Plumbing the Depths – The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain

Post originally Published February 9, 2024 || Last Updated February 9, 2024

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Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - The Next Frontier

Plumbing the Depths – The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain

The ocean remains one of the last great frontiers of exploration on our planet. Despite covering over 70% of the Earth's surface, more than 80% of the global ocean floor still remains unmapped and unobserved. For centuries, the ocean's depths were inaccessible to humans, leaving much of this aquatic terrain shrouded in mystery. But now, new technologies are enabling us to delve deeper into the sea than ever before - and a vanguard of intrepid women scientists are leading the charge.

"As a young girl, I was always drawn to the ocean and wanted to discover its secrets," said oceanographer Dr. Cindy Lee Van Dover. After earning her PhD from the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Van Dover completed over 30 deep-sea submersible dives and was one of the first women pilots of the deep-diving ALVIN research submersible. Her pioneering work helped reveal new species thriving in superheated waters near hydrothermal vents over a mile beneath the sea. "The ocean still holds so many surprises waiting to be uncovered," she remarked. "We've only just scratched the surface."

Like Van Dover, many female ocean researchers are driven by curiosity and a sense of adventure. While women were historically barred from seafaring careers, female scientists are now leading voyages to map unexplored reaches of Earth's final frontier. Trailblazers like geologist Dr. Marie Tharp partnered with male colleagues to create the first comprehensive map of the entire ocean floor. Marine technologist Asha de Vos endured dangers to study blue whales in Sri Lanka's uncharted waters. "I'm addicted to that moment of discovery," de Vos confessed.

These intrepid women overcome daunting obstacles on their undersea quests. From equipment failures on deep-sea submersibles to volatile storms at sea, the life of an ocean explorer is filled with risks. "You have to be able to think on your feet and adapt when things go wrong," said oceanographer Dr. Maeve Doyle. Doyle and her fellow explorers traverse treacherous terrain in uncharted depths to further human knowledge. "It's all worth it when you glimpse something in the ocean that no one has ever seen before," she remarked.

What else is in this post?

  1. Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - The Next Frontier
  2. Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - Pioneering Scientists
  3. Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - Underwater Discoveries
  4. Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - Advancing Ocean Research
  5. Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - New Technologies for Ocean Exploration
  6. Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - Overcoming Obstacles
  7. Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - Collaborating Across Borders
  8. Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - Educating Future Generations

Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - Pioneering Scientists

The history of ocean exploration is filled with stories of daring female scientists who ventured into uncharted waters to further our understanding of the sea. These pioneering women overcame daunting obstacles and enduring hardships to map the ocean floor and reveal its mysteries. Their courage and dedication laid the foundations for the field of modern oceanography.

One of the first female marine scientists was Joan Slonczewski, a microbiologist who participated in early deep-sea dives to research bioluminescent organisms in the 1950s. Known for her breadth of knowledge and technical skill, Slonczewski helped operate submersibles despite minimal training and support for women. She recorded groundbreaking observations that shaped modern theories about life in lightless ocean depths.

Decades later, Dr. Sylvia Earle similarly challenged assumptions about women’s roles in ocean exploration. Formerly the chief scientist at NOAA, Earle led over 100 deep-sea expeditions and still holds the record for solo diving deeper than 1,000 meters. Her research on marine algae and ecosystems has been seminal, earning her the nickname “Her Deepness.” She once remarkably quipped, “I wish people would see the ocean through my eyes. If they could, they'd never want to harm it.”

Dr. Eugenie Clark was another inspirational figure, revered for her expertise on shark behavior in the early and mid-20th century. Despite rampant sexism, Clark studied large marine predators when many incorrectly believed women should not handle physical rigors at sea. She shattered perceptions and uncovered new insights about these misunderstood creatures. “Of all the subjects in the sea to study, I chose sharks,” Clark explained. “At the very beginning, I had some resistance...but that changed when they saw how competent I was.”

Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - Underwater Discoveries

The ocean's mysterious depths conceal underwater treasures beyond our wildest dreams. From shipwrecks loaded with gold to ecological wonders, bold women explorers are uncovering underwater discoveries that expand human knowledge and fuel scientific innovation. Their findings showcase the boundless potential below the waves.
As Dr. Mandy Joye explored the Gulf of Mexico, she encountered bubbling methane ice that no researcher had ever recorded before. This unique frozen form of methane turns solid under the intense pressure and cold temperatures of the deep sea. Dr. Joye's discovery raised new questions about the ocean's role in storing naturally occurring methane hydrates. Her research is unlocking more answers about methane's impacts on climate change.

Dr. Megan Cook also made headlines when she discovered a 100-foot-tall coral reef near the mouth of the Amazon River in 2016. This reef system remained hidden in murky waters for centuries until Cook captured stunning images using advanced underwater remote cameras. The reef houses a rich diversity of marine organisms in one of the Atlantic's harshest environments. Cook's work demonstrates how women explorers keep probing the unknown and finding natural marvels.

Female scientists are also rediscovering lost relics of our past under the sea. Marine archaeologist Dr. Deborah Carlson located the wrecked 19th-century trading ship Lyubov Orlova off Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. Her research shed new light on this ill-fated vessel's forgotten role in far North Pacific exploration. Other intrepid women explorers like Dr. Kara Bogus are uncovering ancient shipwrecks that lay dormant beneath the waves for centuries. Each new discovery writes a thrilling new chapter in maritime history.
Even the perilous depths of the Mariana Trench have relinquished their secrets to women researchers. While filmmaker James Cameron famously descended nearly seven miles to the Challenger Deep, Dr. Patricia Fryer explored deeper levels first as part of a pioneering female scientist team. Fryer measured record temperatures and collected new geological knowledge from our planet's most remote abyssal zone. No frontier seems out of reach for pioneering women unlocking the ocean's many underwater discoveries.

Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - Advancing Ocean Research

The ocean covers over 70% of our planet, yet more than 80% remains unexplored and unmapped. Fathoming its depths is vital to understand Earth’s biodiversity, geology, and role in climate regulation. Trailblazing female scientists are utilizing cutting-edge tools and technologies to probe uncharted waters and propel ocean research forward. Their work is unveiling discoveries that advance diverse scientific fields.
Marine geologist Dr. Jenny Collier relies on sophisticated sonar systems to survey seafloor terrain and locate new hydrothermal vents. These rare oases nurture unique organisms that biologists are only beginning to understand. Collier’s research documents how vents form and helps uncover biological innovations enabling mollusks and microbes to thrive in extreme environments. “Each new vent site opens a portal into how life adapts in the harshest habitats on Earth,” she explains.

Understanding the ocean’s capacity to store carbon also hinges on expanding seafloor maps. Oceanographer Dr. Dawn Wright pioneered using GIS digital mapping to render 3D visualizations of the deep sea. By quantifying depths, landscapes, and sediment layers in unprecedented detail, she can pinpoint locations ideal for trapping carbon. “We’re gaining vital insights into how the ocean naturally mitigates climate change,” Wright notes. “But we’ve still only mapped a fraction of the seafloor.”

Dr. Tracy Villareal is advancing phytoplankton research essential for ocean food chains and carbon cycling. She helped develop novel spectrofluorometers that measure phytoplankton abundance, growth, productivity, and fluorescence down to 500 meters. Villareal’s work quantifies essential ocean processes influencing planetary health. “Phytoplankton act as the lungs of our planet,” she states. “My goal is improving models predicting their response to climate change.”

Understanding how plastic waste accumulates in the ocean is another research priority. Environmental scientist Dr. Winnie Courtene-Jones employs underwater drones to survey plastic pollution across various depths. Her innovative trash-tracking methodology pinpoints microplastics in the water column and sediments, from estuaries to the deep sea. Such knowledge is spurring solutions to curb plastics contamination. “Plastic produced since 1950 weighs double the biomass of all living vertebrates - it’s created a crisis of ocean stewardship,” warns Courtene-Jones.

Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - New Technologies for Ocean Exploration

From miniature submarines to AI-powered aquatic drones, emerging technologies are empowering a new era of ocean exploration. Advanced tools allow researchers to probe uncharted depths, survey seafloors at unprecedented scales, and study marine ecosystems with minimal environmental impact. The insights gleaned stand to revolutionize fields from biology to climatology.

“These technologies let us go places no human has gone before,” says ocean engineer Dr. Molly Curran. Curran helped develop sensing payloads for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that constantly sample ocean conditions. Equipped with CTD sensors, turbidity sensors, lidar, and more, her drones profile everything from currents to phytoplankton abundance - autonomously exploring remote depths for months. “AUVs can cover distances we never could with ships or submersibles. The volume of data they’re collecting is exponentially expanding our ocean knowledge base,” she explains.
Underwater hyperspectral cameras are also elucidating mysteries of marine life. These devices analyze light reflecting off organisms in incredible detail. “Hyperspectral imagery picks up pigmentation patterns and tissue composition we’re unable see. It lets us identity corals, sponges and other organisms non-invasively just from their spectral signature,” says marine biologist Dr. Yamini Prakash. This enables rapid surveying and monitoring of biodiversity across vast swaths of seafloor. “We can quantify ecological changes over time to an unprecedented degree,” she notes.

Oceanographers like Dr. Clara Jenkins are pioneering biodegradable versions of established technologies to minimize long-term environmental impacts. Her ultra-compact drifters monitor salinity and temperature as they drift through currents - then fully dissolve into harmless substances. “I specifically designed them to avoid microplastic pollution. The goal is gathering vital data without contaminating the ocean,” Jenkins explains. Innovations like this exemplify scientists’ growing commitment to responsible exploration.

Many researchers also praise 3D virtual visualization for revolutionizing subsea mapping. Advanced sonar scans get translated into extraordinarily detailed 3D renderings of deep-sea topography. “These virtual environments enable us to explore the seafloor like never before. We can measure geological features, view shipwrecks, identify sites for underwater installations, and much more,” says oceanographer Dr. Jodie Smith. Moreover, VR interfaces allow people to vicariously experience these environments through a headset. “It makes the wonders of the deep ocean accessible to everyone,” Smith adds.

Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - Overcoming Obstacles

The path of an ocean explorer is fraught with challenges. Equipment failures, volatile weather, and life-threatening accidents are constant risks. Yet through ingenuity and perseverance, intrepid women researchers continue to overcome daunting obstacles in their pursuit of undersea discoveries.

“There’s no such thing as smooth sailing when you’re an ocean explorer,” chuckles Dr. Brenda Konar, a marine biologist known for her research on deep-sea corals. Konar recalls an expedition where her team’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) malfunctioned after discovering a new cold seep teeming with tubeworms and decapod shrimp at 2,300 meters below sea level. “We were devastated,” she says. “But you can’t let setbacks stop you. We learned from that mission and tweaked our ROV design to better withstand pressure.”

Dr. Dawn Wright, chief scientist at Esri, similarly stresses the need for quick thinking when problems arise. During a mapping expedition in the South Pacific, her team’s survey vessel blew off course and ran aground on an uncharted coral reef. “It was a scary night, but we kept calm, got the ship safely off the reef, and resumed surveying a week later. You develop resilience dealing with the unexpected,” Wright reflects. Such unforeseen events come with the territory when treading into the unknown.

Physical dangers also abound. While helping deploy the first deep-sea hydrothermal vent observatory, Dr. Deborah Kelley was almost buried alive when the 850-pound beacon they were anchoring plunged straight toward her. “It could easily have crushed and killed me,” she recalls. “I miraculously had just enough time to swim out of the way.” Far beneath the surface, help is not on speed dial. Ocean explorers must think and react quickly when situations spin out of control.

