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TED2008

Robert Ballard: The astonishing hidden world of the deep ocean

February 29, 2008

Ocean explorer Robert Ballard takes us on a mindbending trip to hidden worlds underwater, where he and other researchers are finding unexpected life, resources, even new mountains. He makes a case for serious exploration and mapping. Google Ocean, anyone?

Robert Ballard - Oceanographer
On more than 120 deep-sea expeditions, Robert Ballard has made many major natural discoveries, such as the deep-sea vents. Oh, and he found the Titanic. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
The first question is this.
00:15
Our country has two exploration programs.
00:17
One is NASA, with a mission to explore the great beyond,
00:20
to explore the heavens, which we all want to go to if we're lucky.
00:25
And you can see we have Sputnik, and we have Saturn,
00:28
and we have other manifestations of space exploration.
00:31
Well, there's also another program,
00:35
in another agency within our government, in ocean exploration.
00:37
It's in NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
00:40
And my question is this: "why are we ignoring the oceans?"
00:44
Here's the reason, or not the reason, but here's why I ask that question.
00:50
If you compare NASA's annual budget to explore the heavens,
00:54
that one-year budget would fund NOAA's budget
00:59
to explore the oceans for 1,600 years.
01:03
Why? Why are we looking up? Is it because it's heaven?
01:08
And hell is down here? Is it a cultural issue?
01:13
Why are people afraid of the ocean?
01:16
Or do they just assume the ocean is just a dark, gloomy place
01:18
that has nothing to offer?
01:24
I'm going to take you on a 16-minute trip on 72 percent of the planet, so buckle up.
01:26
OK. And what we're going to do
01:32
is we're going to immerse ourselves in my world.
01:34
And what I'm going to try -- I hope I make the following points.
01:36
I'm going to make it right now in case I forget.
01:39
Everything I'm going to present to you
01:42
was not in my textbooks when I went to school.
01:44
And most of all, it was not even in my college textbooks.
01:47
I'm a geophysicist, and all my Earth science books when I was a student --
01:51
I had to give the wrong answer to get an A.
01:56
We used to ridicule continental drift. It was something we laughed at.
02:00
We learned of Marshall Kay's geosynclinal cycle, which is a bunch of crap.
02:03
In today's context, it was a bunch of crap,
02:06
but it was the law of geology, vertical tectonics.
02:09
All the things we're going to walk through
02:12
in our explorations and discoveries of the oceans
02:14
were mostly discoveries made by accident.
02:17
Mostly discoveries made by accident.
02:21
We were looking for something and found something else.
02:23
And everything we're going to talk about
02:26
represents a one tenth of one percent glimpse, because that's all we've seen.
02:28
I have a characterization.
02:34
This is a characterization of what it would look like if you could remove the water.
02:36
It gives you the false impression it's a map.
02:40
It is not a map.
02:42
In fact, I have another version at my office
02:44
and I ask people, "Why are there mountains here, on this area here,
02:47
but there are none over here?" And they go, "Well, gee,
02:52
I don't know," saying,
02:55
"Is it a fracture zone? Is it a hot spot?"
02:57
No, no, that's the only place a ship's been.
02:59
Most of the southern hemisphere is unexplored.
03:03
We had more exploration ships down there
03:06
during Captain Cook's time than now. It's amazing.
03:09
All right. So we're going to immerse ourselves
03:12
in the 72 percent of the planet because, you know,
03:15
it's really naive to think that the Easter Bunny
03:18
put all the resources on the continents.
03:22
(Laughter)
03:25
You know, it's just ludicrous.
03:27
We are always, constantly playing the zero sum game.
03:30
You know, we're going to do this, we're going to take it away from something else.
03:35
I believe in just enriching the economy.
03:38
And we're leaving so much on the table, 72 percent of the planet.
03:40
And as I will point out later in the presentation,
03:44
50 percent of the United States of America lies beneath the sea.
03:46
50 percent of our country that we own, have all legal jurisdiction,
03:52
have all rights to do whatever we want, lies beneath the sea
