Growing up in Manchester Jyotika Virmani would gaze at the stars through her telescope, fuelling her curiosity to find out how the heavens work. As an adult scientist Jyotika’s gaze was drawn down to fathom the mysteries of the deep. Her first attempt at securing a PhD was dashed on an ill-fated voyage of discovery in the vast Pacific Ocean, covered in a previous Meteor article.
Eventually, with a PhD under her belt, she became the executive director of the world leading Schmidt Ocean Institute, based in California, in February 2020. Jyotika answers The Meteor’s questions about her life in science and the role of science in combating climate change and ecosystem destruction:
Could you tell me about your current work and what questions, or challenges does the Schmidt Ocean Institute want to address?
The Schmidt Ocean Institute is a philanthropically funded non-profit organization established by Eric and Wendy Schmidt in 2009 to advance the frontiers of ocean exploration and research through the use of sophisticated technologies and open sharing of data and information.
We operate the Research Vessel Falkor, an 83 m long ship which is fully equipped with laboratories and state-of-the-art equipment, including an underwater robot with 4k cameras that can go down to 4500m below the sea surface.
Although the ocean covers 71% of our planet, only around 5% of it has really been explored (by volume). There is a lot to find out about this planet, but it remains hidden from plain sight by water. We want to find out and understand what is out there in the ocean.
Generally, when people get to know something, they begin to value it and look after it, so knowing our marine world will help to keep the ocean healthy. And we, as humans, need a healthy ocean to survive – we are all part of the same global ecosystem. The ocean provides 50% of the oxygen we breath, it is a major source of food, it contains many compounds that are used in medicines, and it is a critical part of our daily weather and long-term climate.
What are the key findings so far that have come out of this work, what makes it unique and why is it important?
The Schmidt Ocean Institute provides the ship and all of the technologies, including a high-performance computing system, at no cost to scientists and marine technology developers so they can more easily access the ocean for scientific research, exploration and discovery, or technology testing. As such, SOI has partnered with scientists from institutions all around the world and has been instrumental in many major discoveries, including new species, new sea floor features, and even a shipwreck. For example, last October, those aboard the Falkor discovered a new coral reef in the Great Barrier Reef – one that was over 500m in height, which makes it taller than The Shard in London.
In April 2020, the cameras on our underwater robot captured footage of the longest sea creature ever seen – a ~45m siphonophore. What is amazing about this is that it was only last year that we found something of this size which just goes to show how massive the ocean really is and how much there is still to explore and discover.
Why is underwater exploration and mapping of sea floor, so important and could these discoveries be misused by, for example, mining companies?
As I mentioned, 71% of our planet is underwater and less than 20% of the sea floor has been mapped. I describe this as living in a three-floor house and only knowing what is on one floor – we don’t actually know our own home – we don’t know what clothes, food, medicines or even artwork are on the other floors. The seafloor is a mystery and mapping it will reveal new wonders, new landscapes, and our own history.
One reason for mapping the seafloor is discovery and understanding. A map is fundamental to understanding where we are and how we fit into our surroundings. It is estimated that there are millions of shipwrecks on the seafloor which we haven’t found that contain clues to our own history. There are also thousands of underwater seamounts, but we haven’t mapped or explored them yet let alone seen what life exists down at those depths.
Knowing where things are helps us to improve our management and care for the ocean. But mapping the seafloor is important for many other reasons. For example the bathymetry, the shape of the sea floor, actually tells us how big tsunamis will become so we need to know this information for better tsunami forecasting.
The Schmidt Ocean Insitute has been a strong advocate of open data sharing and any seafloor map data we collect is put into a public data repository, so everyone has free access to that information. One of our partners is an international program called Seabed 2030 whose mission it is to produce a complete map of the seafloor for the common good.
Human activity continues to create vast and unsustainable amounts of greenhouse gases, our accelerating destruction of ecosystems and the plants and animals that live in them is described as a “sixth extinction” event, and an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year. What are your views on climate change, environmental degradation and pollution?
We, as humans, are part of this planet and its ecosystem, and that includes the atmosphere we breath and live in, and the ocean that provides us with an atmosphere to breath. It is really important that we look after nature, so she can look after us. After all, we only have this one beautiful, habitable planet.
There are natural climatic cycles and we know that in the Earth’s historic past, temperatures have been warmer than they are now and they have also been cooler than they are now. We, as a species, were really fortunate that the in last 10,000 years the climate was relatively stable – that gave us time to evolve and grow, but that is now changing.
Part of the change is natural but part of it is in response to things that we are doing and the strain we are putting on nature by polluting the air, water, and land. There is a lot of data to show this. We are finding plastic in the deep and remote ocean where it has no cause to be. We know that bad air is affecting our health and the health of our children.
We have robust measurements of temperatures rising – and along with rising temperatures we see other changes that are happening in the natural world (ice melting, coral bleaching etc.). The luxury of the stable environment we “grew up” in is changing and we have to adapt to that, which includes working collectively to stop and clean up the pollution.
Fortunately, this is an issue that is recognized globally and there is a will to address it – it may not happen as fast as we want, but it will happen. The balance is how to maintain the civilization we have, which people don’t want to forgo, without polluting anymore. But there is work on doing just that. Renewable energies or looking for alternatives to plastic materials are two examples of areas where even in the last 10 years, huge progress has been made. Technology is now being developed to not only stop carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, but to pull it out of the atmosphere and convert it into other useful products, including fun things such as vodka.
I think one of the important lessons from this pandemic is a reminder to humans that we are part of a global ecosystem and it is more powerful than we are. It can disrupt all of our lives – whether that is at the minute scale of a virus or the global scale of a changing climate.
