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Featuring guest Dawn Wright

Dawn Wright | A Divine Abyss

As a scientist, Dawn Wright has been studying and helping to map the depths of the ocean, but being there in person uncovered a new dimension and deepened her connection with the mysterious underwater world.


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Image by Colin Hoogerwerf

As a scientist, Dawn Wright has been studying and helping to map the depths of the ocean, but being there in person uncovered a new dimension and deepened her connection with the mysterious underwater world.

Description

In the summer of 2022 Dawn Wright became only the 27th person ever, the fifth woman, and the first Black person to descend into the deepest part of the ocean, a place called Challenger Deep. As a scientist, Dawn has been studying and helping to map the depths of the ocean, but being there in person uncovered a new dimension and deepened her connection with the mysterious underwater world. In the episode, Colin and Dawn talk about the science of mapping, the world of deep sea submersibles, and how finding trash in the most remote places of our planet might spark a renewed sense of stewardship for all of God’s creation.

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Transcript

Wright:

When you’re in the submersible, you’re slowly descending and everything is beautifully blue, then it gets gray and then it goes into complete darkness. And in many places in the ocean, when you’re in that very biologically rich part of the ocean, it includes creatures that are bioluminescent. So they are communicating, a big part of their life, is flashing these beautiful blue-green signals to each other. And we had a chance to see that as we were descending. So I never ever forgot that. I’ve seen it in my other dives, in fact, I saw it in Challenger Deep as well, but it was nothing like seeing that for the first time.

I’m Dawn Wright. I am the Chief Scientist of ESRI, or the Environmental Systems Research Institute, and I’m also a Professor of Geography and Oceanography at Oregon State University.

Hoogerwerf:

Welcome to Language of God, I’m Colin Hoogerwerf. In the summer of 2022, Dawn Wright became only the 27th person to descend into the deepest part of the ocean, a place called Challenger Deep, earning her the nickname Deep Sea Dawn. That experience alone would be enough for a long and interesting conversation, but Dawn Wright is also an acclaimed scientist and a Christian. We talk about her dive to Challenger deep and also her first deep sea dive in the submersible Alvin. We also talk a little bit about mapping, a science that so many other scientific disciplines depend on and the focus of much of Dawn’s scientific career. And woven throughout the conversation you’ll hear the wonder in awe that motivates and inspires her to study this most remote yet life-filled part of our planet. Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Hoogerwerf:

Well, Dr. Dawn Wright, welcome to the podcast.

Wright:

Oh, thank you. It’s a delight to be here.

Hoogerwerf:

So I have been fascinated by the ocean for a long time and I’m wearing my ocean shirt for you today.

Wright:

I noticed your shirt. I really like your shirt.

Hoogerwerf:

And I’m pretty excited for the chance to talk to somebody that has actually been to one of the deepest parts in the ocean. Before we get to that, let’s go back a little ways and can you just tell us where you came from, where’d you grow up, and maybe what were your earliest memories and interactions with science?

Wright:

Yes. Well, my family on my mother’s side is from Baltimore, Maryland, but we, as a family unit, my mother, my father, and myself, I’m an only child, we’ve followed my mother’s trajectory in terms of her career as an instructor. She was a speech major at Wheaton College, so Wheaton College plays a big role in my story. And after leaving Wheaton College, she got a series of teaching positions, met my father, continued to teach and we ended up moving to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan when I was five years old because of a teaching position that she got. And then the year after that, we made a big move from Saskatoon to Hawaii. And that was formative for me because we ended up spending the next 10 years in Hawaii. That’s where I consider myself to be from, that’s where I grew up, that’s where I developed a love of the ocean and a love of science as well. And I was particularly influenced by a couple of TV shows that were very good, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and The Wonderful World of Disney, which had a lot of science content.

