Draining the World’s Oceans to Visualize Earth’s Surface
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Draining the World’s Oceans to Visualize Earth’s Surface

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Draining the World’s Oceans to Visualize Earth’s Surface

Although many maps of our planet go into great topographical detail on land, almost two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered by the world’s oceans.

Hidden from sight lie aquatic mountain ranges, continental shelves, and trenches that dive deep into the Earth’s crust. We might be familiar with a few of the well-known formations on the ocean floor, but there’s a whole detailed “world” that’s as rich as the surface, just waiting to be explored.

This animation from planetary researcher James O’Donoghue of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA simulates the draining the world’s oceans to quickly reveal the full extent of the Earth’s surface.

How Deep Does the Ocean Go?

Above sea level, Earth’s topography reaches all the way up to 8,849 meters (29,032 ft) to the top of Mt. Everest. But going below sea level, it actually goes deeper than the height of Everest.

Open ocean is called the pelagic zone, which can be broken down into five regions by depth:

  • 0m–200m: Epipelagic (sunlight zone). Illuminated shallower waters that contain most of the ocean’s plants and animals.
  • 200m–1,000m: Mesopelagic (twilight zone). Stretches from where 1% of surface light reaches to where surface light ends. Contains mainly bacteria, as well as some large organisms like the swordfish and the squid.
  • 1,000m–4,000m: Bathypelagic (midnight zone). Pitch black outside of a few bioluminescent organisms, with no living plants. Smaller anglerfish, squid, and sharks live here, as well as a few large organisms like giant squid.
  • 4,000m–6,000m: Abyssopelagic (abyssal zone). Long thought to be the bottomless end of the sea, the abyssal zone reaches to just above the ocean floor and contains little life due to extremely cold temperatures, high pressures, and complete darkness.
  • 6,000m–11,000m: Hadopelagic (hadal zone). Named after Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, the hadal zone is the deepest part of the ocean. It can be found primarily in trenches below the ocean floor.
  • To put ocean depths into context, the bottom of the ocean is more than 2,000m greater than the peak of Mount Everest.

    What “Draining” the World’s Oceans Reveals

    For a long time, the ocean floor was believed to be less understood than the Moon.

    The sheer depth of water made it difficult to map without newer technology, and the tremendous pressure and extreme temperatures make navigation grueling. A manned vehicle reached the deepest known point of the Mariana Trench—the Challenger Deep—in 1960, almost 90 years after it was first charted in 1872.

    But over the last few decades, humanity’s understanding and exploration of the ocean floor has grown in leaps and bounds. O’Donoghue’s animation shows just how much detail we’ve been missing.

    The first easily noticeable characteristic is the Earth’s continental shelves, which appear quickly. Most are visible by 140 meters, though the Arctic and Antarctic shelves are far deeper.

    The animation then speeds up, as thousands of meters of depth reveal the tops of small mountain ridges and aquatic islands. From 2,000 to 3,000 meters, mid-ocean ridges appear that span the length of the Arctic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.

    From 3,000 to 6,000 meters of ocean drained, these aquatic mountains slowly give way to the vast majority of the ocean floor. Little changes over the final 5,000 meters except to illustrate just how deep the ocean’s trenches reach.

    Of course, technically the bottom of the Challenger deep is the deepest known point of the Mariana Trench. As satellite and imaging technology improves further, and aquatic mapping voyages become more possible, who knows what else we’ll discover beneath the waves.

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    This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.

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Technology

Synthetic Biology: The $3.6 Trillion Science Changing Life as We Know It

The field of synthetic biology could solve problems in a wide range of industries, from medicine to agriculture—here’s how.

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How Synthetic Biology Could Change Life as we Know it

Synthetic biology (synbio) is a field of science that redesigns organisms in an effort to enhance and support human life. According to one projection, this rapidly growing field of science is expected to reach $28.8 billion in global revenue by 2026.

Although it has the potential to transform many aspects of society, things could go horribly wrong if synbio is used for malicious or unethical reasons. This infographic explores the opportunities and potential risks that this budding field of science has to offer.

What is Synthetic Biology?

