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A drop in the ocean 6 min read

A drop in the ocean

Over 70% of the Earth's surface is covered by water, and, of that percentage, 96.5% is in the ocean. It's shocking how little we know of it.

By Cary Littlejohn
A drop in the ocean Post image

Yesterday, I walked through falling snow, and the only thought that ran through my mind is the only thought that could one could possibly think in this setting: “Hasn’t it been winter for like seventeen forevers already? Where is the sun? When will it be time for the beach?” And the thought of the beach made me think of the ocean, and the ocean has been in the news recently.

Those recent stories shared a common theme: vastness. The ocean is big and unexplored and the sheer amount of what’s unknown down there makes me stand by my general life advice of “Wading in the ocean is fine, but when the water touches your nipples, it’s about time to turn back; you don’t know what’s out there.” It’s just common sense. But in all seriousness, the oceans, in both depth and breadth, are unimaginably vast. Consider a story I heard in the Cocktail Chatter portion of last week’s episode of Slate’s Political Gabfest: a photo of a 250-foot “ghost ship” that washed ashore in Ireland after drifting in the ocean without a crew for more than a year. ONE YEAR?!?! No one saw fit to track it down and tow it in? It didn’t find shore anywhere in the world in less than a year? Nope. The Atlantic has a beautiful Week in Photos collection, which is absolutely worth your time, and the ghost ship is #23 in that list:

Photos of the Week: Ghost Ship, Greek Spring, Naked Festival - The Atlantic

While the ghost ship example speaks to the vastness of the ocean on its surface – the north, south, east, and west atop the waves until it bumps up against land – The New York Times Magazine had a story the plumbed the depths of the ocean in search of sunken fighter planes from World War II. The article highlights the efforts of a group known as Project Recover, which, over the past 20 years, has found sites where 84 missing American service members might be located; the group has returned 14 sets of human remains to their families.

The Search for World War II Aircraft in the Pacific - The New York Times

The photograph at the top of the story reminded me an incredible visual experience that can be found on Netflix. The very first episode of the first season of Tales By Light, a meta production by Canon that not only celebrates beautiful photography but makes a beautiful documentary of the photographic process as it happens, documents the underwater photography of a sunken bi-plane. Not just any photography but “painting by light,” the practice of using long exposure times and external light sources. The specific photo expedition can be viewed here:

The entire episode/series can be viewed here:

Tales by Light | Netflix Official Site

While thinking about the crushing depths of the ocean, I remembered a great feature from the January/February issue of The Atlantic in which Will S. Hylton describes the escalating race to the bottom of the ocean for mining purposes. The story paints a picture of the competing forces trying to explore the floor of the ocean, and while it spends some time on those seemingly wanting to explore for scientific reasons, the thrust of the story is the high likelihood of extreme pollution resulting from the mining operations. The United Nations has a dedicated group, known as the International Seabed Authority, tasked with developing an underwater Mining Code, but it doesn’t exist yet.

In the meantime, the ISA granted over 30 mineral contractors exploratory permits to dredge the ocean floor without a true governing set of rules. So much is currently unknown about how pollution affects these great depths, including questions about the effects of oil spills, plastics in the water, and danger to bacteria whose job is to absorb carbon. The reality that pollution is almost certainly affecting the deepest reaches of the ocean (and the unique ecosystems that flourish there) despite how little we know about it; therefore, the article’s thesis sounds a lot like, “Seabed mining presents too great an ecological risk at this current state; perhaps we should slow down.”