And it was wonderful for me because I could see what was going on in those shows and then I could try to reenact the whole thing myself in the ocean. I was always in the ocean, swimming, body surfing, exploring, and that’s where I learned about geology. And I learned that the Hawaiian islands originated on the ocean floor and grew up, breached the surface and became islands. So we were living on a volcanic mountain and that fascinated me to no end. And I developed this love of geology. And I discovered that you could be a geological oceanographer. And so it just became a matter of how do you go about doing that? And the main idea is to, especially for oceanographic science, which is a newer science, it’s a more specialized science, so you major in biology, everybody thinks of marine biology, so you start with a biology degree and then you specialize in marine biology in graduate school. But it’s the same thing for geology, chemistry and physics. And there are a lot of people in marine physics who are essentially climate scientists.

So with all of our discussion about climate change, those specialists are very, very valuable. But any part of studying the ocean, it’s a climate change story. At any rate, that’s what led me eventually to Wheaton College because of my mother’s influence and also I wanted a good Christian liberal arts education. I would’ve gone to Wheaton regardless, but I was so overjoyed to know that Wheaton had a geology major, which was quite unusual. I think it’s still quite unusual for Christian universities and colleges to have geology as part of their majors. So I was a geology student at Wheaton, got a good grounding in geology. In fact, Wheaton has quite a story in terms of some famous scientists who’ve come out of Wheaton, especially in the fifties and sixties, such as Wally Broecker, Wallace Broecker, a very famous climate scientist, geochemist, who spent most of his career at Columbia University. He started off as a Wheaton student and then transferred to Columbia.

At any rate, that got me started. And I went on to graduate school in oceanography from there, spent quite a bit of time at sea as a marine technician, a seagoing ocean technician, went back to school for a PhD. That’s where I also was introduced to mapping and geographic information systems. And then spent 17 years as a professor at Oregon State University and then was recruited by ESRI to be their Chief Scientist in 2011. And that quickly brings us up to the present.

Hoogerwerf:

Sure. Yeah, okay, so we’ll get to mapping here in just a minute and come back to climate and environment stuff too, which you mentioned, but you also mentioned the faith aspect of this. I wonder if you can just say a little bit about the religious tradition of your childhood. It sounds like Wheaton was a part of that.

Wright:

Yes. I became a Christian at the age of eight. That year, 1969, was a big year for me because that was something that I decided to do and received the Lord as my personal Savior that summer. It was also the summer of the Apollo 11 flight, which affected so many young people. It certainly affected me. I can remember exactly where I was, what I was doing when that was on TV. In fact, I was in front of the TV just transfixed by it. And that also played a role in my plans to become an oceanographer. There were so many little kids running around with space helmets and wanting to become astronauts, and I thought about becoming an astronaut for maybe five minutes, but then I thought, “Well, if those men could go to all the way to the Moon and do what they did, why can’t I, as a little girl, aspire to become an ocean explorer and to explore the deep?” So that was a wonderful summer.

Hoogerwerf:

So let’s talk about mapping. I think it’s an area of science that a lot of people don’t think about, maybe because we live in such a mapped world most of the time. But road and sidewalk maps aren’t the only way we map what’s around us. Can you talk a little bit about modern mapping, how that’s contributed to scientific research, and maybe some of the most interesting applications right now?

Wright:

Yes. Well, mapping is really the science of our world, and it is something that people do take for granted, especially now that we have these navigation systems so that technically we are never lost in terms of our spacial coordinates or our spatial awareness, although there can still be some very unfortunate circumstances there. But the idea of creating a map or understanding how a map is made, what underlies a map, understanding not only that a map is something static that you might look at in an atlas or on the screen, it’s something that is dynamic, ever-changing. It’s something that can make predictions in terms of geographic information systems, which are essentially smart maps, because these are maps that you can ask questions of, that you can hypothesize around and that you can do all kinds of calculations with the data that are behind that map, even to the point where the answer may not be a map, it may be a single number, it may be a parameter, it may be an equation of some sort.

That is the whole science of mapping that is so exciting, and I’m so glad to hear that so many universities now have degrees in this area. It’s often called geographic information science. It’s the science behind the original geographic information systems. And the computer software that’s in your phone or in your car, or we like to say that if the package is brown or white, then our technology gets that package to where it needs to go. So in other words, our company supplies the spatial analytics to UPS and FedEx and many other companies so that they can navigate and get packages to where they need to be. So people certainly care about that. So that’s this exciting world that I was able to enter in the early nineties as a student. And now to work for one of the leading companies behind that is very gratifying and it is something that is considered a science.

