Time after time the search has been made, and time after time, they've all come back empty handed. However this week, Kongsberg Maritime Ltd, the UK division of Kongsberg Maritime, has achieved the unimaginable and uncovered the elusive Nessie. That is, the long lost model of Nessie which was used during filming of 1970's "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes".
A 30ft (9m) model of the Loch Ness
Monster built in 1969 for a Sherlock Holmes movie has been found almost
50 years after it sank in the loch.
The beast was created for the
Billy Wilder-directed The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, starring Sir
Robert Stephens and Sir Christopher Lee.
It has been seen for the first time in images captured by an underwater robot.
Loch Ness expert Adrian Shine said the shape, measurements and location pointed to the object being the prop.
An underwater robot detected the Nessie model during a survey of parts of Loch Ness
Another of Kongsberg Maritime's images of the lost Nessie model
The robot, operated by Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime, is being used to investigate what lies in the depths of Loch Ness.
Loch Ness with the GeoGarage platform (UKHO charts)
and Mr Shine's The Loch Ness Project, which gathers scientific
information on the loch's ecology and the potential for a monster, is
supporting the survey.
Mr Shine told the BBC News Scotland website: "We have found a monster, but not the one many people might have expected.
"The model was built with a neck and two humps and taken alongside a pier for filming of portions of the film in 1969.
director did not want the humps and asked that they be removed, despite
warnings I suspect from the rest of the production that this would
affect its buoyancy.
"And the inevitable happened. The model sank."
A computer generated image of the film prop based on the scan made by the drone
Mr Shine added: "We can confidently say that this is the model
because of where it was found, the shape - there is the neck and no
humps - and from the measurements."
The model was floated out to a place in the loch where only a few months earlier claims of sighting of Nessie had been made.
The long lost model of Nessie used during filming of the 1970's "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes".
A still from the movie showing the new prop made following the loss of the 30ft version
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was made in the US and UK in 1969 and released in cinemas in 1970.
was directed by Billy Wilder, a famous figure of Hollywood's "golden
age" whose long catalogue of features included Some Like It Hot starring
The Sherlock film tells of the detective
investigating the disappearance of an engineer. The case takes him to
Loch Ness and an encounter with a monster.
Sir Robert Stephens played Holmes, Colin Blakely was Dr Watson and Sir Christopher Lee was the sleuth's brother, Mycroft Holmes.
special effects artist Wally Veevers, whose other work included 2001: A
Space Odyssey, Superman and Local Hero, led the building of the
30ft-long Loch Ness Monster.
It sank on its first outing on the loch while being towed behind a boat.
Wilder is said to have comforted Veevers after watching his creation disappear beneath the waves.
director, who had also been dogged with problems lighting scenes at
Loch Ness, had a new monster made - but just its head and neck - and
moved the filming to a large water tank in the film studio.
Kongsberg's torpedo-shaped Munin drone is equipped with sonar imaging and has already made several sweeps of the loch's bottom.
Among other material the drone has already detected have been the wreck of an unidentified sunken boat.
However, measurements made using the device dispute a claim made in January of a new deepest point in the loch.
A tour boat skipper Keith Stewart recorded a depth of 889ft (270.9m) on sonar equipment he uses.
The official maximum depth, which still remains in place, is 754ft (229.8m).
Kongsberg's robot Munin
The survey work continues with the drone
An image of the sunken boat found during the survey
Kongsberg's survey work forms part of Mr Shine's ongoing called Operation Groundtruth,
Roughead, chief executive of VisitScotland, added: "No two areas around
or on the water feel the same - whether it is a sense of awe at the
beauty of the scenery or a feeling of anticipation at what might surface
from below the waters.
"We are excited to see the findings from
this in-depth survey by Kongsberg, but no matter how state-of-the-art
the equipment is, and no matter what it may reveal, there will always be
a sense of mystery and the unknown around what really lies beneath Loch
The latest survey challenges a recording of a new deepest point in the loch People have been searching for the Loch Ness monster for centuries. Now you can explore for yourself in Google Maps.
At 0400, three miles above the Pacific seafloor, the searchlight of a power boat swept through a warm June night last year, looking for a second boat, a sailing canoe.
The captain of the canoe, Alson Kelen, potentially the world’s last-ever apprentice in the ancient art of wave-piloting, was trying to reach Aur, an atoll in the Marshall Islands, without the aid of a GPS device or any other way-finding instrument.
If successful, he would prove that one of the most sophisticated navigational techniques ever developed still existed and, he hoped, inspire efforts to save it from extinction.
Monitoring his progress from the power boat were an unlikely trio of Western scientists — an anthropologist, a physicist and an oceanographer — who were hoping his journey might help them explain how wave pilots, in defiance of the dizzying complexities of fluid dynamics, detect direction and proximity to land.
More broadly, they wondered if watching him sail, in the context of growing concerns about the neurological effects of navigation-by-smartphone, would yield hints about how our orienteering skills influence our sense of place, our sense of home, even our sense of self.
Majuro island & Arno attoll with the GeoGarage platform (NGA chart)
When the boats set out in the afternoon from Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, Kelen’s plan was to sail through the night and approach Aur at daybreak, to avoid crashing into its reef in the dark.
But around sundown, the wind picked up and the waves grew higher and rounder, sorely testing both the scientists’ powers of observation and the structural integrity of the canoe.
Through the salt-streaked windshield of the power boat, the anthropologist, Joseph Genz, took mental field notes — the spotlighted whitecaps, the position of Polaris, his grip on the cabin handrail — while he waited for Kelen to radio in his location or, rather, what he thought his location was.
The Marshalls provide a crucible for navigation: 70 square miles of land, total, comprising five islands and 29 atolls, rings of coral islets that grew up around the rims of underwater volcanoes millions of years ago and now encircle gentle lagoons.
These green dots and doughnuts make up two parallel north-south chains, separated from their nearest neighbors by a hundred miles on average.
Swells generated by distant storms near Alaska, Antarctica, California and Indonesia travel thousands of miles to these low-lying spits of sand.
When they hit, part of their energy is reflected back out to sea in arcs, like sound waves emanating from a speaker; another part curls around the atoll or island and creates a confused chop in its lee.
Wave-piloting is the art of reading — by feel and by sight — these and other patterns.
Detecting the minute differences in what, to an untutored eye, looks no more meaningful than a washing-machine cycle allows a ri-meto, a person of the sea in Marshallese, to determine where the nearest solid ground is — and how far off it lies — long before it is visible.
“Figure of the Five Islands Where Grow the Cloves, and of Their Tree.”
In the 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan, searching for a new route to the nutmeg and cloves of the Spice Islands, sailed through the Pacific Ocean and named it ‘‘the peaceful sea’’ before he was stabbed to death in the Philippines.
Only 18 of his 270 men survived the trip.
When subsequent explorers, despite similar travails, managed to make landfall on the countless islands sprinkled across this expanse, they were surprised to find inhabitants with nary a galleon, compass or chart.
God had created them there, the explorers hypothesized, or perhaps the islands were the remains of a sunken continent.