We knew of pandemics as an existential threat, but we didn’t have any real warning about when the next one would hit and to what degree it would disrupt our economies and ways of life. Imagine if we had a 10-year warning? What measures would we have taken to stop the consequences to our societies? Well, in the case of the existential threat that is climate change, we have enough data to be able to tell the world what the projected temperature will be in 10 years and the consequences of that if we don’t do something about it now.
Throughout the pandemic there have been politicians making political decisions while saying they are “following the science”, implying there is only one dominant scientific consensus in the fast-moving pandemic situation. Should scientists and science stay apolitical?
Science should stay apolitical and be there to guide policies and regulations. The pandemic has shown this to be the case. Science should be apolitical because it concerns things that are outside our human construct and control – viruses, weather, the natural world, what we eat and its impact on health, space etc. We can’t change these things, but we can change our behaviour to make sure we and our life-support system, our planet, remains healthy.
I don’t think any individual needs to be apolitical. Scientists are citizens like everyone else and just like everyone, some have an interest and opinions on politics. In fact, some even forgo their scientific careers to become politicians.
I do think that all citizens should have some knowledge of science as they have of politics, finance, art, sports or any other topic – not everyone is an expert in everything, but a general grounding in science is important for life.
What should we do now to protect the planet against climate change and ecosystem destruction and what could be fixed more gradually? You mentioned a possible sunshade approach to combatting climate change, how would that work and is it possible that we may mess up one thing to fix another?
We have one planet with one planet’s worth of resources to share, so we need to be careful how much we use and waste. There are things we can all do on an individual scale – minimize waste and recycle what we can.
On a larger scale, we know that carbon dioxide and temperatures are rising and along with that there are a number of impacts on our natural world. There is a lot of attention, effort, and funding being put into the carbon dioxide problem and how to pull it out of the atmosphere, but even if we immediately managed to stop carbon dioxide from increasing, the Earth system has enough inertia that the temperatures would continue to increase for decades which means that the ice would continue to melt, coral bleaching will continue, tropical diseases will expand in geographical range etc. One urgent thing to figure out in this next decade is a way to stop global temperatures from increasing to buy us time to clean up the atmosphere.
There are a few approaches that may achieve this. One is to mimic natural volcanic eruptions which cool the earth as they spew gases, including sulphur dioxide, high into the atmosphere. A second approach is to artificially create or brighten clouds, which reflect solar radiation. And the third, which is a scientific and engineering approach, is to build something like a lightweight mesh solar parasol that is placed between us and the sun, outside our atmosphere, which could be opened or closed as needed to give us some shade from the sun.
What are the most exciting things you have seen or that have happened in your science exploration?
There are so many! In 2020, we were lucky to be able to keep our seagoing operations going at the Schmidt Ocean Institute, so a big finding from last year was the lucky discovery made by those aboard our Research Vessel Falkor, of the longest sea creature ever seen in April 2020.
Then, in October 2020, as part of a systematic mapping mission, scientists from Australia who were on the Falkor found a coral reef in the Great Barrier Reef that is over 500m tall. This area of the Great Barrier Reef was mapped about 120 years ago, back then they used lead-lines to measure the depth of the water versus the sophisticated and accurate sonar technology we use today. This was a very healthy reef but it’s amazing to think that even a feature that we all think of as “well known” such as the Great Barrier Reef still has many secrets. There are so many discoveries yet to be made in the ocean and as we map more of it in this next decade, we will see many incredible new findings emerge.
Jyotika Virmani – what have been your biggest challenges?
I’ve had many challenges that I’ve had to work through and at the time, they all seem like the biggest. A series of unfortunate events at sea resulted in the loss of a mooring, it sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and a lot of data that I was collecting for my PhD degree. That led to a ~5-year delay in my getting my PhD because I essentially had to go back to the drawing board.
Another challenge that happened in 2017 was when I was leading the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. We had been working for about a year to establish a unique test bed off Puerto Rico, but just a month before we were supposed to start testing, the island unfortunately got hit by two hurricanes and we had to pivot and change plans in order to make the competition still a success.
As we were trying to contact friends and colleagues on the island to see if they were ok, which took weeks to find out because communications were down, I came up with an alternative solution which eventually involved us having to change the schedules of over 400 people around the world and myself and my team were away from our homes for almost four months as a consequence, but everyone did their part and we pulled through. The result is that the world now has new and amazing marine technology that will help us to achieve the goal of having a seafloor map by 2030.
And of course, my latest challenge was in starting a new job as the first executive director of the Schmidt Ocean Institute just as the pandemic was taking hold in February 2020. Our work is international and involves ship operations, getting crew and scientists on and off the vessel. As the pandemic spread, government and travel regulations kept changing and we had to adapt, sometimes on an hourly basis as some new information came in. However, thanks to everyone working together we managed to continue operations throughout 2020.
These crises can be daunting when they first arise and require resilience, a positive attitude, good planning, and great communication. I’ve been fortunate to have great people in my life – both those who are supportive at home and those I work with. Dealing with a crisis really requires strong teamwork and everyone pulling together with a willingness to work through these challenges.
How do you see the future of our planet?
I am very optimistic that the planet will survive and continue to be a place of wonder and beauty. It has withstood some incredible changes in its geological past and will continue to evolve. We, as humans, will have to change and adapt. The lifestyle we have built up was developed in an era of relatively stable climate and it is not sustainable.
I think that the more we know and understand something, the more we value it, and if we value something, the more we care for it and want it to be vibrant and healthy. I am confident that as we learn more about the world and our ecosystem, the more we will look after it which includes being more aware of our impact on nature.
To read our previous article about Jyotika Virmani – How a Manchester schoolgirl became a world leading ocean scientist – click here
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In article images, unless otherwise stated: Jyotika Virmani
Featured image: XPRIZE