA Ocean Today
Deep Ocean Exploration Full Moon Watch Party from NOAA Ocean Today