Editor’s note: This story has been updated from a previous version that was posted earlier today, before the announcement that the Titan submersible had been found.

International search and rescue personnel today found the lost submersible Titan, which had been carrying five people, all of whom intended to view first-hand the famed Titanic wreckage. News outlets are reporting that all five people, including OceansGate CEO Stockton Rush, perished.

The depth where the vehicle disappeared, the cold temperatures, and the sheer scope of the search -– twice the size of Connecticut -- made visibility and time an issue. But there was a unique challenge for rescue personnel in this situation: The ocean –- its seafloor topography and the water atop it -– is in constant flux, according to Robert Weiss, a coastal hazards expert at Virginia Tech. And, more importantly, scientists know little about oceans that make up 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. We know more about other planets than the floor of the ocean, according to Weiss.

“We know the resolution of the surface of Mars better than the surface of our ocean floor,” Weiss said. “But that’s topography just on the seafloor. Now imagine how little we know about how conditions are when the water in the ocean is constantly moving. How can we describe a condition in a certain area if it’s constantly changing? The moment you measure it, it’s gone.”

To better understand the underwater world, Weiss is part of Virginia Tech’s Seale Coastal Zone Observatory. This effort is designed to use submersible robots to measure and study nano- and microplastic pollutants in the ocean off the coast of Virginia. According to Weiss, scientists need to develop tools and refine research methods to adapt to the ocean’s transience. In 2020, Weiss, helped launch the Center for Coastal Studies at Virginia Tech. Part of the Virginia Tech Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the center coordinates research, teaching, and outreach to ensure a sustainable connection between humans and nature within coastal communities.

“Despite the unimaginable tragedy, the rescue efforts have been impressive and shine a light on our ability of attempted deep-sea rescue,” Weiss said after news of the grim discovery was announced.

About Weiss

Robert Weiss examines the impact of coastal hazards in the geologic past, today and in the future. His work analyzes how climate change and sea-level rise could change the nature and impacts of coastal hazards in coming years. He develops computer models and uses data analytics to translate the geologic record of coastal hazards into insights that improve the understanding of coastal hazards in the past and today. Weiss is a professor of natural hazards in the College of Science’s Department of Geosciences and director of the college’s Academy of Intergrated Science.

Schedule an interview

To secure a live or recorded interview, contact Margaret Ashburn at mkashburn@vt.edu or 540-529-0814 or Shannon Andrea at sandrea@vt.edu or 703-399-9494 in the media relations office.

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