03:55
and we have better maps of Mars than that 50 percent.
03:58
Why? OK. Now, I began my explorations the hard way.
04:02
Back then -- actually my first expedition
04:10
was when I was 17 years old. It was 49 years ago.
04:12
Do the math, I'm 66. And I went out to sea on a Scripps ship
04:15
and we almost got sunk by a giant rogue wave,
04:19
and I was too young to be -- you know, I thought it was great!
04:23
I was a body surfer and I thought, "Wow, that was an incredible wave!"
04:25
And we almost sank the ship, but I became enraptured
04:28
with mounting expeditions. And over the last 49 years,
04:32
I've done about 120, 121 -- I keep doing them -- expeditions.
04:35
But in the early days, the only way I could get to the bottom
04:39
was to crawl into a submarine, a very small submarine,
04:42
and go down to the bottom.
04:45
I dove in a whole series of different deep diving submersibles.
04:47
Alvin and Sea Cliff and Cyana,
04:49
and all the major deep submersibles we have, which are about eight.
04:51
In fact, on a good day, we might have four or five human beings
04:55
at the average depth of the Earth --
05:01
maybe four or five human beings out of whatever billions we've got going.
05:03
And so it's very difficult to get there, if you do it physically.
05:06
But I was enraptured, and in my graduate years
05:09
was the dawn of plate tectonics. And we realized
05:15
that the greatest mountain range on Earth lies beneath the sea.
05:18
The mid-ocean ridge runs around like the seam on a baseball.
05:20
This is on a Mercator projection.
05:23
But if you were to put it on an equal area projection,
05:25
you'd see that the mid-ocean ridge covers 23 percent
05:28
of the Earth's total surface area.
05:31
Almost a quarter of our planet is a single mountain range
05:33
and we didn't enter it until after Neil Armstrong
05:36
and Buzz Aldrin went to the moon.
05:38
So we went to the moon, played golf up there,
05:40
before we went to the largest feature on our own planet.
05:42
And our interest in this mountain range, as Earth scientists in those days,
05:47
was not only because of its tremendous size, dominating the planet,
05:50
but the role it plays in the genesis of the Earth's outer skin.
05:53
Because it's along the axis of the mid-ocean ridge
05:56
where the great crustal plates are separating.
05:58
And like a living organism, you tear it open,
06:00
it bleeds its molten blood, rises up to heal that wound
06:03
from the asthenosphere, hardens, forms new tissue and moves laterally.
06:06
But no one had actually gone down
06:11
into the actual site of the boundary of creation as we call it --
06:13
into the Rift Valley -- until a group of seven of us
06:16
crawled in our little submarines in the summer of 1973, 1974
06:18
and were the first human beings to enter the Great Rift Valley.
06:23
We went down into the Rift Valley.
06:26
This is all accurate except for one thing -- it's pitch black.
06:28
It's absolutely pitch black, because
06:31
photons cannot reach the average depth of the ocean,
06:33
which is 12,000 feet. In the Rift Valley, it's 9,000 feet.
06:36
Most of our planet does not feel the warmth of the sun.
06:39
Most of our planet is in eternal darkness.
06:43
And for that reason, you do not have photosynthesis in the deep sea.
06:45
And with the absence of photosynthesis
06:49
you have no plant life, and as a result,
06:51
you have very little animal life living in this underworld.
06:53
Or so we thought. And so in our initial explorations,
06:56
we were totally focused on exploring the boundary of creation,
06:59
looking at the volcanic features running along that entire 42,000 miles.
07:03
Running along this entire 42,000 miles
07:09
are tens of thousands of active volcanoes.
07:12
Tens of thousands of active volcanoes.
07:14
There are more active volcanoes beneath the sea
07:16
than on land by two orders of magnitude.
07:19
So, it's a phenomenally active region,
07:21
it's not just a dark, boring place. It's a very alive place.
07:23
And it's then being ripped open.
07:28
But we were dealing with a particular scientific issue back then.
07:30
We couldn't understand why you had a mountain under tension.
07:33
In plate tectonic theory, we knew that if you had plates collide,
07:36
it made sense: they would crush into one another,
07:39
you would thicken the crust, you'd uplift it.
07:42
That's why you get, you know, you get seashells up on Mount Everest.
