December 15, 2015
It was one of those strange coincidences today… at breakfast this morning, I was sharing with my AGU Meeting undergraduate mentee Kimberly (you’ll learn more about her in a future post!) how I was out to sea last year on a hydrographic survey with NOAA. And when I was asked to share my experience at the Smithsonian Institution during World Hydrography Day, I put a Captain America spin on the work as a “hook” to pull people in to learn about how we map our ocean floors (see my blog post on starting with Captain America for science communication).
So fast forward just a few hours… Kimberly and I waited patiently in the long, winding line to enter Hall E in Moscone North for a special general session during lunchtime. The only information we had ahead of time was the following: “Peter Diamandis and other XPRIZE representatives will be at the Fall Meeting to formally announce a new XPRIZE competition.” I was aware of XPRIZE and their model of an incentivized competition to bring new technology into existence and drive exploration (Dr. Diamandis shared with the audience he learned that even Charles Lindbergh was motivated by a $25,000 prize to complete his nonstop flight from New York to Paris). And XPRIZE works with scientists in asking the question – what are the world’s biggest problems that haven’t been solved that should be solved?
“Oceans” is one of the categories of the XPRIZE competition. XPRIZE has committed, from the period of 2010-2020, to launch at least five XPRIZEs. Paul Bunje (XPRIZE) shared that they want to put oceans on an unstoppable path to be understood, to be healthy, and to be valued. The first ocean challenge was for ocean clean up (after Deepwater Horizon), the second ocean challenge was focused on ocean health, and the third ocean challenge… drumroll, please… addresses mapping and exploring the ocean floor!
This YouTube video should give you at least a snapshot overview of the challenge, a $7 Million Shell Ocean Discovery Prize, with a bonus $1 million NOAA Bonus Prize (the ability to also detect and track a chemical or biological signal autonomously):
Some of the sound bytes that I noted from this Special Session:
- This (XPRIZE)is a new Moon Shot, a new Space Race
- The XPRIZE is a chance for humanity to come together to innovate
- This prize will democratize access to these areas like the ocean floor
- (and a fact all oceanographers are painfully aware of…) Only ~5% of our ocean floor has been mapped, so what is on the other 95% of the ocean floor?
With my “press pass” as an AGU Blogger, I was able to attend the follow-up press conference right after the Special Session.There were some additional sound bytes I picked up on:
- Once the ocean floor is mapped, that doesn’t mean the ocean isn’t changing – can we get to real-time rapid ocean floor characterization?
- Technical ancillary improvements may come out of this competition for communication, data visualizations, etc.
- (and two of my favorite lines…) The challenge of the XPRIZE is hard. Mapping the ocean floor is hard.
It was interesting to hear the questions being asked by the press and the responses. One member of the press asked about the three most important unknowns of the ocean bottom. Responses included:
- 30-60% of marine species are currently unknown
- there is an estimated 3 million shipwrecks on the ocean floor (from UNESCO), which is human history yet to be discovered
- there are undersea volcanoes and rift zones yet to be discovered
And then, this same member of the press asked the panel for additional unknowns! Responses included:
- we seek cures/treatments from what lives underwater – so what treatments do we not have yet?
- we need a better understanding of the ocean’s contributions to the carbon cycle (sources and sinks)
- mineral resources we can mine from the ocean floor – where are they, and how much?
The registration deadline for teams is June 2016, with the award to be made in December 2018. More specifics about the project requirements can be found at: http://oceandiscovery.xprize.org/. Read more in EOS at Autonomous Undersea Technologies to Vie for New XPRIZE.
OK, I have to put my “educator” hat on here to wrap up this blog post… how could I use this XPRIZE challenge with my students? How could I get them to understand why this is a problem (mapping the ocean floor) worth solving and worthy of a XPRIZE competition? What path would they (students) take to make the oceans understood, healthy, and valued? In my push to have students understand the process of science, perhaps it is time to add to my instruction how funded competitions add to and drive innovation.