As late as the 1960s, Western scholars still insisted that indigenous methods of navigating by stars, sun, wind and waves were not nearly accurate enough, nor indigenous boats seaworthy enough, to have reached these tiny habitats on purpose.
Archaeological and DNA evidence (and replica voyages) have since proved that the Pacific islands were settled intentionally — by descendants of the first humans to venture out of sight of land, beginning some 60,000 years ago, from Southeast Asia to the Solomon Islands.
They reached the Marshall Islands about 2,000 years ago.
The geography of the archipelago that made wave-piloting possible also made it indispensable as the sole means of collecting food, trading goods, waging war and locating unrelated sexual partners.
Chiefs threatened to kill anyone who revealed navigational knowledge without permission.
In order to become a ri-meto, you had to be trained by a ri-meto and then pass a voyaging test, devised by your chief, on the first try.
As colonizers from Europe introduced easier ways to get around, the training of ri-metos declined and became restricted primarily to an outlying atoll called Rongelap, where a shallow circular reef, set between ocean and lagoon, became the site of a small wave-piloting school.
In 1954, an American hydrogen-bomb test less than a hundred miles away rendered Rongelap uninhabitable.
Over the next decades, no new ri-metos were recognized; when the last well-known one died in 2003, he left a 55-year-old cargo-ship captain named Korent Joel, who had trained at Rongelap as a boy, the effective custodian of their people’s navigational secrets.
Because of the radioactive fallout, Joel had not taken his voyaging test and thus was not a true ri-meto.
But fearing that the knowledge might die with him, he asked for and received historic dispensation from his chief to train his younger cousin, Alson Kelen, as a wave pilot.
Now, in the lurching cabin of the power boat, Genz worried about whether Kelen knew what he was doing.
Because Kelen was not a ri-meto, social mores forced him to insist that he was not navigating but kajjidede, or guessing.
The sea was so rough tonight, Genz thought, that even for Joel, picking out a route would be like trying to hear a whisper in a gale.
A voyage with this level of navigational difficulty had never been undertaken by anyone who was not a ri-meto or taking his test to become one.
Genz steeled himself for the possibility that he might have to intervene for safety’s sake, even if this was the best chance that he and his colleagues might ever get to unravel the scientific mysteries of wave-piloting — and Kelen’s best chance to rally support for preserving it.
Organizing this trip had cost $72,000 in research grants, a fortune in the Marshalls.
The radio crackled.
‘‘Jebro, Jebro, this is Jitdam,’’ Kelen said.
‘‘Do you copy? Over.’’
The cabin’s confines, together with the boat’s diesel odors, did nothing to allay his motion sickness.
‘‘Copy that,’’ he said.
‘‘Do you know where you are?’’
Though mankind has managed to navigate itself across the globe and into outer space, it has done so in defiance of our innate way-finding capacities (not to mention survival instincts), which are still those of forest-dwelling homebodies.
Other species use far more sophisticated cognitive methods to orient themselves.
Dung beetles follow the Milky Way; the Cataglyphis desert ant dead-reckons by counting its paces; monarch butterflies, on their thousand-mile, multigenerational flight from Mexico to the Rocky Mountains, calculate due north using the position of the sun, which requires accounting for the time of day, the day of the year and latitude; honeybees, newts, spiny lobsters, sea turtles and many others read magnetic fields.
Last year, the fact of a ‘‘magnetic sense’’ was confirmed when Russian scientists put reed warblers in a cage that simulated different magnetic locations and found that the warblers always tried to fly ‘‘home’’ relative to whatever the programmed coordinates were.
Precisely how the warblers detected these coordinates remains unclear.
As does, for another example, the uncanny capacity of godwits to hatch from their eggs in Alaska and, alone, without ever stopping, take off for French Polynesia.
Clearly they and other long-distance migrants inherit a mental map and the ability to constantly recalibrate it.
What it looks like in their mind’s eye, however, and how it is maintained day and night, across thousands of miles, is still a mystery.
Efforts to scientifically deduce the neurological underpinnings of navigational abilities in humans and other species arguably began in 1948.
An American psychologist named Edward Tolman made the heretical assertion that rats, until then regarded as mere slaves to behavioral reinforcement or punishment, create ‘‘cognitive maps’’ of their habitat.
Tolman let rats accustom themselves to a maze with food at the end; then, leaving the food in the same spot, he rearranged the walls to introduce shortcuts — which the rodents took to reach the reward.
This suggested that their sampling of various routes had given them a picture of the maze as a whole.
Tolman hypothesized that humans have cognitive maps, too, and that they are not just spatial but social.
‘‘Broad cognitive maps,’’ he posited, lead to empathy, while narrow ones lead to ‘‘dangerous hates of outsiders,’’ ranging from ‘‘discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations.
’’ Indeed, anthropologists today, especially those working in the Western Pacific, are increasingly aware of the potential ways in which people’s physical environment — and how they habitually move through it — may shape their social relationships and how those ties may in turn influence their orienteering.
The cognitive map is now understood to have its own physical location, as a collection of electrochemical firings in the brain.
In 1971, John O’Keefe, a neuroscientist at University College London, and a colleague reported that it had been pinpointed in the limbic system, an evolutionarily primitive region largely responsible for our emotional lives — specifically, within the hippocampus, an area where memories form.
When O’Keefe implanted electrodes in rats’ hippocampuses and measured their neural activity as they traveled through a maze, he detected ‘‘place cells’’ firing to mark their positions.
In 1984, James B. Ranck Jr., a physiologist at the State University of New York, identified cells in an adjacent part of the brain that became active depending on the direction a rat’s head was pointing — here was a kind of compass.
And in 2005, building on these discoveries, Edvard and May-Britt Moser, neuroscientists at the Kavil Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Norway, found that our brains overlay our surroundings with a pattern of triangles.
Any time we reach an apex of one, a ‘‘grid cell’’ in an area of the brain in constant dialogue with the hippocampus delineates our position relative to the rest of the matrix.
In 2014, O’Keefe and the Mosers shared a Nobel Prize for their discoveries of this ‘‘inner GPS’’ that constantly and subconsciously computes location.
The discovery that human orientation takes place in memory’s seat — researchers have long known that damage to the hippocampus can cause amnesia — has raised the tantalizing prospect of a link between the two.
In the late 1990s, Eleanor Maguire, a neuroscientist at University College London, began studying London taxi drivers, who must memorize the city’s complex layout to obtain a license.
Eventually, she showed that when cabbies frequently access and revise their cognitive map, parts of their hippocampuses become larger; when they retire, those parts shrink.
By contrast, following a sequence of directional instructions, as we do when using GPS, does not activate the hippocampus at all, according to work done by Veronique Bohbot, a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University.
Bohbot and others are now trying to determine what effect, if any, the repeated bypassing of this region of the brain might be having on us.
The hippocampus is one of the first areas disrupted by Alzheimer’s disease, an early symptom of which is disorientation; shrinkage in the hippocampus and neighboring regions appears to increase the risk of depression, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
On the other hand, the taxi drivers who exercised their hippocampuses so much that parts of them changed size were worse at other memory tasks — and their performance on those improved after they retired.