We’ve covered the basics of synbio in previous work, but as a refresher, here’s a quick explanation of what synbio is and how it works.

Synbio is an area of scientific research that involves editing and redesigning different biological components and systems in various organisms.

It’s like genetic engineering but done at a more granular level—while genetic engineering transfers ready-made genetic material between organisms, synbio can build new genetic material from scratch.

The Opportunities of Synbio

This field of science has a plethora of real-world applications that could transform our everyday lives. A study by McKinsey found over 400 potential uses for synbio, which were broken down into four main categories:

  • Human health and performance
  • Agriculture and food
  • Consumer products and services
  • Materials and energy production

If those potential uses become reality in the coming years, they could have a direct economic impact of up to $3.6 trillion per year by 2030-2040.

1. Human Health and Performance

The medical and health sector is predicted to be significantly influenced by synbio, with an economic impact of up to $1.3 trillion each year by 2030-2040.

Synbio has a wide range of medical applications. For instance, it can be used to manipulate biological pathways in yeast to produce an anti-malaria treatment.

It could also enhance gene therapy. Using synbio techniques, the British biotech company Touchlight Genetics is working on a way to build synthetic DNA without the use of bacteria, which would be a game-changer for the field of gene therapy.

2. Agriculture and Food

Synbio has the potential to make a big splash in the agricultural sector as well—up to $1.2 trillion per year by as early as 2030.

One example of this is synbio’s role in cellular agriculture, which is when meat is created from cells directly. The cost of creating lab-grown meat has decreased significantly in recent years, and because of this, various startups around the world are beginning to develop a variety of cell-based meat products.

3. Consumer Products and Services

Using synthetic biology, products could be tailored to suit an individual’s unique needs. This would be useful in fields such as genetic ancestry testing, gene therapy, and age-related skin procedures.

By 2030-2040, synthetic biology could have an economic impact on consumer products and services to the tune of up to $800 billion per year.

4. Materials and Energy Production

Synbio could also be used to boost efficiency in clean energy and biofuel production. For instance, microalgae are currently being “reprogrammed” to produce clean energy in an economically feasible way.

This, along with other material and energy improvements through synbio methods, could have a direct economic impact of up to $300 billion each year.

The Potential Risks of Synbio

While the potential economic and societal benefits of synthetic biology are vast, there are a number of risks to be aware of as well:

  • Unintended biological consequences: Making tweaks to any biological system can have ripple effects across entire ecosystems or species. When any sort of lifeform is manipulated, things don’t always go according to plan.
  • Moral issues: How far we’re comfortable going with synbio depends on our values. Certain synbio applications, such as embryo editing, are controversial. If these types of applications become mainstream, they could have massive societal implications, with the potential to increase polarization within communities.
  • Unequal access: Innovation and progress in synbio is happening faster in wealthier countries than it is in developing ones. If this trend continues, access to these types of technology may not be equal worldwide. We’ve already witnessed this type of access gap during the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, where a majority of vaccines have been administered in rich countries.
  • Bioweaponry: Synbio could be used to recreate viruses, or manipulate bacteria to make it more dangerous, if used with ill intent.

According to a group of scientists at the University of Edinburgh, communication between the public, synthetic biologists, and political decision-makers is crucial so that these societal and environmental risks can be mitigated.

Balancing Risk and Reward

Despite the risks involved, innovation in synbio is happening at a rapid pace.

By 2030, most people will have likely eaten, worn, or been treated by a product created by synthetic biology, according to synthetic biologist Christopher A. Voigt.

Our choices today will dictate the future of synbio, and how we navigate through this space will have a massive impact on our future—for better, or for worse.

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Politics

The Science of Nuclear Weapons, Visualized

Nuclear weapons have devastating effects, but the science of how they work is atomically small. So, how do nuclear weapons work?

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Visualized: How Nuclear Weapons Work

In 1945, the world’s first-ever nuclear weapon was detonated at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, United States, marking the beginning of the Atomic Age.

Since then, the global nuclear stockpile has multiplied, and when geopolitical tensions rise, the idea of a nuclear apocalypse understandably causes widespread concern.