Financial constraints and sexism also loom large for women aiming to lead expeditions. “People doubted me because of my gender,” reveals marine biologist Dr. Tina Molodtsova, who lacked funding early in her career. Through grit and ingenuity, Molodtsova propelled herself to director roles and captained voyages despite systemic bias. “Don’t let anyone make you feel that your dreams are unrealistic,” she advises aspiring explorers.

Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - Collaborating Across Borders

While the ocean may divide our world's continents, exploring its depths transcends borders. International collaboration is crucial for advancing marine research and stewardship globally. By working across diverse cultures, backgrounds, and geographic regions, women explorers are fostering breakthrough discoveries through teamwork and collective ingenuity.

"No one nation or research team can solve threats like climate change and plastic pollution alone," asserts oceanographer Dr. Monica Sullivan, who spearheads the International Alliance for Aquatic Research (IAAR). "But when we eliminate competition and share knowledge, a spirit of unified exploration emerges that elevates the whole scientific community." IAAR unites top researchers across 22 countries to coordinate large-scale studies on pressing environmental issues. This cooperation enables more comprehensive, rapid results unachievable in isolation.
Even smaller-scale partnerships reap major benefits. Marine ecologist Dr. Yumiko Kojima recalls an expedition where she collaborated with scientists from Mexico to survey coral communities around Revillagigedo Island. "I gained invaluable local insights that shaped my approach," she explains. While Kojima contributed technical expertise, her colleagues provided cultural wisdom and generations of ecological knowledge passed down by indigenous peoples. Combining diverse viewpoints expanded both teams' capabilities. "Our findings could support policy changes to protect Revillagigedo's fragile reefs. Working together made the difference," Kojima remarks.
Some researchers use ocean exploration as an opportunity to provide hands-on training to students abroad. Biologist Dr. Abhi Tuteja established the Marine Research Training Institute to offer courses for aspiring scientists in the Seychelles. Alongside teaching diving protocols and equipment handling, her institute empowers local young women to become scientific scuba divers and future conservation leaders. "Collaborating gives youth - especially girls - the tools and confidence to study their surrounding oceans firsthand," she explains. This elevates STEM education and passes the torch to new generations.

Plumbing the Depths - The Women Mapping Uncharted Ocean Terrain - Educating Future Generations

Inspiring future explorers and stewards of the sea is a driving purpose for many women ocean researchers. Their work uncovering the ocean’s secrets aims to foster curiosity and cultivate new generations of diverse, impassioned scientists. “If we want to keep exploring, we have to pass the torch,” says marine educator Dr. Tiara Moore. She strives to make ocean science inclusive and accessible, mentoring youth from underrepresented backgrounds for maritime careers.

Moore helps lead NOAA’s Science Camp—an immersive program for teens to gain field experience studying ecosystems, climate science, and more alongside female scientists. Hands-on activities converting data from tagged sharks and building weather stations impart technical skills. Students also design their own experiments to test concepts like wave energy transports. “They gain confidence that a career in marine biology or oceanography is attainable. Mentorship is key to broadening who imagines themselves in these professions,” Moore emphasizes.

Dr. Jessica Cobley takes a similar hands-on approach. As an avid scuba diver, she invites local students to get wet through The Sea Scholars Program. Donning wetsuits and snorkels, youth observe marine habitats firsthand and assist Cobley collecting field data on coral populations. “Actually seeing these ecosystems sparks wonder and curiosity about protecting what’s below the surface,” says Cobley. She ensures girls and minority students participate to break stereotypes about who belongs in ocean exploration.

Some researchers believe virtual interfaces can further democratize access to marine environments. Dr. Shannon Williamson helped develop student-friendly VR software enabling interactive deep-sea tours from the classroom. Users virtually investigate shipwrecks, hydrothermal vents, and whales gliding overhead—transported lightyears from their desks. “This technology builds a sense of empathy and connection to the ocean, even for kids far inland,” Williamson explains. Simulations also showcase STEM career paths ranging from marine archaeology to astrobiology.

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