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Uncovering the Secrets of the Mariana Trench

James Wood
James Cameron recently became the third person in history to dive to
the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the lowest point on earth. The
conditions in the bottom of the ocean are very harsh due to intense
hydrostatic pressures and a lack of light, yet deep diving allows us to
study the oceanic fault lines and unique ecosystems that exist in the
deepest parts of the ocean. The Trieste was the first craft to travel to
the deepest part of the ocean, and advances in technology allow
modern craft such as Camerons Challenger Deep to explore the sea
trench like never before.
Hundreds of people climb Mount Everest every year and 27
astronauts have been to the moon, yet only 3 people have ever visited
the lowest point on earth. The point is known as Challenger Deep, and
it rests 36,070 feet below sea level in the bottom of the Mariana Trench
[1]. In March 2012, Avatar director James Cameron made history by
making the first solo dive to the bottom of the trench, and becoming
the second manned craft to ever reach the bottom. His vessel,
Deepsea Challenger, took seven years to build and was designed
specifically to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Camerons
purpose was not to set records, but to document and analyze the
conditions in the deepest parts of the ocean using modern technology.

In recent years these marine trenches have come under increased

scientific interest due to the presence of unique deep-sea life forms
and the major role sea trenches play in the redistribution of the earths
crust. Building dive craft that can travel to the sea floor and study
these phenomena is no easy task though, as the conditions 6.8 miles
below the surface will crush all but the toughest of submersibles.

Why bother exploring the ocean floor?

Diving to the deepest part of the ocean might seem like a
pointless achievement, but exploring the deep ocean floor is beneficial
to society because it will help scientists better understand the world
we live in. Water covers more than 70% of the planets surface, yet to
date we have explored only 5% of the oceans [2]. In particular, deepsea trenches interest many scientists in the fields of geology and
marine biology. The movement of the earths tectonic plates forms
peaks and valleys in the earth, and areas such as the Mariana Trench
are formed when one plate slides beneath a second tectonic plate in a
process known as subduction (Figure 1). These subduction zones are
responsible for most of the active volcanoes on earth as well as most
major earthquakes and tsunamis. In fact, 9 of the 10 largest
earthquakes of the past century have occurred in subduction zones, as
did the earthquake and tsunami that recently devastated Japan [3]. By
exploring these fault lines and understanding how the plates interact

with each other, geologists hope to better understand these natural

disasters and more accurately model fault movement in subduction
zones. The sea floor is also of great interest to biologists due to the
unique life forms that live in the dark depths of the ocean. The average
depth of the ocean floor is 12,200 feet, whereas sunlight penetrates
only 1,000 feet below the waves [10]. This means that organisms living
on the sea floor cannot use the sun as a source of energy and have
developed unique alternatives to sustain themselves. For instance,
while exploring geothermal vents in the earth, scientists discovered
chemosynthetic bacteria that live off of the hydrogen sulfide exhausted
from these deep-sea hydrothermal vents. These bacteria provide an
energy source for other life forms, and allow for a completely unique
ecosystem to thrive near these deep-ocean vents [5]. Scientists hope

to analyze the DNA of these unique organisms and other sea creatures
in order to understand how they function. Furthermore, the sea floor
contains large deposits of oil and minerals, and finding a way to collect
them safely and economically would prove to be very profitable.

Dangers of the deep

Although exploring the ocean floor would greatly benefit society,
charting the depths of the sea is no easy task. A deep-sea submersible
faces the same problems as any other conventional submarine: an
electrical fire, loss of power, or mechanical failure could leave the pilot