07:44
It's not a flood, it was pushed up there.
07:47
We understood mountains under compression,
07:49
but we could not understand why we had a mountain under tension.
07:51
It should not be. Until one of my colleagues said,
07:54
"It looks to me like a thermal blister, and the mid-ocean ridge
07:57
must be a cooling curve." We said, "Let's go find out."
07:59
We punched a bunch of heat probes. Everything made sense,
08:02
except, at the axis, there was missing heat. It was missing heat.
08:05
It was hot. It wasn't hot enough.
08:08
So, we came up with multiple hypotheses:
08:10
there's little green people down there taking it;
08:12
there's all sorts of things going on.
08:14
But the only logical [explanation] was that there were hot springs.
08:16
So, there must be underwater hot springs.
08:18
We mounted an expedition to look for the missing heat.
08:20
And so we went along this mountain range, in an area along Galapagos Rift,
08:22
and did we find the missing heat.
08:27
It was amazing. These giant chimneys, huge giant chimneys.
08:29
We went up to them with our submersible.
08:33
We wanted to get a temperature probe, we stuck it in there,
08:35
looked at it -- it pegged off scale.
08:37
The pilot made this great observation: "That's hot."
08:39
(Laughter)
08:41
And then we realized our probe was made out of the same stuff --
08:43
it could have melted. But it turns out the exiting temperature
08:46
was 650 degrees F, hot enough to melt lead.
08:48
This is what a real one looks like, on the Juan de Fuca Ridge.
08:51
What you're looking at is an incredible pipe organ
08:54
of chemicals coming out of the ocean.
08:56
Everything you see in this picture is commercial grade:
08:58
copper, lead, silver, zinc and gold.
09:00
So the Easter Bunny has put things in the ocean floor,
09:02
and you have massive heavy metal deposits
09:06
that we're making in this mountain range.
09:08
We're making huge discoveries of large commercial-grade ore
09:10
along this mountain range, but it was dwarfed by what we discovered.
09:13
We discovered a profusion of life,
09:17
in a world that it should not exist [in]. Giant tube worms, 10 feet tall.
09:19
I remember having to use vodka -- my own vodka -- to pickle it
09:24
because we don't carry formaldehyde.
09:26
We went and found these incredible clam beds
09:28
sitting on the barren rock. Large clams,
09:30
and when we opened them, they didn't look like a clam.
09:33
And when we cut them open, they didn't have the anatomy of a clam.
09:36
No mouth, no gut, no digestive system.
09:39
Their bodies had been totally taken over
09:41
by another organism, a bacterium, that had figured out
09:44
how to replicate photosynthesis in the dark,
09:47
through a process we now call chemosynthesis.
09:50
None of it in our textbooks. None of this in our textbooks.
09:53
We did not know about this life system.
09:56
We were not predicting it.
09:58
We stumbled on it, looking for some missing heat.
10:00
So, we wanted to accelerate this process.
10:03
We wanted to get away from this silly trip, up and down on a submarine:
10:06
average depth of the ocean, 12,000 feet;
10:09
two and half hours to get to work in the morning;
10:11
two and half hours to get to home. Five hour commute to work.
10:13
Three hours of bottom time, average distance traveled -- one mile.
10:16
(Laughter)
10:19
On a 42,000 mile mountain range. Great job security, but not the way to go.
10:21
So, I began designing a new technology of telepresence,
10:25
using robotic systems to replicate myself,
10:28
so I wouldn't have to cycle my vehicle system.
10:31
We began to introduce that in our explorations,
10:34
and we continued to make phenomenal discoveries
10:36
with our new robotic technologies. Again, looking for something else,
10:38
moving from one part of the mid-ocean ridge to another.
10:41
The scientists were off watch and they came across incredible life forms.
10:44
They came across new creatures they had not seen before.
10:49
But more importantly, they discovered
10:52
edifices down there that they did not understand.
10:54
That did not make sense. They were not above a magma chamber.
10:56
They shouldn't be there. And we called it Lost City.
10:59
And Lost City was characterized by these incredible limestone formations
11:03
and upside down pools. Look at that.
11:07
How do you do that? That's water upside down.
11:10
We went in underneath and tapped it, and we found that it had the pH of Drano.