Few of us spend all day every day navigating, however, as cabbies do, and Maguire doubts that our GPS use is extreme enough to transform our gray matter.
What seems clear is that our ability to navigate is inextricably tied not just to our ability to remember the past but also to learning, decision-making, imagining and planning for the future.
And though our sense of direction often feels innate, it may develop — and perhaps be modified — in a region of the brain called the retrosplenial cortex, next to the hippocampus, which becomes active when we investigate and judge the permanence of landmarks.
In 2012, Maguire and co-authors published their finding that an accurate understanding of whether a landmark is likely to stay put separates good navigators from poor ones, who are as apt to take cues from an idling delivery truck as a church steeple.
The retrosplenial cortex passes our decisions about the stability of objects to the hippocampus, where their influence on way-finding intersects with other basic cognitive skills that, like memory, are as crucial to identity as to survival.
Recently, Maguire and colleagues proposed a new unified theory of the hippocampus, imagining it not as a repository for disparate memories and directions but as a constructor of scenes that incorporate both.
(Try to recall a moment from your past or picture a future one without visualizing yourself in the physical space where that moment happens.
) Edvard and May-Britt Moser have similarly hypothesized that our ability to time-travel mentally evolved directly from our ability to travel in the physical world, and that the mental processes that make navigation possible are also the ones that allow us to tell a story.
‘‘In the same way that an infinite number of paths can connect the origin and endpoint of a journey,’’ Edvard Moser and another co-author wrote in a 2013 paper, ‘‘a recalled story can be told in many ways, connecting the beginning and the end through innumerable variations.’’
Disorientation is always stressful, and before modern civilization, it was often a death sentence.
Sometimes it still is.
But recent studies have shown that people who use GPS, when given a pen and paper, draw less-precise maps of the areas they travel through and remember fewer details about the landmarks they pass; paradoxically, this seems to be because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going.
Being lost — assuming, of course, that you are eventually found — has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective.
From that standpoint, the greatest threat posed by GPS might be that we never do not know exactly where we are.
Marshall islands with the GeoGarage platform (NGA charts)
Genz took his thumb off the radio receiver’s talk button and waited for Kelen’s reply.
He could make out on deck John Huth, a Harvard physicist and member of the international team that discovered the Higgs boson particle, vomiting volubly off the port side.
The last time Genz checked, Gerbrant van Vledder, an oceanographer at Delft University in the Netherlands, one of the world’s foremost institutions for wave modeling, was huddled miserably behind the abandoned galley, where a lone cabbage thudded against the walls of the sink.
Compounding their digestive distress, a booby, ignoring the limitations of its webbed feet, had crash-landed on the deck, barring the men’s access to the head.
Sometimes Genz felt that all his decade of research on wave-piloting had taught him was that he could never hope to predict what might go wrong next.
Genz met Alson Kelen and Korent Joel in Majuro in 2005, when Genz was 28.
A soft-spoken, freckled Wisconsinite and former Peace Corps volunteer who grew up sailing with his father, Genz was then studying for a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Hawaii.
His adviser there, Ben Finney, was an anthropologist who helped lead the voyage of Hokulea, a replica Polynesian sailing canoe, from Hawaii to Tahiti and back in 1976; the success of the trip, which involved no modern instrumentation and was meant to prove the efficacy of indigenous ships and navigational methods, stirred a resurgence of native Hawaiian language, music, hula and crafts.
Joel and Kelen dreamed of a similar revival for Marshallese sailing — the only way, they figured, for wave-piloting to endure — and contacted Finney for guidance.
But Finney was nearing retirement, so he suggested that Genz go in his stead.
With their chief’s blessing, Joel and Kelen offered Genz rare access, with one provision: He would not learn wave-piloting himself; he would simply document Kelen’s training.
Joel immediately asked Genz to bring scientists to the Marshalls who could help Joel understand the mechanics of the waves he knew only by feel — especially one called di lep, or backbone, the foundation of wave-piloting, which (in ri-meto lore) ran between atolls like a road.
Joel’s grandfather had taught him to feel the di lep at the Rongelap reef: He would lie on his back in a canoe, blindfolded, while the old man dragged him around the coral, letting him experience how it changed the movement of the waves.
But when Joel took Genz out in the Pacific on borrowed yachts and told him they were encountering the di lep, he couldn’t feel it.
Kelen said he couldn’t, either.
When oceanographers from the University of Hawaii came to look for it, their equipment failed to detect it.
The idea of a wave-road between islands, they told Genz, made no sense.
Privately, Genz began to fear that the di lep was imaginary, that wave-piloting was already extinct.
On one research trip in 2006, when Korent Joel went below deck to take a nap, Genz changed the yacht’s course.
When Joel awoke, Genz kept Joel away from the GPS device, and to the relief of them both, Joel directed the boat toward land.
Later, he also passed his ri-meto test, judged by his chief, with Genz and Kelen crewing.
Worlds away, Huth, a worrier by nature, had become convinced that preserving mankind’s ability to way-find without technology was not just an abstract mental exercise but also a matter of life and death.
In 2003, while kayaking alone in Nantucket Sound, fog descended, and Huth — spring-loaded and boyish, with a near-photographic memory — found his way home using local landmarks, the wind and the direction of the swells.
Later, he learned that two young undergraduates, out paddling in the same fog, had become disoriented and drowned.
This prompted him to begin teaching a class on primitive navigation techniques.
When Huth met Genz at an academic conference in 2012 and described the methodology of his search for the Higgs boson and dark energy — subtracting dominant wave signals from a field, until a much subtler signal appears underneath — Genz told him about the di lep, and it captured Huth’s imagination.
If it was real, and if it really ran back and forth between islands, its behavior was unknown to physics and would require a supercomputer to model.
That a person might be able to sense it bodily amid the cacophony generated by other ocean phenomena was astonishing.
Huth began creating possible di lep simulations in his free time and recruited van Vledder’s help.
Initially, the most puzzling detail of Genz’s translation of Joel’s description was his claim that the di lep connected each atoll and island to all 33 others.
That would yield a trillion trillion paths, far too many for even the most adept wave pilot to memorize.
Most of what we know about ocean waves and currents — including what will happen to coastlines as climate change leads to higher sea levels (of special concern to the low-lying Netherlands and Marshall Islands) — comes from models that use global wind and bathymetry data to simulate what wave patterns probably look like at a given place and time.
Our understanding of wave mechanics, on which those models are based, is wildly incomplete.
To improve them, experts must constantly check their assumptions with measurements and observations.
Perhaps, Huth and van Vledder thought, there were di leps in every ocean, invisible roads that no one was seeing because they didn’t know to look.
Early last year, Genz and Kelen, grants in hand, saw a chance to show Huth and van Vledder the di lep.
Kelen is the director of Waan Aelon in Majel, or Canoes of The Marshall Islands, a nonprofit organization that teaches students to build canoes using traditional methods and modern materials.
If the students hurried, the first sailing canoe to be built in the Marshalls in decades — the Jitdam Kapeel, which can be roughly translated as ‘‘the sharing of knowledge’’ — could be ready by summer’s sailing season.
Kelen’s goal is for his students to build, staff and maintain a fleet that will transport goods and passengers between atolls and islets without using fossil fuels.
