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The Holes in the Ocean Are Probably Our Fault

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Earth’s oceans are largely a mystery to humans. Hard as it is to believe, considering how much time and money we spend on space exploration, we know next to nothing about 95 percent of the oceans on our own planet. Putting aside the unseen mysteries for the moment, even some of the things we have seen in the oceans have mystified and amazed many. One example? Holes in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean off the Big Sur coast in California. They were first seen in 1999 and have remained a mystery ever since. Now, the mystery’s even deeper but also a little clearer, and embarrassingly so.

Thousands of Mysterious Deep Holes

A robot submarine — more technically referred to as an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle — began exploring the region and phenomenon as part of a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expedition partnering with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Originally, the research was being done to investigate the possibility of an offshore wind farm. The Navy nixed the idea, but the NOAA and MBARI were captivated. Why?

Those holes. Let’s drill down a bit more on the details. Over a 320,000 acre area, the expedition found 5,200 holes. These weren’t fence post holes, potholes, or even swimming pool holes.

On average, the holes are 600 feet wide, 16 feet deep, and distributed rather consistently across the area’s ocean floor. Researchers determined the holes were 400,000 years old.

Clearly, the expedition needed to get a closer look. But how to get closer? The answer was as simple as A-U-V. Autonomous Underwater Vehicles — hereinafter to be referred to as robot submarines — are unmanned submersibles perfect for exploring the ocean depths, even those mysterious holes off the California coast.

Thousands of Not-So-Deep Holes

As it turns out, the robot submarines wouldn’t resolve the question of the origins of the 5,200 deep holes. Instead, they exposed a bigger and more numerous mystery. Once the robot submarine began its survey of the ocean floor, the team was flooded with additional data. In addition to the 5,200 known — but still mysterious holes — there were 15,000 “depressions” that were around 35 feet deep and three feet wide.

Those depressions were often filled with all kinds of material from the natural (seaweed and dead sea creatures) to the foreign (human-made trash — even tires and cans).

Here’s what’s happening. Our garbage — your old tires, for example — is increasingly finding its way into the oceans, settling and disturbing the sediment, providing new and strange homes for ocean creatures who further disturb the settlement and changing the very structure of the ocean floor.  Researchers described the theory this way:

The presence of these objects provides micro habitats for fish, that were commonly observed in ROV [remotely operated vehicle] dives stirring up the fine-grained sediment, which is then carried away by sea-bottom currents, further contributing to carving out the eroded hole(s) left behind.

One marine geologist familiar with the study and related work, Norway’s Reidulv Bøe, said, “In a way, you can map garbage by counting micro-depressions.” That’s right. Our garbage can now be mapped according to the physical changes that it is imposing on the planet.

Do You Remember Where You Put Those Tires?

Similar garbage-related phenomena have been observed on the ocean floor off of Nova Scotia in Canada and in the Chatham Rise region off the coast of New Zealand. One of those garbage-related depressions is seven miles by four miles in area and approximately 330 feet deep in an area where the ocean is already 3,300 feet deep. That large depression is part of a collection of thousands of depressions that cover 7,700 square miles.

Here’s one bottom line. We don’t know much about 95 percent of the planet’s oceans. We’ve only explored five percent of them. The more we explore, the more mystifying things we discover. When we dive a little deeper into some of those mysteries, what do we find? Our own trash thousands of feet beneath the ocean’s surface and miles from any human being.

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