Oftentimes, it’s considered a metascience because it integrates all kinds of older sciences in order to innovate and to contribute new knowledge. So this mapping science, it’s part geography, it’s part mathematics, it’s part statistics, part computer science, and there’s so many applications of those basic foundational sciences that you have mapping that is in geology, it’s certainly in oceanography, it’s in chemistry, physics, rocket science, certainly it has to be in rocket science, it’s in all the social sciences. So it’s a fantastic world.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah. Well, we’re going to be talking mostly about oceans here. So moving this to ocean mapping, I’m curious, how is ocean mapping done? I know in the 1800s, people threw a big weight off a boat and measured the line that paid out. I’m guessing we’re a little more sophisticated than that now.

Wright:

It is. And we use energy to map the ocean. The main concept is to use sound and the speed of sound. And this is one of the reasons why it takes longer for us to map in the ocean and to map the ocean itself, as opposed to the maps that we have of other planets, the other planets that don’t have water. Water is the main beauty and barrier of mapping on Earth, as opposed to the complete maps that we have of Mars and Venus and the Moon. We have those heavenly bodies mapped in their entirety, that topography, because the satellite sensors that are in space don’t have to see through water, they just use electromagnetic energy to do that type of mapping. But in the ocean, that type of energy is quickly absorbed and dissipated and you can’t use it in the same way. We do have satellite maps that measure the Earth’s gravitational pull, and those gravity maps can be used to estimate the bottom of the ocean, which is really counterintuitive, but really that’s a wonderful process.

Hoogerwerf:

Pretty low resolution on that.

Wright:

And that’s the drawback. Those are low-resolution maps. But from those maps, we can see the biggest mountains, the biggest trenches, the biggest scars on the ocean floor. That’s because of how the Earth’s gravitational pull naturally changes in those areas. But to get a higher resolution and a higher detailed map, we have to use whale calls, so to speak. We use sound. That’s how marine mammals communicate, sound travels wonderfully through the ocean. That’s how and why those animals communicate. And we use the same principle. We use pulses of sound and we bounce those off of the bottom of the ocean. We take note of how long it takes for the sound to come back to the instrument. So that is a travel time. That travel time is quickly converted to a depth because using the velocity of sound in water. And so that depth, we map millions of those depths and we get either a contour map or the types of topographic maps that we’re used to seeing on land.

And those are our maps of the bottom of the ocean. So that’s one way that we use sound. Another way that we use sound is to not only measure how long it takes for the sound to come back to the instrument, but how strongly that sound pulse returns to the instrument. And that strength of return, or we often call that backscatter, that gives us a different type of map that gives us a picture of the bottom. So we have not only the highs and lows of the bottom, but we have shadows that are cast, reflections, things that are bright, maybe like a lava flow versus an area that is sandy, where the sound energy is absorbed so it’s muted. So you get the equivalent of an aerial photograph from the sea floor. So travel time and backscatter are the two major principles that we use to make maps.

Hoogerwerf:

So a map of the bottom of the ocean, I think, to most people might seem like just something we want based off of our curiosity, but I imagine there’s some more importance to it, some application. What does it help us to do or know that we need to keep trying to find out more about them?

Wright:

Well, the technology for making these types of maps really came to the fore, in terms of my understanding of the history of this process, in World War II. So one of the ways that this was developed was to find enemy submarines. So there’s that defense aspect to it. The technology was further developed and was shared with the scientific community so that now we most certainly need these types of maps to understand, for instance, where there are major faults or places where earthquakes occur. And one of the reasons why that’s important is because tsunamis come from these places, and tsunamis are definitely life-threatening natural events. And so it really helps to know where these events start. And then also what’s going to happen once these tsunamis are huge, long wavelength waves that travel at the speed of a jet airliner across the ocean, but when they hit the coastal areas, they suddenly feel the bottom of shallower regions.