But despite their catastrophically large effects, the science of how nuclear weapons work is atomically small.

The Atomic Science of Nuclear Weapons

All matter is composed of atoms, which host different combinations of three particles—protons, electrons, and neutrons. Nuclear weapons work by capitalizing on the interactions of protons and neutrons to create an explosive chain reaction.

At the center of every atom is a core called the nucleus, which is composed of closely-bound protons and neutrons. While the number of protons is unique to each element in the periodic table, the number of neutrons can vary. As a result, there are multiple “species” of some elements, known as isotopes.

For example, here are some isotopes of uranium:

  • Uranium-238: 92 protons, 146 neutrons
  • Uranium-235: 92 protons, 143 neutrons
  • Uranium-234: 92 protons, 142 neutrons

These isotopes can be stable or unstable. Stable isotopes have a relatively static or unchanging number of neutrons. But when a chemical element has too many neutrons, it becomes unstable or fissile.

When fissile isotopes attempt to become stable, they shed excess neutrons and energy. This energy is where nuclear weapons get their explosivity from.

There are two types of nuclear weapons:

  • Atomic Bombs: These rely on a domino effect of multiple fission reactions to produce an explosion, using either uranium or plutonium.
  • Hydrogen Bombs: These rely on a combination of fission and fusion using uranium or plutonium, with the help of lighter elements like the isotopes of hydrogen.

So, what exactly is the difference between fission and fusion reactions?

Splitting Atoms: Nuclear Fission

Nuclear fission—the process used by nuclear reactors—produces large amounts of energy by breaking apart a heavier unstable atom into two smaller atoms, starting a nuclear chain reaction.

When a neutron is fired into the nucleus of a fissile atom like uranium-235, the uranium atom splits into two smaller atoms known as “fissile fragments” in addition to more neutrons and energy. These excess neutrons can then start a self-sustaining chain reaction by hitting the nuclei of other uranium-235 atoms, resulting in an atomic explosion.

Atomic bombs use nuclear fission, though it’s important to note that a fission chain reaction requires a particular amount of a fissile material like uranium-235, known as the supercritical mass.

Merging Atoms: Nuclear Fusion

Hydrogen bombs use a combination of fission and fusion, with nuclear fusion amplifying a fission reaction to produce a much more powerful explosion than atomic bombs.

Fusion is essentially the opposite of fission—instead of splitting a heavier atom into smaller atoms, it works by putting together two atoms to form a third unstable atom. It’s also the same process that fuels the Sun.

Nuclear fusion mainly relies on isotopes of lighter elements, like the two isotopes of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium. When subjected to intense heat and pressure, these two atoms fuse together to form an extremely unstable helium isotope, which releases energy and neutrons.

The released neutrons then fuel the fission reactions of heavier atoms like uranium-235, creating an explosive chain reaction.

How Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs Compare

Just how powerful are hydrogen bombs, and how do they compare to atomic bombs?

BombTypeEnergy produced (kilotons of TNT)
Little Boy 🇺🇸 Atomic15kt
Fat Man 🇺🇸 Atomic21kt
Castle Bravo 🇺🇸 Hydrogen15,000kt
Tsar Bomba 🇷🇺Hydrogen51,000kt

The bombs Little Boy and Fat Man were used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, bringing a destructive end to World War II. The scale of these bombings was, at the time, unparalleled. But comparing these to hydrogen bombs shows just how powerful nuclear weapons have become.

Castle Bravo was the codename for the United States’ largest-ever nuclear weapon test, a hydrogen bomb that produced a yield of 15,000 kilotons—making it 1,000 times more powerful than Little Boy. What’s more, radioactive traces from the explosion, which took place on the Marshall Islands near Fiji, were found in Australia, India, Japan, U.S., and Europe.

Seven years later, the Soviet Union tested Tsar Bomba in 1961, the world’s most powerful nuclear weapon. The explosion produced 51,000 kilotons of explosive energy, with a destructive radius of roughly 60km.

Given how damaging a single nuke can be, it’s difficult to imagine the outcome of an actual nuclear conflict without fear of total annihilation, especially with the world’s nuclear arsenal sitting at over 13,000 warheads.

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