Figure 1: A cross section of the Mariana Trench. The red line shows the Pacific plate
being subducted by the Phillipine plate. Credit: Wikipedia

trapped in the near-freezing depths of the ocean without light or much

oxygen. However, the largest problem facing deep-sea submersibles is
the incredible pressure at the bottom of the ocean, known as

hydrostatic pressure. The physical principle behind hydrostatic

pressure can be seen in Figure 2. Water pressure increases in
proportion to the height of the water in the column, and the water at
the bottom has to support the weight of the incompressible fluid. At
the average ocean floor depth of 12,200 feet, there is a column of
water more than 2 miles high pressing down on the sea floor and any
submarine that travels there. At this depth, the pressure is 5540
pounds per square inch (psi), or 377 times sea level pressure. To reach
the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a vessel such as the Deepsea
Challenger needs to be able to withstand over 16,000 psi of pressure
or the ship will be crushed like a tin can [9]. The high pressures at the
ocean floor also make it difficult for deep-sea submersibles to dive and
resurface. The basic physical principle allowing a submersible to
function is buoyancy. As seen in Figure 3, a conventional submarine
has areas known as ballast tanks that can fill with either air or water,
changing the density of the craft and allowing the submarine to dive or
surface. In a modern submarine, compressed air is used to flush
seawater out of the ballast tanks and allow the submarine to surface.
Most modern submarines have maximum depth ratings of less than
2,000 feet, because around that depth the pressure of the water
exceeds the pressure of the compressed air, so the water would not be
removed and the submarine would sink. For deep-diving vessels such
as the Trieste and Deepsea Challenger, the dive mechanism is very

simple. Massive weights are

attached to bottom of the craft
to weigh it down, while the
craft itself it is designed to
float. With all of the weights
attached, the dive vessel sinks
to the bottom. When the
submersible wants to level out,
it drops some of the weights
until it stops moving. When the
vessel wants to surface, it

Figure 2: The column on the right has a

higher pressure than the left due to the
weight of the water. Credit:

simply drops the rest of the weights on the ocean floor and floats back
up, as seen in Figure 4. However, the
weights must be precisely calculated
to the maximum depth that the craft
wants to achieve, because the
density of the craft will increase as
the pressure increases [9]. While this
method requires refitting the weights
after each dive, it remains the
fastest and most economical way to
reach the sea floor.

Figure 3: Cross Section of a

submarine. Credit:

The evolution of deep-sea

Figure 4: An illustration of the

Deepsea Challenger releasing dive
weights. Credit: National

Although the basic physical principles used to reach Challenger
Deep havent changed in the past 60 years, the technology used in
deep-sea divers has allowed the submersibles to become practical
scientific instruments. The first craft to ever reach the Mariana trench
was the bathyscaphe Trieste, which was built in 1948 and seated two
people [12]. It weighed 150 tons and consisted of a giant float
suspended over a thick metal diving sphere where the crew was
confined (Figure 5). The float was filled with 22,000 gallons of gasoline,
which is incompressible and lighter than water, and seawater could be
taken in to lower the density as needed [6]. Although the Triestes dive
was a major feat of engineering, it was not a practical ship for scientific
exploration. The Trieste had few lights, no video cameras, and no way
to collect samples from the sea floor. The sub spent less than half an

hour at Challenger Deep and an ABC report of the dive states that
They [Walsh and Piccard] said at the time that their sub kicked up so
much muck that there was almost nothing visible through their thick
viewing ports [8]. However, the development of syntactic foam in the
1960s led to a new building material for diving vessels that were both
buoyant and durable, eliminating the need for a massive gasoline-filled
float. The new material allowed for the development of much smaller
craft, outfitted with more modern technology to allow for economical
scientific exploration. In addition, advancements in robotics allowed
deep-sea craft to be fitted with mechanical arms, enabling them to
interact with the environment and collect samples for research. These
new compact submersibles such as the DSV Alvin have been used in a
number of tasks, ranging from exploring the Titanic to disarming
nuclear warheads on the ocean floor. Although data gathered by Alvin
has been referenced in over 2,000 scientific papers, the submersible
can only dive to a depth of 14,800 feet and thus can only reach 63% of
the ocean floor [4]. James Camerons Deepsea Challenger builds upon
the previous designs of syntactic foam-based craft by using an
improved foam that can resist the extreme pressures of the Mariana
Trench and allow it to travel anywhere in the ocean. Camerons
submersible has a sleek aerodynamic design allowing it to descend
and resurface much faster than the Trieste, allowing for more time
spent on the sea floor.Like Alvin and similar dive robots, the Deepsea

Challenger is equipped with a robot arm to collect samples from the

Mariana Trench. What makes the submersible unique are the massive
light and camera arrays attached to the midsection of the craft (Figure
6). The film director wanted to capture the environment with highdefinition 3D video cameras, and 5 cameras were custom built and
attached to the sub so Cameron could bring stunning footage of the
Mariana Trench back to the surface. James Cameron hopes to use these
cameras to both entertain audiences and further scientific research.