And then all of that horizontal energy is converted to vertical energy, we get the catastrophic tsunami waves hitting the coast, destroying infrastructure, killing people and so forth. We’ve seen this over and over again in the news. You must have a good bathymetric map. You must have a good map of the ocean floor to understand the direction that these waves are going to take once they feel the bottom, once they come to the shore. So one of the best ways of having good public safety, evacuation maps, for instance, should these events occur, that’s why we need ocean floor maps for that.

We also have ocean floor maps for all kinds of infrastructure that’s on the ocean floor, pipelines, submarine cables that carry internet and telephone, other types of signals. So I often say, when I’m talking about the ocean floors, that we would not have the internet, we would not have streaming videos, we wouldn’t have any of that without good maps of the ocean floor, because that’s where there are millions of miles of submarine cables laid across all the world oceans, all the world ocean. ESRI has a wonderful map and visualization of where those cables are, that this is totally something that’s out of sight, out of mind. You turn on your computer, you might have a Zoom call with a relative in Europe or in Africa, and you’re not thinking at all about the ocean floor, but you need to thank the ocean floor for that.

There’s also the area fisheries, bottom fisheries. We need the good maps for that there. And there’s the renewal, the sacredness, I like to say, of the ocean. There are many marine parks, ocean parks, protected areas, places where we love to just have our being and our renewal, and we certainly need good maps of that. So there is the US National Park System, but there’s also the US National Marine Sanctuary System. And all of those sanctuaries have good maps of the ocean floor, of the ocean surface and sometimes of the ocean in between.

Hoogerwerf:

So you mentioned other planets and our maps of them, and I’ve heard this thing before that we know more about the surface of the Moon than we do about the bottom of the ocean. Can you confirm that in any detail?

Wright:

Yes, that is true. And it’s the problem that I described earlier about the relative difficulty in mapping, seeing through the water. And Earth, as an ocean planet, 70 to 71% of our surface is covered by ocean so it’s that much more difficult.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah. And one of the ways we learn about the bottom of the ocean is by going down there, at least in modern times.

Wright:

Absolutely, yes.

Hoogerwerf:

Which you’ve done on several occasions.

Wright:

Uh-huh.

Hoogerwerf:

Can you start by talking about your first dive in Alvin? Because I’ve heard you talk about the fact that that first dive was really special in some ways. Where and when was that? And then if you could maybe just describe from what it’s like starting at the top and descending down into darkness?

Wright:

Yes, yes. Well, like many things in life, the first time having an ice cream cone or the first time walking into a big football stadium or baseball stadium, or having your first child or whatever it might be, your first puppy dog, that’s what diving in Alvin was like for me. I had the opportunity to dive in Alvin as a graduate student, which was a wonderful gift. And it’s thanks to one of my mentors and one of the members of my doctoral committee, Professor Rachel Haymon. She was doing studies on the East Pacific Rise, she was getting funding along with other colleagues to get Alvin dives in the early 1990s. And she made sure that those of us who were studying the area for our theses had the best chance possible to actually visit that area. And so I was looking at hours and hours and hours of prior video footage of this area.

And it’s interesting because the video footage came from the camera sled that was developed by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the camera sled that discovered the wreck of the Titanic, the Argo II, and then Argo II was being used for scientific studies, and that sled was giving me the data that I needed for my dissertation. But there was nothing actually visiting those areas. Even though I thought I knew that area from studying all the video, when I actually went to the sea floor in Alvin, looked out the viewport and saw these features, it blew my mind. And the other thing about when you’re in the submersible, you’re slowly descending and everything is beautifully blue, then it gets gray, and then it goes into complete darkness. And in many places in the ocean, when you’re in that very biologically rich part of the ocean, it includes creatures that are bioluminescent.

So they are communicating, a big part of their life is flashing these beautiful blue-green signals to each other. And we had a chance to see that as we were descending. So I never ever forgot that. I’ve seen it in my other dives, in fact, I saw it in Challenger Deep as well, but it was nothing like seeing that for the first time. And the visibility out of Alvin’s viewports is superior. It’s just wonderful. You rest your head directly against the side of the inside of the submersible, and your face is right, in fact, they have padding so that you don’t injure your forehead, and once you’re viewing in that way, it is like you are transported outside of the submersible into that world. And it was absolutely marvelous. And then being on the seafloor and seeing the hydrothermal vents, the undersea hot springs, and I was studying the distribution of cracks in the sea floor. And I saw those cracks, those fissures, the tube worms, the crabs, the mussels, the clams, all of that was wonderful.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey, Language of God listeners, if you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our animated video series called Insights. These short videos tell stories and explore many of the questions at the heart of the faith and science conversation. They’re short, beautifully animated and easily shareable. You can find them at biologos.org/insights or on the BioLogos YouTube channel. All right, back to the show.

