Much of the Earth remains unexplored

“Wellarth” has has always been an odd choice of name for the third planet from the Sun. After all, an alien looking at it through a telescope would notice that two-thirds of its surface is not covered by land at all, but by oceans of water.

Since humans are land-loving animals, most of the Earth remains underexplored. Marine biologists estimate that the oceans may be host to more than 2 million species of marine animals, of which they have so far cataloged perhaps a tenth. Oceanographers like to point out that scientists have mapped almost the entire surface of Mars, but less than a quarter of the sea floor.

A new initiative hopes to change that. Launched in London on April 27, the Ocean Census aims to discover 100,000 new species of marine animals over the next decade. It is supported by Nekton, a British marine research institute, and the Nippon Foundation, Japan’s largest charitable foundation. His first ship, the Norwegian icebreaker Crown Prince Haakonsailed on April 29, bound for the Barents Sea.

The initiative is happening now for two reasons. One is that the longer scientists wait, the less there will be to catalog. Climate change is warming the oceans as well as making them more acidic as carbon dioxide dissolves in the water. Already, about half of the world’s coral reefs — believed to be home to about 25 percent of all ocean species — have been lost. Oliver Steeds, founder and CEO of Nekton, says one of the priorities of the Ocean Census will be to catalog the species thought to be most at risk from climate change. Otherwise, he says, the risk is that “the forest will burn and you won’t know what was there before [it] was lost”.

The second reason is technological. Marine biologists discover about 2,000 new species a year, which has hardly changed since Darwin’s time. Ocean Census is betting it can get faster. The “cyber taxonomy” for example includes nutrition DNA sequences of animals into computers that can quickly decide whether it is a new species. The ability to describe new creatures, as well as simply cataloging them, has also improved. Sleek cameras on remotely operated vehicles, for example, allow scientists to take laser scans of deep-sea creatures like jellyfish without removing them from their habitat. Just as the immense pressure of the deep sea is fatal to humans, bringing such a jellyfish to the surface for examination turns it into a sticky slime.

The Ocean Census is not the first attempt to conduct a systematic study of life in the oceans. The marine life census was a ten-year effort that began in 2000 to search for new species. The Global Ocean Sampling Expedition, which ran from 2004 to 2006, aimed to catalog microbial life in the sea by sampling waters around the world. (It was financed by Craig Venter, a biologist and entrepreneur, and carried out on his personal yacht.)

What exactly the new effort might produce is, of course, impossible to predict. But history shows it will be fruitful. Half a century ago, scientists discovered hot vents on the sea floor that were home to organisms living happily in conditions that were previously thought to be inhospitable to life. These days, such vents are a plausible candidate for the origin of all life on Earth.

There are also more practical benefits. Many drugs, for example, come originally from biological compounds. An ocean full of uncatalogued life will almost certainly prove a rich reservoir from which to mine more. A type of sea snail, The magic coneit was recently discovered to produce a pain-relieving compound 1,000 times more potent than morphine.

To help make use of its data, Ocean Census plans to make it freely available to scientists and the public, who will be able to search it for anything useful or surprising. The point of research, after all, is that you never know what you might find.

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