Far below the surface of the Arabian Sea, state-of-the-art robots probe the mysterious depths. For the first time in almost 50 years, they are collecting data from this turbulent and dangerous part of the world. But what they found has shocked scientists – and might have dire consequences for the human race.
A strait of water that cuts through some of the most turbulent parts of the Middle East, the Gulf of Oman has borne witness to countless shocking events over the years. From the Iraqi invasion of Iran that left half a million civilians dead to the ongoing conflict in North-West Pakistan, it’s a region often ravaged by political turmoil and war.
Now, however, a new horror has reared its head in the Middle East – and it could have a lasting impact on mankind all around the world. In the warm waters of the Gulf of Oman, which borders Oman, Iran, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates, scientists have discovered a strange anomaly beneath the waves.
Beginning in 2015, a team of scientists from England’s University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Sultan Qaboos University in Oman began conducting research in the region, which makes up almost 65,000 square miles of the Arabian Sea. And even though the Gulf of Oman has plenty of features of scientific interest, this was the first such study conducted in the region in nearly 50 years.
Previously, factors such as political conflicts and piracy have prevented scientists from accessing much of the Gulf of Oman. However, thanks to recent advances in technology, the researchers were able to conduct a thorough survey of the region at little risk to themselves.
Led by the UEA’s Dr. Bastien Queste, the team used two special robots known as Seagliders to collect data from inaccessible parts of the region. A type of submarine operated by remote control, these gliders were able to scan the depths of the Gulf of Oman – and relay information back to the researchers.
Capable of exploring depths of more than 3,000 feet, the robots are similar in size to a small person. However, they are far more effective than human divers and can remain in the ocean for months at a time. Furthermore, they are able to travel for thousands of miles in a single mission.
For eight months, two Seagliders were tasked with collecting data across the Gulf of Oman. Using satellite communications, they were able to build up a detailed picture of oxygen levels in this part of the Arabian Sea. Moreover, they also studied the systems that transfer the vital element from place to place.
Terrifyingly, what they found could have serious implications for the future of planet Earth. They apparently came across an area of ocean larger than the whole of Scotland with one worrying characteristic – it contained barely any oxygen. And even though researchers had expected to find low levels of the element, they were still shocked by the scale of the problem.
Of course, oxygen is vital to fragile ecosystems, and everything from marine plants to fish need it in order to survive. But now, scientists are discovering areas of the ocean where the element is not present. Known as dead zones, they are devoid of any kind of life and occur all around the world.
In waters off the coasts of North America, South America and Namibia – as well as in the Bay of Bengal – scientists have been declaring the existence of such dead zones. In fact, it’s thought that some 95,000 square miles of the Earth’s oceans could be affected. And the Arabian Sea contains the biggest such zone that has been observed to date.
“The Arabian Sea is the largest and thickest dead zone in the world,” Dr. Queste said in an April 2018 press release from the University of East Anglia. “But until now no one really knew how bad the situation was because piracy and conflicts in the area have made it too dangerous to collect data.”
According to scientists, dead zones occur naturally in the world’s oceans, usually at depths of between 650 and 2,600 feet. However, both climate change and other environmental factors are thought to be making them far worse. “They are a disaster waiting to happen,” warned Dr. Queste.
Apparently, as the Earth’s temperature rises, the water in the planet’s oceans is also becoming warmer. And when that happens, it becomes less able to retain oxygen. Additionally, pollutants such as sewage and fertilizers are making their way into the seas, exacerbating the problem even further.
Moreover, Dr. Queste and his team’s findings appear to indicate that the waters of the Gulf of Oman have been much more affected than was previously thought. “Our research shows that the situation is actually worse than feared – and that the area of dead zone is vast and growing,” he explained. “The ocean is suffocating.”
And dead zones aren’t just a problem for marine life, either. In fact, Dr. Queste was quick to point out that this phenomenon could also have “dire consequences” for mankind. With our dependence on the world’s oceans as a source of employment and food, these lifeless areas could spell disaster in the near future.
Furthermore, Dr. Queste explained how dead zones could be worsening the effects of climate change. Apparently, in low-oxygen environments, nitrogen is processed in a different way. And when that happens, nitrous oxide is produced – a greenhouse gas said to be 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.
Previously, researchers have used computer simulations in order to predict how dead zones will grow over the years. However, they have typically struggled to take into account factors such as eddies – movements of water that affect how oxygen is distributed. But now, with the help of the data collected by Dr. Queste and his team, they have been able to build up a clearer picture of what is going on.
Interestingly, these scientists have discovered that the Gulf of Oman’s dead zone actually varies in depth between the seasons, creating a further challenge for sea life in the region. Unable to survive inside the oxygen-poor environment, animals such as fish find themselves confined to a small area close to the surface.
But can anything be done to halt the suffocation of our oceans? According to Dr. Queste, his data will be instrumental in managing the area in the coming years. However, will that be enough to prevent an environmental disaster from occurring? Terrifyingly, we have little choice but to wait and see.