Looking to the Future

The information
gathered from the Deepsea
Challenger and similar dive
crafts has a myriad of possible

Figure 5: A comparison of the float-buoyed Trieste and the foam-buoyed Deepsea

Challenger. Credit: National Geographic
Figure 6: Design overview of the
Deepsea Challenger

applications. For instance, NASA astrobiologist Kevin Hand is currently

reviewing James Camerons dive footage to see what it might tell us
about the possibility of life in the deep oceans of Jupiters moon Europa
[7]. Since life on earth began in the oceans, understanding how
organisms survive and replicate in the harsh conditions of the ocean
floor will further scientists knowledge of how life developed on earth.
Governments have also discussed the prospect of disposing of
radioactive waste or excess carbon dioxide by embedding it in the sea
floor, but more research is needed to determine the environmental side
effects [11]. If the waste could be disposed of with minimal
environmental impact, this would temporarily solve many of our
hazardous waste problems. Geologists could use the craft to study
underwater subduction faults to possibly predict future earthquakes
and tsunamis, which could save countless lives. Quite frankly, since so
much of the ocean remains a mystery the possibilities are almost
endless. Moreover, exploring the ocean is more financially feasible
than one might expect. Former director of the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Association Dr. Sylvia Earle recently said: A fraction of
what we invest going skyward would answer some major questions
about this part of the Solar System [the ocean]. [1]. Outer space may
be the final frontier, but we must first find out what opportunities are
hiding beneath the waves. Camerons visit to Challenger Deep may
have only been the second manned trip in history, but he says it wont

be his last. "It's not a one-time deal and then moving on. This is the
beginning of opening up this new frontier" [8].

About the Author: James Wood is an undergraduate at USC majoring

in chemical engineering. He enjoys playing rugby, scuba diving, and
exploring the great outdoors.

Links and key words:

Key words: Hydrostatic pressure, subduction Zone, buoyancy,
hydrothermal vents, syntactic foam, Challenger Deep, Deepsea
Challenger, Trieste, DSV Alvin,
Multimedia website:
Multimedia website:
Multimedia website:

Works Cited
[1] "Why Go Down?" BBC News Internet:, Feb 23, 2012 [April 1, 2012]
[2] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ocean Facts.
Internet:, Nov 17,
2011 [April 1, 2012]
[3] Wikipedia. Subduction. Internet:, Mar 24, 2011 [April 1, 2012]
[4] Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Human Occupied Vehicle
Alvin. Internet: [April 1, 2012]
[5] United States Geological Survey. Exploring the Deep Ocean Floor." This
Dynamic Earth. Internet:, Jun 24, 1999
[April 1, 2012]
[6] The Trieste. Extreme Science Internet:
[April 1, 2012]
[7] Bolden, Charles. NASA and Challenger Deep. NASA. Internet:, Mar 26, 2012
[April 1, 2012]
[8] Potter, Ned. James Cameron Describes Mariana Trench After Pacific Dive. ABC
News. Internet:, Mar 26, 2012 [April 1, 2012]
[9] National Geographic. Sub Facts. Deepsea Challenge. Internet:, Mar. 2012 [April 1, 2012]
[10] Smithsonian Institute. Zones of the Open Ocean. Ocean Portal.
Internet:, Jan 1,
2012 [April 1, 2012]
[11] National Academy of Engineering. Develop Carbon Sequestration
Methods. Engineering Grand Challenges. Internet:, [April 1,
[12] United States Naval Department. Trieste. Naval History and
Heritage Command. Internet:,
[April 1, 2012]