It has long been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the depths of our own oceans. With the possible development of a giant floating university, this may be about to change. French architect Jacques Rougerie recently unveiled bold plans to build a sailing city capable of housing up to 7000 researchers. The city of Mériens, a word coined by Rougerie meaning ‘of the ocean’, is hoped to become the base marine biologists can only dream of.
(© Créations Jacques Rougerie.)
Rougerie, born in 1945, was heavily influenced by renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and has spent most of his professional life designing vast ocean-going research vessels. His passion for nature is perfectly shown in the futuristic and sustainable blend of Mériens. Inspired by the stable, streamlined shape of the Manta ray, the ship will stretch 900m in length, dwarfing the next largest ship at a tiny 380m. Reaching 120m below the water, Mériens will have ample space for laboratories and lecture theatres as well as leisure and sports areas. A central lagoon situated at the rear of the ship between the tail sections will allow research vessels to dock. The ship is also hoped to lead the way in self-sustainability with hydroponic greenhouses, where plants are grown without soil, used to feed the inhabitants. Power will be generated through the abundant wind and wave energy available and a zero-waste programme will prevent pollution. The city would act as both a university and a perfectly situated research base, fully immersing all those aboard into the environment they are studying. Enclosed aqua-farms in the lagoon would provide researchers with realistic conditions in which to rear and study marine life, essential for reliable results. Teams from across disciplines would live and work together allowing easy collaboration and teaching. Small research ships such as the SeaOrbiter, another of Rougerie’s designs, can depart to and from the lagoon quicker and more easily than from a port.
The vertical SeaOrbiter will be unlike any other ship created. Intended as a 24/7 exploratory base, the SeaOrbiter will allow long-term missions across the globe whilst being constantly linked to the underworld around it. At 51m tall, more than half of the vessel is submerged, containing deep-sea submarines and drones that can explore the abyssal plains more than 3000m below the surface. Labs equipped with aquariums mean scientists can examine specimens in detail and the observation deck 18m above the surface will be used to observe sea life from a distance. Researchers will be completely surrounded by the ecosystem that they are studying as the ship drifts with the currents, letting them measure every change that occurs.
Both the SeaOrbiter and Mériens will pave the way for a new generation of marine research. The total darkness of the deep-sea abyss is the most obvious area for investigation as only remote-controlled submarines can visit due to the crushing pressure. Even then, tiny glimpses through the gloom are all that can be seen. Perhaps surprisingly, the light-filled surfaces of the sea are also relatively unexplored. The top 200m of the oceans teem with life but the hustle and bustle is rarely seen because of their sheer enormity. Ships that are permanently at sea could change that completely, able to live amongst the creatures and conditions that they are studying. They can also map pollution and chemical concentrations, such as CO2, as the ship drifts with the current, matching these to their location and the atmospheric conditions. This is particularly important as the ocean is one of the world’s greatest resources and humans are increasingly damaging it with chemical run-off and overfishing.
However, these ships are still a long way off. Work has only recently started on the SeaOrbiter with the observation deck completed in May 2015 at a cost of over €300,000. This section, called the Eye, is being exhibited in Normandy while the rest is constructed. Much of the funding for the Eye came from a crowdsourcing campaign where people were offered gifts such as having their names engraved inside the eye for the small donation of €55. Mériens is going to be vastly more expensive and will likely take years to build with Rougerie keeping the details of construction strictly under wraps. But when Mériens does get built, it will change how marine research is performed forever.