Interview Part Two

Hoogerwerf:

I’m really interested in this idea of being present in a place. You’ve been studying this place for so long, you know about it, but then to actually be there. And it’s probably hard to put into words why that’s important, and I wonder if you have any other thoughts about why actually being in a place gives you something different than just trying to understand it maybe from an academic sense?

Wright:

I think it goes back to, for those of us who are people of faith and this is part of the creation care, I think, because this is all part of God’s creation. We think about the charismatic species, the polar bears and the lions and tigers and the beautiful plants that we are familiar with or that we hear about, but the amazing diversity of life that God has created, I don’t know why these creatures exist, they live in complete darkness, in cold temperatures, but that is their world, it’s part of our world. Everything is part of God’s creation and everything belongs and should be respected. And then when those of us who are scientists have a chance to see these worlds, these worlds within a world that no one else gets to see, let alone study, it just reinforces for me how amazing and precious it all is. And we don’t have to know all of the answers as to why it’s there.

Of course, from a scientific standpoint, we are studying why it’s there in terms of the balance of everything on the planet. In fact, we think about, especially with the pandemic, and we now understand more about viruses and bacteria, we don’t see these things, but they are absolutely either necessary for us to live and be healthy or they can kill us, but they’re totally out of sight, out of mind most of the time. But they’re there and they’re also part of the created order. So that’s where I’m thinking there, and again, for those of us who have specific study sites that we have visited often, and we know a lot about them, they’re very precious and very sacred. I also think about our Indigenous cultures, who I first learned of the concept of Sacred Lands from interacting with faculty at Oregon State University in our ethnic studies department. And the Indigenous professors there talked about that concept, and actually they put together a Sacred Lands Conference, a summit, and they involved many of us who were geographers in that endeavor.

So that is also very, very important. And it’s why we have, in part, all of these land acknowledgement statements, which are all well-meant, and I think are trying to show that more and more people are becoming familiar with this concept and certainly with the history of a place, that it didn’t just start with my neighborhood the way it is now, a lot of things happen in this place.

Hoogerwerf:

Well, we’ve mentioned Alvin, which is the name of the submersible. You’ve been on some other ones including the Limiting Factor. Can you give a little bit of an overview of maybe what they look like and how many of them there are? There aren’t all that many vehicles that can do this, right?

Wright:

No. I’m thinking of a nice graphic that shows the many existing deep submergence vehicles. They’re often called DSV, deep submergence vehicles, submersibles. The Russians had, or they still have the Mir, the Nautile is from Ifremer in France, Japan has the Shinkai 6500, the Chinese national government has the Fendouzhe, which along with the Limiting Factor is the only other deep submergence vehicle that can go full ocean depth. It can go to the deepest part of the ocean and come back. Other vehicles are limited to 6,500 meters.

Because of the electronics, the engineering is such that if they go deeper, things will likely implode because of the high pressure. The Alvin has joined that group of submersibles that is now certified to 6,500 meters. So that’s wonderful for the Alvin. In fact, Alvin was named after Allyn Vine, who, I believe, designed and engineered the first version of Alvin. And Alvin now remains our only US nationally-funded deep submergence vehicle. So Alvin is our most precious workhorse because of what it can do, certainly its history, and it’s a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution vehicle. The Limiting Factor is also precious, but it’s privately owned and it’s now under the auspices of Inkfish Expeditions in the partnership there with the University of Western Australia. So there are these various vehicles, they’re from different countries, they have different capabilities. It’s hard to describe in a podcast what they all look like, but that might be good for another link for your listeners, and then they can see pictures.

Hoogerwerf:

Several great graphics out there.

Wright:

Yeah.

