The concept of “the last frontier” is one frequently bandied about by popular writers. Whether the phrase refers to the Western frontier of American expansion in centuries past, or specific “hot” fields of scientific inquiry, or the vast expanse of interplanetary and interstellar space, the concept is always the same: there’s one Great Mysterious Place left for us to go, and (“fill in the blank”) is that Place.
It turns out that frontiers don’t work like that. It’s true that sometimes a constraint closes off further exploration of a place; once the American border reached the Pacific Ocean, there wasn’t a whole lot of Old West left to “discover.” (The people who had already been living there for 10,000 years probably knew that.) But it’s far more common to find that expansion and discovery are never-ending, that new exploration is always worthwhile, that there is always something more over the horizon.
Or under it. For centuries – actually, for millennia - the world ocean of our planet has been a vast empty space on the map. Explorers skimmed its surface looking for new land-based opportunity, and merchants and warriors fought along its peripheries for access to new markets and new resources on the lands that the ocean adjoins. What lay beneath has been a murky question mark – a question mark hard to find, harder to reach, and almost impossible to exploit.
Technological progress is rapidly revising that predicament. The earliest historically-attested submersible vehicles, built in the 1600s, could attain depths of less than a hundred feet, in calm waters, for periods of a few minutes at best – and couldn’t see or do much while they were down there. Today’s bathyspheres, submarines, and advanced remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) have reached the uttermost depths of the ocean floor, can move at up to 40 miles per hour underwater, can stay submerged for weeks or even months, and can visualize and interact with environmental features and objects with a huge variety of tools. The ocean, while not “the last frontier” (because we aren’t likely to run out of those), is now a frontier which is eminently accessible.
It’s a frontier with resources that humanity desperately needs. The potential is almost infinite – fully three-quarters of the surface of our world is under the ocean. And although much of the ocean floor is theoretically “barren” – not much growing there, not much living there – there are subsurface resources almost beyond cataloguing. In fact, we haven’t even begun to catalogue them – they’ve been too hard to reach! But as that is changing, the potential for energy resources – oil and gas just to start, although uranium and thorium are more likely to be long-term contributors to the global economy – is vast. Already, about a sixth of US oil production comes from offshore and the numbers are building quickly. Deep-water oil formations have barely begun to be explored, and although there are environmental considerations, the ocean is likely to produce the majority of world energy needs within our lifetimes.
There is also tremendous potential for health and wellness from the undersea environment. In today’s pharmaceutical environment, many dramatic developments in new treatments and new drugs come from exploitation of newly-discovered species. For example, a promising breast-cancer drug is under development from a species of Japanese black sponge, while a bacteria found in the Bahamas has been shown to produce compounds that can be used to produce antibiotics and cancer-fighting drugs. What’s even more exciting is that an estimated 90% of oceanic species have not yet been discovered or catalogued – the extent of this incredible harvest of potential medical advances is literally waiting to be discovered.