Despite the expectation that the Marshalls will be one of the first countries to disappear beneath rising seas, Kelen envisions a renaissance of sailing: a means for his students to reclaim their heritage while creating jobs that don’t contribute to their own destruction.
Huth and van Vledder bought plane tickets to Majuro while Genz and Kelen made arrangements for the journey.
At the last minute, Joel's leg became infected, and Kelen offered to pilot in his place.
The scientists embraced this new plan: Talking with Joel before and after, they figured, would be almost as useful as having him onboard.
Soon after arriving, they visited him at home, where he was confined to bed, and eagerly showed him their maps and simulations while posing detailed queries about various properties of the di lep.
Although this was the scientific investigation Joel had been pushing for, he seemed reluctant to respond.
He asked Huth and van Vledder if they believed in the di lep; they still weren’t sure, they replied.
Holding a rudimentary map that Huth had made of wave frequencies between Majuro and Aur, the captain traced a shaded region with his finger.
‘‘Di lep here,’’ he said.
The next afternoon, Kelen and his five-man crew set out for Aur.
A breeze rattled the palms, blowing the Jitdam past a fleet of slumbering cargo ships anchored in the lagoon.
The power boat Jebro puttered in pursuit.
At the mouth of the opening between islets into the Pacific, the setting sun threw a flickering train on the water.
‘‘Now we get the truth,’’ Huth cried, thrusting a sextant toward the sky.
‘‘The moment of reckoning!’’
Twelve hours later, Huth was seasick, bent over the deck rail, to which he had bound himself with a harness and tether.
‘‘If anyone said the di lep was subtle, they were wrong,’’ he said, wiping his mouth.
Nevertheless, he was doggedly recording on the hour the boat’s GPS coordinates, the wind speed and direction and his observations of the waves in a waterproof notebook.
This data would allow him to map the journey with wind and wave details at each coordinate; van Vledder could later add wind data collected by satellite and local bathymetry, using programs written at Delft, to create a computer model of the seas they were currently in.
In the cabin, Genz heard Kelen’s voice on the radio again.
Kelen could see the lights of the Jebro behind him, he said, and he thought they were about 10 miles east of Aur.
Because they were approaching its reef too fast, his plan was to overshoot it, then look for it to his west after sunrise.
Genz glanced at the boat’s GPS device and realized that Kelen, over the last decade, might have learned more than he had ever let on.
He wanted to shout congratulations.
‘‘Copy that,’’ he said instead.
The sky grew lighter, revealing more sky, a flock of seabirds fishing and, finally, far ahead, the canoe, battered but intact, struggling to head downwind.
After getting a brief tow from the Jebro, it reached Aur under its own power.
An empty beach came into view, then children running on it.
‘‘This is feeling like an adventurer,’’ van Vledder said.
‘‘Coming to a new place, and people out to welcome you.’’
The entire village was waiting in a palm-frond-thatched pavilion, having been alerted by ham radio.
A woman put leis around the necks of the sailors and scientists as they entered.
The community had piled a long table with lobster, fish, breadfruit, plantains and rice balls with coconut.
The acting chief of the island made a speech.
He said the local children had never seen a sailing canoe before.
The islanders wanted to learn to build them again; they had only one motorboat, and gasoline there cost more per gallon than most of them made in a month of selling fish and handicrafts in Majuro.
Two mornings later, Kelen stood outside a cinder-block schoolhouse on Aur that the chief had offered as a dormitory, looking up at an overcast sky and weighing again — as he had when he first met Genz — how much of his knowledge to share in order to keep it alive.
Now in his late 40s and newly a grandfather, he had lived his early childhood on the atoll nearest Rongelap, Bikini, where the hydrogen bomb and dozens of other nuclear weapons were exploded.
Later, as part of a program to test the effects of radiation on humans, American officials told the people from Bikini and Rongelap that their islands were safe to resettle, so they returned for several years.
During this period, Kelen’s father taught him to sail in a traditional canoe made by Kelen’s grandfather.
When Kelen was 10, the Americans finally evacuated the islanders to Kili, an uninhabited island bedeviled on all sides by violent ocean swells too rough for the canoe, which rotted away.
Eventually, Kelen’s parents moved to Majuro, home to half of the nation’s 50,000 citizens — an urban hub compared with the outer islands.
They sent Kelen, a top student, to boarding school in Honolulu.
There, when he was 19, he went with his class down to the docks to watch the world-famous Hokulea return from a trip to New Zealand.
Later, he came back to Majuro as a young man and dedicated himself to the preservation of fading skills, like weaving and canoe-building.
But he felt tremendous ambivalence about what gaining resources to preserve his culture, or any native culture, seemed to require: allowing outsiders, whether academics or reporters, to commodify it.
Secrecy and hands-on training is integral to the tradition of wave-piloting; explaining the di lep would disrupt those features of it even while immortalizing it in books and journals, perhaps inspiring more Marshallese children to become ri-metos.
The tide was on its way out as the sailors and scientists began to load up for the 70-mile journey back to Majuro.
The villagers sang again and prayed for their safe return.
They laid another feast and stocked the canoe with provisions, packed in woven pandanus baskets, and handicrafts, including a toy sailing canoe, a perfect imitation, small and light as a bird.
Until now, because his crew and canoe were untested, Kelen had deemed it unsafe to have any passengers aboard the Jitdam.
One more person could fit, however, and he invited me on board.
At Work | John Huth (left), a physicist, and Gerbrant van Vledder (center), an oceanographer, on the Jitdam Kapeel. Mark Peterson / Redux, for the NYTimes
‘‘Youp, youp,’’ called Binton Daniel, the master builder who had supervised the construction of the Jitdam, and the sail shot up.
The sailors waved in overhead arcs at the people on the beach.
The people waved back.
Gradually, the sound of swells rushing against the coral rim of the lagoon grew louder.
With a thunk, the bottom of the canoe hit the top of the reef and slid across, and we were out in open water.
Daniel eased the mainsheet and let the boom swing out.
The first mate, Jason Ralpho, a stern-looking man in gray socks who worked with Kelen at the Ports Authority, and Ejnar Aerok, a plump, professional karaoke singer, secured the line to a cleat.
The youngest, Elmi Juonran, lifted a lid off one of two hatches and, muttering, disappeared to boil water for ramen in a big silver teakettle.
‘‘He says he’s the only one who knows the password to these doors,’’ Kelen said.
Juonran’s cousin, Sear Helios, named for the department store his parents visited on a trip to Honolulu, steered from the stern of the canoe with a 50-pound wooden paddle.
Kelen leaned back against the mast and looked at the front of the outrigger float and the back, estimating our speed.
He checked his wristwatch.
The wind was coming from the northeast, and the current, he said, would take us farther east that night.
Ostensibly, he was dead-reckoning — to do that you must know where you started, where you’re going, how fast you’re moving and in what direction.
Wave-piloting, if Genz, Huth and van Vledder are right, is more precise; theoretically, a wave-pilot, dropped blindfolded into a boat in Marshallese waters, could follow a set of seamarks — waves of a particular shape — alone to land.