Hoogerwerf:

So the most recent dive, your most recent dive, I believe, was the Challenger Deep dive?

Wright:

Yes, that was it. That was last July 2022.

Hoogerwerf:

And in the Limiting Factor, to the deepest part of the ocean. And you are only the 27th person to go that deep, the fifth woman and the first Black person to go that deep.

Wright:

Yes.

Hoogerwerf:

Let’s talk about that experience a little bit and maybe just start with how you got invited to join on that expedition.

Wright:

Yes. Well, when this organization was Caladan Oceanic, under the ownership of Victor Vescovo, Caladan Oceanic completed what is now known as the Five Deeps. And this was Victor’s vision and his attempt and his success at going to the five deepest parts of the global world ocean, one for each major ocean basin; the Arctic, the Southern Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean. He also wanted to have these assets, the ship and the submersible and the landers, the robots that accompany the submersible to take additional video and photography and to actually capture samples of life, he wanted those to be assets for the scientific community. And in doing this work, they were using ESRI software for this, especially for the bathymetric mapping that they’re doing. One of the things that Caladan Oceanic should be known for in addition to the Limiting Factor, the submersible, is their bathymetric mapping system from the ship. The ship that gets the Limiting Factor to where it needs to be in order to dive is called the Pressure Drop. And the Pressure Drop has one of the most advanced undersea mapping systems in the world.

And everywhere that the Limiting Factor has been taken to dive, the Pressure Drop has been gathering detailed maps of the ocean floor and contributing those maps, that data, to the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans, or GEBCO, is the foundation for this Seabed2030 Global Grid, that those of us who are in this ocean mapping field, we are on a quest to complete a map of the global ocean floor by 2030. A detailed map, not just a map that is lower detail, lower resolution that you mentioned before could come from satellites. This would be the definitive detailed map that would help us to do a much better job with all of those applications of ocean floor data that you asked me about earlier. We can do so much better with more detailed maps. Anyway, the Pressure Drop has made a wonderful contribution to that, and they’ve used ESRI ArcGIS technology and other mapping technologies in doing that.

So there was already a relationship between Caladan Oceanic and ESRI, my company. But what really led to my invitation to go in the Limiting Factor, I think, came through Kathy Sullivan’s dive in 2020. And I had mentioned to the audience at Calvin that Kathy Sullivan is the first American woman to walk in space, so she’s a famous astronaut. She also became the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Under Secretary of the Department of Commerce. She served our country in so many ways. And she is a geologist also, she’s a marine geologist. Because of our company’s relationship with her agency and with her as a friend, when she was to dive to Challenger Deep, Victor Vescovo reached out to us at ESRI and asked us to come along, and asked us to do the mapping for them. And we were not able to do that because March 2020, if we all think back, that was when everything really shut down because of the pandemic.

But we decided to support their efforts through a series of story maps. These are really engaging online narratives that include maps and include all of the information about everything that they did, videos, pictures, and they were done. Our StoryMaps team is made up of really talented artists and writers, graphic designers, and we released StoryMaps as an app that anyone can use for free to do similar stories. In fact, BioLogos, you could make some fantastic story maps. At any rate, that relationship on that end deepened our friendship with Victor Vescovo. And Victor Vescovo found out about the kind of work that I had done and then asked me to be one of the people to go to Challenger Deep. And then we also came up with this experiment that we could run to test this new sonar mapping instrument. So that’s how that came to be.

So I got the email from him in 2021, and after I picked myself up off the floor, I worked toward trying to make that reality. I was tentative in saying yes right away, not because I didn’t want to, but because I was caring for my elderly mother at the time, and it was really a near full-time job, and I was not sure if I could be away. So I was trying to make the arrangements to see that she was cared for, should I be able to travel. To go to Challenger Deep, you travel to Guam and you meet the ship in Guam, which is the westernmost US territory. It’s out there near the Philippines, so it’s quite a trip.

Hoogerwerf:

Can you describe the space of the Limiting Factor? I’m guessing spacious and luxurious are not good adjectives to use here?

