How Much of the Ocean Has Been Explored? Shockingly Little!

scuba diver exploring an underwater cave in a tropical coral reef.
Although we've come a long way with space exploration, we have a long way to go with ocean exploration. Jason Edwards/Getty Images

Oceans make up about 71 percent of Earth's surface. They're immensely important to the health of Earth and those of us who inhabit it.

There are five main oceans that are all technically the same body of water: the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Arctic Ocean and Southern Ocean. So, when we say the "world's ocean" or "the ocean," we are referring to all these ocean basins together.

The ocean drives weather patterns, regulates temperature and ultimately supports all living organisms. It's been a vital source of sustenance, transportation and commerce throughout history. But how much of the ocean has been explored? The answer may surprise you.

How Much of the Ocean Has Been Mapped and Explored?

A mere 5 percent of the global ocean has been explored, and less than 10 percent mapped using modern sonar technology. If we can send satellites millions of miles into space, then why has so much of the ocean's wild frontier been left unmapped, unobserved and unexplored?

Well, it's complicated.

remotely operated vehicles underwater
ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) are very useful in the exploration of the deep ocean floor without the need to send divers who might be subject to risk. ROVs rely on ocean currents to carry them along. Humberto Ramirez/Getty Images

The Challenge of the Depths

Boldly going where no one has gone before, the deep sea is Earth's final frontier. Beyond the warm embrace of the sunlight zone, the ocean plunges into darkness, crushing pressures and icy temperatures.

Here, in the absence of light, the ocean floor remains a mystery, with places like the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean exerting a pressure a thousand times greater than the sea's surface.

Ocean Exploration Technology, From Satellites to Submarines

Technology has revolutionized our understanding of the ocean's surface. Satellites provide a bird's-eye view of surface temperatures and marine life indicators, but that's just scratching the surface.

To truly explore the ocean depths, we've developed advanced tools like sonar and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), which brave the abyssal plains without human risk.

But while the technology may be available, the ocean's vastness presents a logistical labyrinth. Agencies like NOAA spearhead efforts to chart these uncharted waters, relying on ROVs and submarines to illuminate the ocean floor.

Yet, with so much ground to cover, even the most advanced machinery can only explore so much.

Ocean Wonders and Why They Matter

The oceans do more than just fill the gaps between continents. They regulate our climate, supply food and harbor a myriad of marine life that remains undiscovered.

Their influence extends to weather patterns and even planetary health, underscoring the urgency to understand and protect these briny depths.

Pollution's Deep Reach

Despite their grandeur, Earth's oceans aren't immune to our impact. The discovery of trash at the base of Emden Deep reveals a sad truth: Our actions reach the ocean's deepest trenches.

With so much at stake, the charge for ocean exploration has never been more critical. The quest for knowledge goes beyond mere curiosity; it's about safeguarding a crucial life source.

As we venture deeper, we not only uncover the secrets of ancient civilizations and uncharted sea routes but also develop strategies to mitigate threats like rising sea temperatures and marine ecosystems' suffering.

Modern oceanography is a beacon in the murky waters, leading us to a better understanding of our planet. Detailed maps and studies by institutions like Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution help us grasp the complex interplay of ocean currents and the life they support.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: How Much of the Ocean Has Been Explored? Shockingly Little!

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