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TED2008: Robert Ballard wants you to look down

Robert Ballard has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He’d realy like to know why we look up and not down. “Our country has two exploration programs,” – NASA and NOAA – “Why are we ignoring the oceans? Why does NASA spend in one year what NOAA will spend in 1600 years? Why are we looking up? Why are we afraid of the ocean?”

The ocean covers 72% of the planet and we haven’t explored much of it. He shows a map of the ocean floor and declres, “this is not a map.” There are areas on the map where we don’t have mountains literally because we’ve never been there and have never measured the territory. “We know more about the surface of Mars than about the structures under the sea.”

Ballard has been exploring the sea for 49 years, and has gone on 121 expeditions. He talks about “the old days”, where one needed to go to the ocean floor in tiny subs. “On a good day, there were four or five people on the bottom of the earth.” This sort of exploration found amazing things – it revolutionized the field of plate tectonics by exploring the mid-ocean ridge, which covers 23% percent of the ocean’s surface. “We made it to the moon before we discovered the largest mountain range in the world.”

Much of the world’s oceans are more than 12,000 meters deep, too far for light to reach. In the absence of photosynthesis, we assumed we would see no life, because there are no plants to support animals. There are, though – amazing thermophilic organisms that survive by chemosynthesis, not photosynthesis. Ballard looked closely at volcanic features under the sea and discovered an interesting problem – missing heat. The water near volcanic features wasn’t as hot as it should be. The missing heat turns out to be released through vents that pipe out water at 650 F, hot enough to melt lead. These vents create amazing plumes of copper, zinc, silver, lead and gold. “It doesn’t make sense that the Easter Bunny would only leave the good stuff on land.”

Now deep-sea exploration focuses on robotic search. This allows much more exploration, as well as exploration in environments that humans can’t encounter. There are plumes undersea with ph11 – Drano, basically – that support life we can barely imagine.

The deep sea is also “the largest museum on earth” – he shows us amazing shipwrecks, preserved by hydrogen sulfide. We know these ships are the right ones because they sometimes are so well preserved that you can read their names on their bows.

Ballard now has an amazing new ship, the Okeonos Explorer – it’s explicitly chartered to “go where no one has gone before.” It will explore the US seas, especially the “Western Territorial Trust”, our Pacific territories. “We don’t know what we’ll find, so run it like a nuclear sub, or a hospital”, with teams working 24/7 connected to the ship via the internet, running on Internet 2, connected by 10 gigabits of bandwidth. Those researchers can drive the subs… and so can children who work with them. “I would not let an adult drive my robot – you don’t have enough gaming experience with videogames.” In the process, we can help turn students into scientists.

“Why are we not looking at moving at onto the sea? Why are we not trying to colonize our own planet?”

4 thoughts on “TED2008: Robert Ballard wants you to look down”

  1. The picture of a ship looks like a WWII battleship due to the overall shape and bow. Any idea on the ID?

    Thanks for your time, Kevin

  2. Denis-André Desjardins.

    That IS the the remains of the Bismarck. Her sister, the Tirpitz, was sunk at Håkøy, near Tromsø, Norway and was scraped in situ. There are several period photos of both. The bow is unmistakable as it was unique to those two ships.
    And this is a wonderful shot of the wreck!

  3. Kevin, the ship is the bismarck. Denis is correct on the bow design, however the Tirpitz was never scraped, she was scrapped. Also, if you read the book “The Discovery of the Bismarck” by Robert D. Ballard, you will discover that the picture provided above is an artists depiction of what he believes the wreck looks like (i.e. a painting.) The Bismarck lies over 15,000 ft. deep, just shy of 3 miles. Technology has not advanced far enough to provide the world with a submarine capable of keeping a man alive at 15,000 ft. deep yet. If you have seen pictures of the Titanic, then you know that at that depth you can’t seen more than 20 ft. around you.

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