Wright:

Yes. The Limiting Factor is probably the smallest of the deep diving submersible fleet, global fleet. These other submersibles that I have mentioned, like the Chinese Fendouzhe and the Alvin and others, they accommodate three people, a pilot and two observers. So they are larger. The Limiting Factor is just a two-person submersible, so it’s very small, very tight in there, but despite that, you sit upright. So I love that design because I think it’s much more comfortable. You’re in the submersible for a longer period of time because you’re going deeper.

So it’s very nice to be able to sit upright and then you lean forward to look through the viewport. When I was in Alvin, I was in a fetal position, lying on the floor of the submersible and looking out the viewport. But I was only doing that for six hours because we were going to shallower depth.

Hoogerwerf:

Only six hours.

Wright:

Yeah, only.

Hoogerwerf:

So when you first landed in Challenger Deep, there’s this picture that went viral of what you first saw. And unfortunately, it wasn’t some new exotic-looking creature, something a little more, I don’t know whether to say unexpected or expected now, but I don’t–

Wright:

Yeah, that’s a good question. It was totally unexpected to us. This is the most remote spot on the planet, I would say, even more so than Mount Everest. No one had been to that specific location that we were landing in in our submersible. There had been 27 people, I was the 27th person to go to Challenger Deep, it was Victor’s 15th dive to Challenger Deep, but the exact spot in the Western Pool of Challenger Deep that we landed in, that was a new spot. So we did not expect to see any man made objects, let alone a beer bottle. In fact, what we expected to see were, if anything, scientific trash. There is such a thing as scientific trash, cables or equipment or weights that are left on the bottom by scientific experiments. And that’s an issue that the scientific community is grappling with, how to be more sustainable in our scientific studies in these remote places.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah. So you gave a presentation just a couple of days ago, and I was there, and you showed this picture, which we’ll put a link to the story map, and I think that picture is on there too so the audience can see that.

Wright:

Yes, that picture’s everywhere now.

Hoogerwerf:

And when you showed it, there was a little bit of laughter in the audience, and I think it was kind of sad laughter. And I don’t think you were trying to get people to be sad or shocked, but it did make me realize that we’re at a place where we do sometimes now expect this. We know there’s plastics found on Mount Everest and now in the deepest parts of the ocean. And I just wonder if you can say something to that effect. And it made me sad, and maybe this is mystical of me, but I wanted that, that deep part of the ocean, I wanted its first experience with humans to be you and Victor.

Wright:

Yes. Yeah, we felt as though we had been cheated actually, in a way. But it is very sad, and I described it to the audience that day as tragic, and I think people were laughing almost out of discomfort or disbelief. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. And it’s just evidence of how we are reaching every single part of this planet in a bad way. This goes back again to creation care. This is the worst of creation care. We’re not supposed to be trashing our only home and we’re supposed to be respectful of God’s creation. That beer bottle was thrown overboard illegally, but how do you enforce laws on the high seas? There’s recently been a high seas treaty now finally, after over 10 years of trying to negotiate and to articulate what such a thing would be, how we should care for these areas that are beyond national jurisdiction, literally the high seas like in pirate lore. And that includes not polluting. But how do you prevent that and how do you prevent people from fishing illegally in these areas?

So this is part of this discussion. Now, Challenger Deep is within national jurisdiction. It belongs to the Federated States of Micronesia, a very small country or series of islands. They don’t have the infrastructure or the person-power to patrol. I mean, none of us, no countries do. So these kinds of things are going to happen, and they’re going to happen more often if people continue to be ignorant of it or uncaring. And this goes back to the climate change discussion because I think the crux of climate change, what can we do? And reducing emissions has to be number one, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions in any way possible. So this is why so many of us now are trying to convert to different things in our homes, getting away from natural gas stoves, getting solar panels, driving electric cars, having gardens, buying from local stores so that the goods that we invest in don’t have to travel. So far, it’s all a part of that.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah. Well, and I wanted to ask too about climate because we do often think about atmospheric carbon probably first when we’re thinking about climate, but the ocean is also an important player in climate, and the deep ocean too. Can you talk a little bit about how the ocean affects climate in those ways?

