Scientists Spend a Record-Breaking 31 Days Living in the Ocean, Devise Plans for Underwater Cities

Monday, 03 November 2014 - 4:09PM
Monday, 03 November 2014 - 4:09PM

Science fiction is chock-full of underwater cities, from Otoh Gunga in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace to Atlantis in both Stargate: Atlantis and Doctor Who. But could humans live in underwater cities in real life? A team of oceanographers, including Jaques Cousteau's grandson Fabien, say yes, as they just broke Jacques's record and spent a full 31 days living in an underwater lab.


There were once many underwater labs in the 1960's, but almost all of them became defunct, as the idea of fully functioning underwater cities became viewed as nothing more than a pipe dream. Aquarius, which Cousteau calls "an antique," is the last remaining underwater lab from that era, and it was never meant to be lived in. It was intended for missions that would last for approximately a week, and requires a great deal of support and supplies on the surface. But still, Cousteau and his colleagues lived there for an entire month, gathering groundbreaking data on the ocean environment.


"In the 31 days that we were down below, we gathered data related to climate change, acidification, pollution, and overuse of natural resources, which will be used in 12 scientific papers," said Cousteau.


While the "final frontier" generally refers to space, many oceanographers would argue that we should speak of the ocean in similar terms, as we have only explored less than five percent of the Earth's underwater terrain. Cousteau believes that their research could not only assist in immediate concerns such as climate change, but could also pave the way towards self-sufficient underwater cities.


Cousteau said, "My dream, which I hope will come to fruition down the road, is to build a real-life Atlantis, where it's completely self-sustaining, with little or no support from the surface."


He detailed his vision of such a city, which would share many similarities with a potential space colony, and would therefore overlap with space exploration efforts. First, he actually subsisted on freeze-dried astronaut food during his recent underwater stint. "Honestly, space food sucks," said Cousteau. "And on top of that, you lose your sense of taste, so eating really becomes an unpleasant experience." As a result, he envisions a colony in which the inhabitants grow their own food, possibly by farming algae. He also envisions technology that could generate its own oxygen through electrolysis of the water molecules and then scrubs its carbon dioxide from the air using some kind of chemical binding agent. "These are two essential points that, until now, have been tackled by space but not underwater," Cousteau said.


Regarding sustainability, he believes that energy could be created by harvesting it from the ocean, through some kind of water-splitting device that yields hydrogen gas, which can then power a fuel cell. The technology of water-splitting on its own is perfectly feasible, as scientists from the University of Glasgow built such a device in September, but more research would need to be done in order to potentially power an entire city. This device was originally theorized to assist with long-term space travel, underscoring the parallels between the two "final frontiers."


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