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