Wright:

Yes. The ocean, I often say, is the engine, the underlying engine of climate, because so much of it covers the surface of the planet, it has to be. It’s a heat absorption wonderment. 90% of the heat that we generate on land, especially from greenhouse gas emissions that are heating up this planet, Katharine Hayhoe often says that it’s like a blanket that we put on Planet Earth, and it’s like a blanket that your mother might put on you in bed and you get too hot and you kick it off. Well, we can’t kick off this blanket, but the ocean is buying us time because it’s absorbing 90% of it, but it can only do so much. This is why the ocean is heating up and it’s driving these storms and hurricanes that are more intense. The jury is still out in terms of if there are more of them, but the ones that exist are stronger and they’re also dumping more rain on us.

The oceans are a great sink for carbon, they’re a great sink for greenhouse gases in terms of 25% of greenhouse gases are absorbed. There is a carbon that is in that cycles through the ocean, carbon on the ocean floor. In fact, we have to be very careful in terms of what we do on the ocean floor because we can kick up carbon that can actually contribute in a bad way to emissions as well. The work of Enric Sala, a very famous scientist at the National Geographic, in his program, The Pristine Seas, has published a very major study that examines the effect of trawling for bottom fishing on the ocean floor and how that’s actually contributing in a negative way.

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah. We’re coming up on a close here, and I think I’d like to end on maybe a more hopeful note, maybe going back to Challenger Deep and not letting the beer bottle sully our… Was there something about that experience that you came back with? Was there a spiritual component to that, or how did that experience maybe bring about hope in your life? Is there–

Wright:

Yes. Well, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the Moon, but that was my moon walk, that was my moon shot. I think for all of us who have been to Challenger Deep, that is our one, that’s the holy grail. And so I felt I understand now why astronauts are so poetic and they express themselves in a certain way that really gets to the heart of our spirituality, and our existence because they have seen Planet Earth in a way that we will never see it. We see the imagery, but again, there’s nothing like being there. And so that’s the way I felt in Challenger Deep. I felt astonishment and wonder and excitement, and I certainly, again, was amazed at God’s creation from the standpoint of, yes, you can learn about it in books, but when you actually see it and experience it, and then think about God’s creativity and his patience and why.

Sometimes we think about God’s sense of humor, also the tragedy though of our effect on the planet came to the fore again because the beer bottle, yes, but they’re also these amazing little creatures, one of which is now infected, so to speak, with microplastic. And it’s even when this little creature was discovered, it was named Eurythenes plasticus by Professor Alan Jamieson of the University of Western Australia, because when they dissected one of the creatures that they had captured, they found the microplastic in its tissues.

So I think, I’m not sure, but it might be the first new species discovery, and we’re discovering new species in the ocean all the time. Our catalog is huge in terms of the map of life, but we are, I think, nowhere near a full catalog of what is down there and also what is out there, but that’s the first species to get ‘plasticus’ in its name.

Hoogerwerf:

Well, we like to end by asking our guests what books they’ve been reading. Do you have any good recommendations?

Wright:

Oh, I just finished Bono’s Surrender, and I really loved that book, and I would recommend it in regular book form, but also the audiobook because Bono narrates it and he sings, there’s a lot of music in the audiobook. But Bono’s journey, Bono, I became a fan of U2 in a formative during a formative time in my Christian walk, and I’ve always admired that band and Bono, and Larry Mullen Jr, the drummer, in particular. And the book is very spiritual, the 40 Songs of Surrender that are chosen are chosen very carefully, of course, including my favorite song 40, which is their rendition of Psalm 40. So that book has been on my mind.

Hoogerwerf:

Great. Well, Dawn, your story has been inspiring to me and hope it inspires some of our audience at home. And thank you so much for taking your time to talk to us.

Wright:

Oh, thank you so much. I’m very honored to be on your podcast. Thank you.

Credits

Hoogerwerf:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors and listeners who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf, that’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


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Featured guest

Dawn Wright headshot

Dawn Wright

Dawn Wright is Chief Scientist at Esri. She is a specialist in marine geology, geography and oceanography. She is often known by the nickname @DeepSeaDawn, a name she earned through numerous trips into the deep ocean in deep sea submersibles, including a trip to the deepest part of the ocean, Challenger Deep.


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