‘‘Majuro should be that way,’’ Kelen said, pointing.
‘‘I’m closing my eyes and looking at the wind. This is a very short distance. Again, I’m only a student. I’m entitled to a few mistakes.’’
Swells glided, smooth and gentle, beneath us.
Sunset cracked yolk on a puffy lavender sky.
The horizon appeared infinite and also very near, as if we had fallen into a mixing bowl.
Around us, the crew faded into shadow.
Ralpho lit a cigarette, and its tip burned orange in the dark.
The sail luffed.
‘‘This is kind of scary smooth,’’ Kelen said.
‘‘Does it feel like we’re moving anywhere? That’s not good. We have to move or we’ll drift away from the islands.’’
Yet he didn’t sound worried.
We lay back.
The sky was foggy with stars.
As a young man, Kelen said, he spent some time on the West Coast, picking strawberries in Oregon, working in a turkey plant, then driving a Rent Town USA truck up and down Highway 101.
He described long days of sweet berries, of cutting the necks of birds, of truck-stop sloppy Joes and giant cups of coffee.
We lost sight of the Jebro and missed three call-ins.
Kelen could still remember fishing as a child on Bikini, its long white beaches.
In his memory, everyone there was happy.
Periodically, a government ship brought provisions, and men in white lab coats tested him and the other islanders with a huge machine.
When the ship came to take them away for good, Kelen thought they were going for a ride.
Aerok began to sing in a high, lonely tenor.
Ralpho added baritone harmony.
‘‘It’s kind of like a country-music song,’’ Kelen said.
‘‘ ‘I see you as beautiful as a sunset, and I cry when I leave the beach that you stand on.
’ It’s kind of like a sailors’ leaving-home song.
It’s a song when you start singing it, everyone knows it.’’
I closed my eyes.
The sounds of the canoe — creaking, sloshing, rippling — traced its shape like fingers moving over a face in the dark.
I awoke to Aerok and Juonran singing about Majuro, another sad song.
The sky spilled radiance onto the water.
Beside me, Kelen was awake, too.
‘‘Every time I look up at heaven, I wonder, How many Earths are out there?’’ he said.
‘‘How many planets like ours? There’s millions of galaxies.
There must be something.’’
We saw one star drop, then another.
‘‘Every time I see a falling star, I make a wish and I don’t tell nobody,’’ he said.
‘‘I don’t believe very many things, but this is something that makes me feel good, even if it isn’t true.’’
By 9:30 the next morning, the sun was high and the sailors had grown quiet.
Kelen rested his shoulder against the mast, peering into the distance.
If we didn’t see Majuro by 10, he said, the current had pushed us too far to the west.
At 9:50, Juonran pointed, and everyone else followed his finger to the faintest of tints on the horizon.
Kelen swatted him on the butt.
The sailors laughed.
‘‘Another good guess,’’ Kelen said to me.
All maps are but representations of reality: They render the physical world in symbols and highlight important relationships — the proximity of one subway stop to another, say — that are invisible to the naked eye.
If storytelling, the way we structure and make meaning from the events of our lives, arose from navigating, so, too, is the practice of navigation inherently bound up with storytelling, in all its subjectivity.
‘‘When I was young, we had canoes,’’ Kelen told me one afternoon on Aur.
‘‘We didn’t have TVs.
In evening time, my father would open his arm, like this, and say lie there,’’ he tapped the inside of his elbow, ‘‘and he would tell me the legends of sailing.
Some people have those heroes, like Superman, and they’re picturing they are Superman.
When my dad talked about sailing, I was on that canoe.’’
To teach way-finding, the Marshallese use stick charts, wood frames crosshatched like dream catchers to represent swells coming from four cardinal directions, with shells woven in to symbolize the position of the atolls.
These meant nothing to the first European explorers to see them, just as Mercator projections meant nothing to the Marshallese.
Even today, local schoolchildren visiting the historical museum in Majuro are sometimes baffled when they’re told that the blue and green pictures on the walls are pictures of where they are.
If ‘‘where’’ is both subjective and physical, what do you need to know, precisely, to figure out where you are? From the moment our nomad ancestors wandered out of Africa until a few decades ago, locating yourself required interacting in some way with the environment: following the stars or a migrating herd of wildebeests, even reading a compass or a street sign.
Then, in the time it took to transition from rotary phones to smartphones, we became the first unnatural long-distance migrants, followers of step-by-step instructions that obviated the need to look around at all.
Over the last several years, organizations like the United States military and the Federal Aviation Administration have expressed concern about their overwhelming reliance on GPS and the possibility that the network’s satellite signals could be sabotaged by an enemy or disabled by a strong solar flare.
The United States Naval Academy has once again begun training midshipmen how to take their position from the stars with a sextant.
As researchers urgently explore what GPS is doing to our minds, wave-piloting — a technique that seems to involve the subtlest environmental cues a person can detect — is slipping, virtually unnoticed, from human consciousness.
Even if Huth and van Vledder could figure out how it worked, they admitted, it didn’t mean they could feel it or teach others how to do so.
Back on Majuro, they spent several days typing notes and crunching data, barely emerging from their rooms.
Huth created a preliminary map of the route and approximate wind and sea conditions to show Korent Joel to see if he could identify a pattern that might be the di lep.
But when they arrived at his home again, they learned that he had checked into the hospital the previous afternoon.
Several weeks later, he was flown to Honolulu, where surgeons determined that his leg was gangrenous and amputated it below the knee.
In his absence, Kelen and Genz helped Huth and van Vledder quiz Joel’s Rongelapese uncle for stray clues to di lep’s features, but nothing they recognized as epiphanies.
Until November, when van Vledder visited Cambridge, Mass., where he and Huth sequestered themselves in Huth’s office.
As they mapped the coordinates Huth had recorded atop van Vledder’s model of sea conditions, they found that the path they had taken was exactly perpendicular to a dominant eastern swell flowing between Majuro and Aur.
And at places where the swell, influenced by the surrounding atolls, turned slightly northeast or southeast, the path bent to match.
It was a curve.
Everyone had assumed that a wave called ‘‘backbone’’ would look like one.
‘‘But nobody said the di lep is a straight line,’’ van Vledder said.
What if, they conjectured, the ‘‘road’’ isn’t a single wave reflecting back and forth between every possible combination of atolls and islands; what if it is the path you take if you keep your vessel at 90 degrees to the strongest swell flowing between neighboring bodies of land? Position your broadside correctly, smack in the di lep’s path, and your hull would rock symmetrically, side to side — in a manner that would turn a loose cabbage into a pendulum and teach an anthropologist, a physicist and an oceanographer a hard lesson about the human gastrointestinal system’s adaptation to life at sea.
In other words, it was as Joel’s uncle had, it turned out, told them: The di lep feels like pidodo, diarrhea.
We might have been riding it all along.
As of today, most of the oceans have not been explored. GEBCO (General Bathymetric Chart of The Oceans) is a non-profit organization, which relies largely on the voluntary contributions of an enthusiastic international team of geoscientists and hydrographers. The purpose of GEBCO is to provide the most authoritative publicly-available bathymetry of the world's oceans.