11:13
The pH of 11, and yet it had chemosynthetic bacteria living in it
11:18
and at this extreme environment.
11:22
And the hydrothermal vents were in an acidic environment.
11:24
All the way at the other end, in an alkaline environment,
11:27
at a pH of 11, life existed.
11:30
So life was much more creative than we had ever thought.
11:32
Again, discovered by accident. Just two years ago
11:35
working off Santorini, where people are sunning themselves on the beach,
11:38
unbeknownst to them in the caldera nearby,
11:42
we found phenomenal hydrothermal vent systems
11:44
and more life systems.
11:47
This was two miles from where people go to sunbathe,
11:49
and they were oblivious to the existence of this system.
11:52
Again, you know, we stop at the water's edge.
11:56
Recently, diving off -- in the Gulf of Mexico, finding pools of water,
12:00
this time not upside down, right side up.
12:06
Bingo. You'd think you're in air, until a fish swims by.
12:08
You're looking at brine pools formed by salt diapirs.
12:13
Near that was methane. I've never seen volcanoes of methane.
12:17
Instead of belching out lava, they were belching out
12:22
big, big bubbles of methane. And they were creating these volcanoes,
12:25
and there were flows, not of lava,
12:29
but of the mud coming out of the Earth but driven by --
12:31
I've never seen this before.
12:34
Moving on, there's more than just natural history beneath the sea --
12:36
human history. Our discoveries of the Titanic.
12:41
The realization that the deep sea is the largest museum on Earth.
12:44
It contains more history than all of the museums on land combined.
12:48
And yet we're only now penetrating it.
12:51
Finding the state of preservation.
12:54
We found the Bismarck in 16,000 feet. We then found the Yorktown.
12:56
People always ask, "Did you find the right ship?"
13:00
It said Yorktown on the stern.
13:02
(Laughter)
13:04
More recently, finding ancient history.
13:06
How many ancient mariners have had a bad day? The number's a million.
13:09
We've been discovering these along ancient trade routes,
13:13
where they're not supposed to be.
13:16
This shipwreck sank 100 years before the birth of Christ.
13:18
This one sank carrying a prefabricated, Home Depot Roman temple.
13:20
And then here's one that sank at the time of Homer, at 750 B.C.
13:25
More recently, into the Black Sea, where we're exploring.
13:30
Because there's no oxygen there, it's the largest reservoir
13:33
of hydrogen sulfide on Earth. Shipwrecks are perfectly preserved.
13:36
All their organics are perfectly preserved. We begin to excavate them.
13:40
We expect to start hauling out the bodies in perfect condition with their DNA.
13:44
Look at the state of preservation --
13:48
still the ad mark of a carpenter. Look at the state of those artifacts.
13:50
You still see the beeswax dripping. When they dropped, they sealed it.
13:54
This ship sank 1,500 years ago.
13:58
Fortunately, we've been able to convince Congress.
14:02
We begin to go on the Hill and lobby.
14:04
And we stole recently a ship from the United States Navy.
14:06
The Okeanos Explorer on its mission.
14:10
Its mission is as good as you could get.
14:12
Its mission is to go where no one has gone before on planet Earth.
14:14
And I was looking at it yesterday, it's up in Seattle. OK.
14:18
(Applause)
14:23
It comes online this summer,
14:24
and it begins its journey of exploration.
14:27
But we have no idea what we're going find when we go out there with our technology.
14:29
But certainly, it's going to be going to the unknown America.
14:33
This is that part of the United States that lies beneath the sea.
14:36
We own all of that blue and yet,
14:40
like I say, particularly the western territorial trust,
14:42
we don't have maps of them. We don't have maps of them.
14:44
We have maps of Venus, but not of the western territorial trust.
14:47
The way we're going to run this -- we have no idea what we're going to discover.
14:51
We have no idea what we're going to discover.
14:54
We're going to discover an ancient shipwreck, a Phoenician off Brazil,
14:56
or a new rock formation, a new life.
14:59
So, we're going to run it like an emergency hospital.
15:01
We're going to connect our command center,
15:03
via a high-bandwidth satellite link to a building we're building
15:05
at the University of Rhode Island, called the Interspace Center.
15:09