One might wonder, “Why is it that we know more about the surface of Mars than the depths of the Mariana Trench?”Consider again the staggering enormity of the ocean:

Every 33 feet of depth exerts as much pressure as the atmosphere of the Earth, so when you are just 66 feet down, you are under three times as much pressure as a person on land, and when you are 300 feet down, you’re subjected to 10 atmospheres of pressure. Tube worms living beside hydrothermal vents near the Galápagos are compressed by about 250 atmospheres, and mining vehicles in the CCZ have to endure twice as much—but they are still just half as far down as the deepest trenches. Building a vehicle to function at 36,000 feet, under 2 million pounds of pressure per square foot, is a task of interstellar-type engineering. It’s a good deal more rigorous than, say, bolting together a rover to skitter across Mars. Picture the schematic of an iPhone case that can be smashed with a sledgehammer more or less constantly, from every angle at once, without a trace of damage, and you’re in the ballpark—or just consider the fact that more people have walked on the moon than have reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth.”

Read the entire article here:

Deep-Sea Mining and the Race to the Bottom of the Ocean - The Atlantic

Hylton was once a writer at Esquire, and that history, plus the subject matter of this story, reminded me of a classic Esquire piece about the search for MH370, the Malaysia Air crash that killed 239 passengers and still hasn’t been recovered years after the crash. The crash has been in the news recently, as it’s been revealed that top Malaysian leaders suspected the pilot was responsible for a mass murder-suicide. Since the crash has resurfaced in the media’s attention, it seems appropriate to revisit a spectacular piece of reporting and writing. Bucky McMahon paints a beautiful portrait of human resiliency, hope, stubbornness, and bravery in the relentless search mission in the wilderness that is the Indian Ocean. It became the most expensive search in aviation history. Numerous moments of character are uplifting, such as Australia stepping up to lead the search because simply because it considers the Indian Ocean its responsibility. Or tireless crews running searches 24 hours a day in rough seas. Or the ship captain who knows “there’s nothing natural about aircraft safety,” but rather “diligence and hard work” that keeps them in the air, and to quit the search too soon, to let MH370 become simply myth and mystery, undermines that hard work. The story is also a meditation on interconnectedness in this day and age, what it means for humanity if 239 souls can just disappear despite all the safeguards we have in place to remain seen and heard and findable. Read it here:

The Plane at the Bottom of the Ocean | Esquire

Of course, whenever possible, I’ll point out a podcast to partner with your reading to enhance the experience, and this one is provided by the Esquire Classic podcast, the too-short-lived show that revisits timeless pieces of longform journalism with the authors or others closely associated with the piece. McMahon is a great guest, and you can listen to it here:

Finally, McMahon’s piece is an excuse to celebrate one of the greatest pieces in Esquire’s history. Perhaps all history. See, above when I said “239 souls,” that was not my poetry; it was McMahon’s. He said:

“Two hundred and thirty-nine souls. Mothers, fathers, lovers. Calligraphy artists and technical wizards. A two-year-old boy. Predominantly Chinese, they also include the citizens of fourteen nations. They are connected by heartstrings to thousands, by lesser bonds of profession and acquaintance to millions. They await the only rescue left to them: the return to their loved ones, and the world of the known.”

It sounds so much like Michael Paterniti’s pitch-perfect story, “The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy,” another tale of a plane crash. I’ve sung Paterniti’s praises before; I shall sing them forever. McMahon’s description of the passengers on MH370 sounds so much like Paterniti’s description of some on SR111:

“In one row would be a family with two grown kids, a computer-genius son and an attorney daughter, setting out on their hiking holiday to the Bernese Oberland. In another would be a woman whose boyfriend was planning to propose to her when she arrived in Geneva. Sitting here would be a world-famous scientist, with his world-famous scientist wife. And there would be the boxer’s son, a man who had grown to look like his legendary father, the same thick brow and hard chin, the same mournful eyes, on a business trip to promote his father’s tomato sauce.”

Beyond the detail and the lyrical flow of Paterniti’s prose, this story will always come to mind when I hear the word “souls” used as McMahon did. For sometimes, the universe drops into a journalist’s lap a word or turn of phrase that seems too perfect for the moment, and in Paterniti’s case, when the plane began experiencing trouble and before radio contact had ceased, the air traffic controller asked the pilot of SR111, “Could I have the number of souls on board…for emergency services?

Read it here:

Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy

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