GEBCO produces charts and digital grids of the world oceans with data contributed from many reliable sources.
When the 3,351-TEU container ship Rena grounded off New Zealand in 2011, the cargo losses totaled $1 billion, and the salvage operation took seven months.
The loss pales in comparison to what’s at stake as the latest generation of container ships approach 20,000 20-foot-equivalent units.
“The Rena, next to an ultra-large container ship, would be like an average-sized 2-year-old next to Shaquille O’Neal,” Chris Smith, senior vice president of ocean marine at Endurance Insurance, said at an American Institute of Marine Underwriters seminar last May.
“Pick a figure: $2 billion, $3 billion, $4 billion. A grounding by an ultra-large container ship with a large capacity cannot be ruled out, and the loss could be $4 billion.”
And, while it took seven months to clean up the Rena, it “could take two years to remove all the containers from a 19,000-TEU ship in the event of an incident, assuming that it was possible at all,” Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty Insurance wrote in its Safety and Shipping Review 2015, released in January.
Total Losses by Top 10 Regions: 2005-2014 and 2014
Source: Lloyd’s List Intelligence Casualty Statistics. Analysis: AGCS
The risk of such a catastrophic loss only increases as more mega-vessels begin calling at ports around the world that have never seen ships of that length, width and depth.
More alarming, according to a new report from the Global Marine Practice at insurance brokerage Marsh, is that accurate surveys of ocean depths — or bathymetrics, the underwater equivalent of topography — are inadequate or nonexistent in large expanses of the world, with many areas either having no survey or having surveys that haven’t been verified since being done more than a century ago.
Using robots to map shallow water on nautical charts Autonomous surface vehicles conduct surveys in shallow waters where hydrographic vessels can’t reach. NOAA is using this ASV to map a very popular inlet where boaters have found that nautical charts aren’t always 100% up to date.
Storms can shift sand bars and deep areas can become shallow. The data from ASVs is used to update NOAA’s publicly available nautical charts to help keep boaters safe.
In the U.S., at least, bathymetric surveys have been performed to modern standards on 75 percent of navigationally significant waters, according to Royal Navy Rear Adm. Tim Lowe, the U.K.’s national hydrographer.
That’s superior to many other developed and undeveloped countries, including the U.K. itself, which has adequate surveys on less than half of its coastal waters.
Other shipping giants fare even worse, including Japan, 46 percent; Australia, 35 percent; Panama and the Philippines, 25 percent each, according to the International Hydrographic Organization, the intergovernmental institution that coordinates the world’s coverage of official nautical charts.
Navigation routes to the Panama Canal, for example, have been the same for years, with cargo vessels following “tried-and-tested pathways,” the Marsh report found.
But what’s safe for a vessel requiring 40 feet of draft may not be safe for one requiring nearly 55 feet, as today’s largest container ships do, and that’s where the risk multiplies.
“We have better maps of the surface of Mars and the moon than we do the bottom of the ocean,” the Marsh report quoted Gene Feldman, a U.S. oceanographer for NASA, as saying.
“We know very little about most of the ocean.”
If progress is to be made, it may have to come from the International Maritime Organization and its Safety of Life at Sea convention.
As with the SOLAS weight verification mandate currently roiling container shipping markets, the IMO, in this case since January, has the power to audit the performance of countries in their obligation to provide safe passageways for vessels.
In a strange twist, however, the IMO has no power to force countries to fulfill that obligation, nor do vessel operators have to share the bathymetric data their vessels collect, according to the Marsh report.
Lacking that accurate data, it may not be a matter of if a catastrophic event will occur with an ultra-large container ship, but when.
And when it does, the industry best prepare for new regulations that lead to disruption the likes of which make all others look like a day at the beach.
In 1989 German ocean researchers started a unique long-term experiment off the coast of Peru. To explore the effects of potential deep sea mining on the seabed, they plowed in about eleven square kilometer area around the seabed.
In March 1968, a Soviet Golf II submarine carrying
nuclear ballistic missiles exploded and sank 1,500 nautical miles
northwest of Hawaii.
Five months later, the US government discovered the
wreckage—and decided to steal it.
So began Project AZORIAN, one of the most absurdly ambitious operations the CIA has ever conceived.
The potential payoff of Project AZORIAN was tremendous—a detailed
look at Soviet weapons capabilities, and maybe some highly coveted
But the 1,750-ton submarine had sunk to a depth
of 16,500 feet, and a massive recovery ship was needed to haul it up.
So the CIA recruited Howard Hughes to provide a cover story that would
explain why it was building a 619-foot-long vessel.
This historic film shows techniques used to conduct deep ocean mining of the sea floor, which were pioneered in the 1960s.
The potential for this type of mining (particularly of manganese nodules) was never fully realized.
Ironically, the program did end up providing the cover for the USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer (T-AG-193), a deep-sea drillship platform built for the United States Central Intelligence Agency Special Activities Division secret operation Project Azorian to recover the sunken Soviet submarine K-129, lost in April 1968.
Hughes Glomar Explorer (HGE), as the ship was called at the time, was built between 1973 and 1974, by Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. for more than US$350 million at the direction of Howard Hughes for use by his company, Global Marine Development Inc.
This is equivalent to $1.67 billion in present-day terms.
She set sail on 20 June 1974.
Hughes told the media that the ship's purpose was to extract manganese nodules from the ocean floor.
This marine geology cover story became surprisingly influential, spurring many others to examine the idea.
But in sworn testimony in United States district court proceedings and in appearances before government agencies, Global Marine executives and others associated with Hughes Glomar Explorer project unanimously maintained that the ship could not be used in any economically viable ocean mineral operation.
Hughes, the story went, was going to mine manganese nodules—potato-sized
rocks that form naturally on the abyssal plains—through his holding
company Summa Corporation.
A billionaire industrialist building a crazy
new ship to seek treasure on the ocean floor?
It sounded plausible
enough, and the public bought it.
“At the time, people didn’t realize this was all a big ploy,”
oceanographer Frank Sansone of the University of Hawaii at Manoa told
“What’s fascinating is that the CIA’s cover story set up a
whole line of research about manganese nodules.”
Over the years and decades to come, private industries would discover
that manganese nodules contain tremendous quantities of rare earth
metals—precious elements at the core of our smartphones, computers,
defense systems, and clean energy technologies.
We have an endless need
for these metals, and limited land-based supplies.
Now, forty years
after that CIA plot, we’re on the verge of an underwater gold rush.
that could, one day, allow us to tap into vast rare earth reserves at
the bottom of the ocean.
“You can basically supply all the rare earths you need from the deep sea,” John Wiltshire,
director of Hawaii’s Undersea Research Lab told Gizmodo.
“All of the
technology needed to do so is now in some form of development.”
But even if we desperately want to, mining the seafloor for rare
earths isn’t going to be easy.
Like Project AZORIAN, it’s going to be
fraught with technical challenges and enormous risks.
The term “rare earth” is misleading.
A group of seventeen chemically
similar elements—including the 15 lanthanide metals, scandium, and
yttrium—rare earths are actually plentiful in Earth’s crust.
more abundant than lead, and even the least common rare earths are
hundreds of times more plentiful than gold.
Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium.
But because of their geochemical properties, rare earths don’t tend
to form the metal-rich ores that make mining economical.
like the bastnäsite found in the only rare earth mine
in the US, can contain up to a few percent rare earth oxides.
often, rare earths are dispersed at vanishingly low concentrations.
get at them, huge volumes of rock are crushed, then subjected to
physical separation, caustic acids, and blazing heat.
It’s a costly,
labor intensive process, and it produces an unholy amount of radioactive
We don’t mine rare earths because it’s easy, but because we need
“The technology sector is completely dependent on these elements,” Alex King, director of the Critical Materials Institute, told Gizmodo.
“They play a very unique role.”
There are innumerable ways these metals make our tech faster,
lighter, more durable, and more efficient. Take europium, used as a red
phosphor in cathode ray tubes and LCD displays.
It costs $2,000 a kilo,
and there are no substitutes.
Or erbium, which acts as a laser amplifier
in fiber optic cables.
It costs $1,000 a kilo, and there are no
Yttrium is sprinkled in the thermal coatings of jet
aircraft engines to shield other metals from intense heat.
the workhorse behind the high-performance magnets found in nearly every
hard disk drive, audio speaker, wind turbine generator, cordless tool,
and electric vehicle motor.
The list goes on.
Cancer treatment drugs.
Rare earths are essential
to such a bevy of technologies that a shortage would, according to the Natural Resources Council, “have a major negative impact on our quality of life.”
That reality makes the US government very worried. Because today,
we’re entirely dependent on rare earth imports.
And most of those
imports come from China.
For decades, an American company called Molycorp produced most of the
world’s rare earths, at a mine in Mountain Pass, California.
But by the
mid-1980s, enormous rare earth deposits were being discovered in inner
Mongolia and southern China.
With cheap labor and virtually no
environmental regulation, Chinese mining companies were able to undercut
the US industrythroughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
Unable to remain competitive and facing public criticism over its
environmental impact, Molycorp shut down its mining operation in 2002.
By 2010, China controlled 97 percent of the market.
Then China started flexing its muscles.
First, it slashed rare earth export quotas,
restricting the global supply.
In September 2010, a maritime border
dispute prompted the Chinese government to temporarily suspend all rare
earth exports to Japan.
These events sent shockwaves through the international market.
Rare earth prices soared as technology companies quickly filled
inventories to protect themselves from a future supply disruption. Economist Paul Krugman
denounced US policymakers for allowing China to acquire “a monopoly
position exceeding the wildest dreams of Middle Eastern oil-fueled
Six years on, fears of China’s rare earth dominance wound up being unfounded.
The scare motivated other countries to ramp up their rare earth production, breaking China’s stranglehold.
In late 2014, the World Trade Organization ruled against China for improper trade practices, compelling the government to abolish its rare earth quotas entirely.
Nevertheless, fear of a future rare earth shortage has had lasting
effects on US policy, prompting the Department of Energy to pour
millions into basic research on reducing our use of rare earths and
recovering them from existing products.
Some industries have cut
back—Tesla doesn’t use rare earths
in its batteries or motors—but for other applications, that isn’t yet
And demand for these metals is only going to grow.
“In an economy where the use of rare earths is growing, you cannot
recycle your way out of trouble,” King said.
“Eventually, there will
have to be new mines.”
In the shadowy fringes of the US intelligence community, tensions
were running high.
It was the summer of 1974, and after six years of
preparation, the CIA’s submarine salvage operation was finally on.
The Hughes Glomar Explorer,
a 36,000-ton beast of a ship designed to pull an entire submarine to
the surface from 20,000 feet under, was like nothing anyone had ever
Trap doors opened below the water line into the middle of the
A three-mile retractable pile system, outfitted with a claw-like
capture vehicle, would descend to the seafloor and haul up the Soviet
The Hughes Glomar Explorer. Image: Wikimedia
The operation wound up being a major disappointment.
As the submarine
was being lifted to the surface, it snapped in two.
Some two thirds of
the wreckage, including nuclear missiles and naval code books, are said
to have plunged back to the seafloor.
Aside from the bodies of six USSR
naval officers, it’s unclear what the Hughes Glomar Explorer
As Wiltshire told Gizmodo, “There are at least three
different versions of this story going around. We’ll never know exactly
how much they brought back.”
The CIA considered a second recovery mission.
But before it could get
approval, reporter Jack Anderson, who had been on Project AZORIAN’s
trail for months, broke the story on national TV. Front-page stories
revealing the truth about the “mining” operation soon appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and The New York Times.
Subsequent recovery missions were scrapped, but Ocean Minerals
Company, the consortium led by Lockheed Martin that had developed mining
technology to recover the sub, spent the next few years steering the Hughes Glomar Explorer around the Clarion-Clipperton Zone—a 3.5 million square mile swath of the eastern Pacific—doing deep ocean mining experiments.
“The CIA built ocean mining equipment that actually worked,”
“Ocean Minerals Company went on to mine manganese
nodules, and got a boatload through the early 1980s.”
drew attention to the riches on the seafloor, and a number of other
government agencies and private companies started sponsoring their own
deep ocean mining efforts.
A manganese nodule collected in 1982 from the Pacific.
Since the 1960s, mining companies have been attracted to manganese
nodules mainly for their nickel, copper, and cobalt.
But along the way,
geologists learned that the rocks also contain rare earth oxides—in
particular, the very rare and very expensive ones.
“All the big
land-based deposits in the world are almost solely light rare earths,”
Jim Hein, an ocean minerals specialist with the US Geological Survey,
“Deep ocean deposits have a much higher percentage of
heavy rare earths. That’s the key difference.”
At first blush, the concentration of rare earths in manganese
nodules—roughly 0.1 percent—seems too low for commercial viability.
according to Mike Johnston, CEO of the deep ocean mining company
Nautilus Minerals, rare earths can be co-extracted along with other
“What these rocks are is essentially a manganese sponge that has
soaked up a bunch of other metals,” Johnston told Gizmodo.
those other metals out, you have to break bonds, either chemically or
with high heat.
Once you’ve done that, you can theoretically just
extract each of the different metals, including rare earths.”
Today, the global rare earth industry is producing a little over 100,000 tons of metals a year.
In the Clarion Clipperton Zone alone, there are an estimated 15 million tons of rare earth oxides locked away in manganese nodules.
The question is not whether the seafloor has rare earths.
It’s whether we can get at them in a way that makes business sense.
It’s been forty years since Project AZORIAN jumpstarted the deep
ocean mining industry.
We’ve not only discovered a potential fortune in
manganese nodules, but a slew of other tantalizing resources, including
sulfide deposits formed by underwater volcanoes, and deep sea
ferromanganese crusts, which also contain rare earths.
But as of now, not a single company has begun to mine seafloor minerals commercially.
The open ocean is no longer the Wild West.
In the decades since the Hughes Glomar Explorer first
set sail, a UN-backed Law of the Sea Convention was enacted to regulate
industry on the high seas.
As a result, a group called the
International Seabed Authority (ISA) is responsible for delineating deep
sea mining zones and doling out permits in international waters.