And within that, we're going to run it just like you run a nuclear submarine,
15:12
blue-gold team, switching them off and on, running 24 hours a day.
15:16
A discovery is made, that discovery is instantly seen
15:20
in the command center a second later.
15:23
But then it's connected through Internet too --
15:26
the new Internet highway that makes Internet one
15:28
look like a dirt road on the information highway --
15:30
with 10 gigabits of bandwidth.
15:33
We'll go into areas we have no knowledge of.
15:35
It's a big blank sheet on our planet. We'll map it within hours,
15:37
have the maps disseminated out to the major universities.
15:41
It turns out that 90 percent of all the oceanographic intellect
15:45
in this country are at 12 universities. They're all on I-2.
15:49
We can then build a command center.
15:52
This is a remote center at the University of Washington.
15:54
She's talking to the pilot. She's 5,000 miles away, but she's assumed command.
15:56
But the beauty of this, too, is we can then disseminate it to children.
16:01
We can disseminate.
16:04
They can follow this expedition. I've started a program --
16:06
where are you Jim? Jim Young who helped me start a program
16:09
called the Jason Project. More recently, we've started a program
16:13
with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America,
16:16
so that we can use exploration,
16:18
and the excitement of live exploration, to motivate them and excite them
16:20
and then give them what they're already ready for.
16:24
I would not let an adult drive my robot.
16:27
You don't have enough gaming experience.
16:29
But I will let a kid with no license take over control of my vehicle system.
16:31
(Applause)
16:35
Because we want to create --
16:37
we want to create the classroom of tomorrow.
16:39
We have stiff competition and we need to motivate and it's all being done.
16:41
You win or lose an engineer or a scientist by eighth grade.
16:46
The game is not over -- it's over by the eighth grade, it's not beginning.
16:51
We need to be not only proud of our universities.
16:55
We need to be proud of our middle schools.
16:58
And when we have the best middle schools in the world,
17:00
we'll have the best kids pumped out of that system, let me tell you.
17:02
Because this is what we want. This is what we want.
17:05
This is a young lady, not watching a football game,
17:09
not watching a basketball game.
17:12
Watching exploration live from thousands of miles away,
17:14
and it's just dawning on her what she's seeing.
17:17
And when you get a jaw drop, you can inform.
17:20
You can put so much information into that mind, it's in full [receiving] mode.
17:23
(Applause)
17:27
This, I hope, will be a future engineer
17:29
or a future scientist in the battle for truth.
17:34
And my final question, my final question --
17:37
why are we not looking at moving out onto the sea?
17:40
Why do we have programs to build habitation on Mars,
17:44
and we have programs to look at colonizing the moon,
17:48
but we do not have a program looking at how we colonize our own planet?
17:51
And the technology is at hand.
17:56
Thank you very much.
17:58
(Applause)
18:00

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Robert Ballard - Oceanographer
On more than 120 deep-sea expeditions, Robert Ballard has made many major natural discoveries, such as the deep-sea vents. Oh, and he found the Titanic.

Why you should listen

From an early age, Robert Ballard was intrigued by the deep. He's perhaps best-known for his work in underwater archaeology; in addition to Titanic, he has found the wrecks of the Bismarck, the USS Yorktown, the nuclear sub Thresher (on a top-secret mission for the Navy -- for which the Titanic was his cover story) and John F. Kennedy's PT-109.

His contributions to our scientific knowledge of the ocean is just as awe-inspiring. He was in the first team of humans to view the deep-sea vents, and to understand how life can not only survive but thrive in these deep black waters, under extreme pressure and at extreme temperature.

He's also a powerful storyteller and a passionate scientific educator. He founded the Institute for Exploration and has pioneered distance learning in classrooms around the world. Through his JASON Project, 1.7 million students a year join scientists virtually as they experience the thrill of exploration and discovery.

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