To date, more than a dozen companies
have received exploration licenses to prospect manganese nodules in the
Clarion Clipperton Zone, but nobody has been issued an actual mining
First, the ISA is preparing regulations to prevent the
ecological shit show that usually ensues when humans try to get their
hands on a new chunk of Earth’s raw materials.
Exploration areas designated for mining companies in the Clarion Clipperton Zone in 2013.
And indeed, many ecologists are downright horrified by the prospect
of profit-hungry corporations scraping, digging, and chopping up fragile
seafloor ecosystems for precious metals.
“You’re talking 100 percent
habitat destruction in the area you mine,” Wiltshire said.
these are thin deposits, you’re mining a large area.”
We think of the deep ocean as a cold, watery wasteland, but manganese
nodules, and other metal-rich environments on the seafloor, are
brimming with fish and marine invertebrates.
These critters tend to be
highly specialized, geographically restricted, and not at all accustomed
As marine biologist Craig Smith noted
in a conservation planning paper published in 2013, it could take
organisms living in the Clarion Clipperton Zone thousands to millions of
years to recover from the impacts of mining.
The concerns raised by Smith and others prompted the ISA to carve out a vast swath of the zone—roughly 550,000 square miles—for
But protected waters far beyond the seafloor
might feel the impacts of ocean mining, too.
By kicking up sediment,
nutrients, and even toxic metals, mining may reduce water quality over
vast regions of open ocean, impacting pelagic fish and marine mammals.
For would-be miners, environmental concerns play into a bigger issue
with deep ocean mining: the whole thing is a huge financial risk.
Even as shallow ocean mining technology takes off—Nautilus Minerals
hopes to mine its first seafloor sulfide deposits in 2018—our ability to
collect manganese nodules remains limited.
While several companies have
trial-tested nodule collectors, we don’t yet have production-scale
mining systems that can haul thousands of tons of rock to the surface
15,000 feet up.
“To my mind, nobody’s really answered the question of
how they’re going to harvest this material,” Sansone said.
Artist’s concept of a
deep ocean manganese nodule mining operation, with autonomous robotic
collectors, a transport system for conveying material to the surface,
and a processing barge. Image: Aker Wirth
Any company hoping to pull it off will first need to invest heavily
in R&D, and prospect to find the regions of seafloor where nodules
are most concentrated.
And depending on how strict the ISA’s
environmental regulations are, companies may not see a return on
investment for a long time.
Still, many experts believe a deep ocean mining industry is
“It’s a technical challenge, but we started developing this
equipment when a Russian sub sank in 1974,” Wiltshire said.
environmental and investment delay rather than a fundamental technology
“From where we sit, if I had an open checkbook, we
could be up and trial mining in the Clarion Clipperton Zone in a few
years,” he said.
“Financing it is the big issue.”
Forty years ago, the US government poured hundreds of millions into
an audacious endeavor to dredge up a piece of military technology from
the bottom of the ocean.
Will private companies take the same plunge to
bring us the metals behind the technologies we’ve grown to depend on?
The stakes are not as high as they were when two superpowers stood on
the brink of nuclear war.
But in the future, they could be.
over 7 billion people on this planet, and an ever-growing number of them
want access to all manner of technology.
As societies transition off
fossil fuels, toward cleaner energy sources and quieter vehicles, demand
for rare earths and other exotic metals is only going to grow.
“At the end of the day, mining has impacts,” Johnston
“But you have to step back and look at the bigger picture. If you
don’t produce these metals from the ocean, you’re going to restrict
yourself to a third of the planet. With the right management structures,
we should be able to do this for the benefit of mankind and the planet
The world’s first ever deep sea mining operation is scheduled to begin offshore from the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea in early 2018.
In this short film we explore how the two Pacific Island nations of Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu are working together with their communities to manage the future opportunities and impacts associated with this emerging industry.
While deep sea minerals could provide much needed revenue for several Pacific Island nations, questions remain about the impacts of mining on the marine environment and the many communities that depend on it for their livelihoods.
And while that cycle isn’t going away, climate change is messing with
the axis upon which our fair planet spins.
Ice melting has caused a
drift in polar motion, a somewhat esoteric term that tells scientists a
lot about past and future climate and is crucial in GPS calculations and
Before 2000, Earth's spin
axis was drifting toward Canada (left globe).
Climate change-driven ice
loss in Greenland, Antarctica and elsewhere is pulling the direction of
Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
motion refers to the periodic wobble and drift of the poles.
observed for more than 130 years, but the process has been going on for
eons driven by mass shifts inside the earth as well as ones on the
For decades, the north pole had been slowly drifting toward
Canada, but there was a shift in the drift about 15 years ago.
headed almost directly down the Greenwich Meridian (sorry Canada no pole
for you, eh).
Like many other natural processes large and small, from sea levels to wildfires, climate change is also playing a role in this shift.
“Since about 2000, there has been a dramatic shift in this general direction,” Surendra Adhikari,
a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said.
“It is due to
climate change without a doubt. It’s related to ice sheets, in
particular the Greenland ice sheet.”
That ice sheet has seen its ice loss speed up and has lost an average of 278 gigatons of ice a year since 2000 as temperatures warm. The Antarctic
has lost 92 gigatons a year over that time while other stashes of ice
from Alaska to Patagonia are also melting and sending water to the
oceans, redistributing the weight of the planet. Adhikari and his colleague Erik Ivins published their findings
in Science Advances on Friday, showing that melting ice explains about
66 percent of the change in the shift of the Earth’s spin axis,
particularly the rapid losses occurring in Greenland.
The relationship between continental water mass and
the east-west wobble in Earth's spin axis.
Losses of water from Eurasia
correspond to eastward swings in the general direction of the spin axis
(top), and Eurasian gains push the spin axis westward (bottom). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
It’s a huge, mind boggling process on the global scale, but imagine
it like a top.
Spinning a top with a bunch of pennies on it will cause
wobble and drift in a certain pattern.
If you rearrange the pennies, the
wobble and drift will be slightly different.
That’s essentially what climate change is doing, except instead of
pennies, it’s ice and instead of a top, it’s the planet.
Suffice to say,
the stakes are a little higher. Ice
loss explains most but not all of the shift. The rest can mostly be
chalked up to droughts and heavy rains in certain parts of the globe. Adhikari said this knowledge could be used to help scientists analyze
past instances of polar motion shifts and rainfall patterns as well as
answer questions about future hydrological cycle changes.
Ice is expected to continue melting and with it, polar motion is expected to continue changing as well.
“What I can tell you is we anticipate a big loss of mass from West
Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets and that will mean that the general
direction of the pole won’t go back to Canada for sure,” Adhikari said.
If it continues moving down the Greenwich Meridian or meanders another way remains to be seen, though. “This
depends highly on the region where ice melts, or if the effect of ice
melt would be counterbalanced by another effect (for example sea level
rise, increased water storage on continents, changes of climate zones),”
Florian Seitz, the director of German Geodetic Research Institute, said in an email. In
the here and now, polar motion shifts matter for astronomical
observations and perhaps even more importantly for the average person,