Famous oceanographer Robert Ballard writes memoirs on ocean exploration

View of the bow of the RMS Titanic photographed in June 2004 by the ROV Hercules during an expedition returning to the wreck of the Titanic (NOAA / University of Rhode Island, public domain)

Posted on June 24, 2021 at 4:31 PM by

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[By Suzanne O’Connell]

Who doesn’t love a good story, especially one about amazing discoveries in the remotest parts of the earth? Oceanographer, Navy veteran and explorer Robert D. Ballard wrote a memoir, “Into the Deep”, which recounts several of his dramatic discoveries, including the location of the wreck of the luxury liner. Titanic in 1985.

Ballard, now 79, is known to design and use many types of vehicles for underwater exploration. His most important scientific contributions include mapping regions of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an undersea mountain range that crosses the Atlantic Ocean from north to south, and the location of hydrothermal vents in the eastern Pacific. These underwater hot springs form at cracks in the oceanic crust, where superheated water gushes out from the Earth’s interior. Their discovery changed scientists’ thinking about the evolution of life on Earth and the chemistry of the ocean.

Robert Ballard explains the importance of exploring the world’s oceans

I am a geoscientist who studies the oceans and climate of Earth, and I first met Ballard while working at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1978. I am keenly aware of his contributions to ocean science, as well as of his work to popularize ocean exploration and inspire people to become scientists. “Into the Deep” captures a lot of what it’s like to do this job, including less glamorous aspects like fundraising, building research teams, and watching on deck for hours on end. Science, especially marine research, is not a lonely endeavor – and the discovery of hydrothermal vents is a prime example.

Mapping the seabed

In the early 1970s, when Ballard was doing his graduate studies in marine geology and geophysics, scientists were further refining the basics of plate tectonics theory. A key idea was that a new oceanic crust was created at the centers of propagation of the seabed, where the oceanic plates moved away from each other and magma from the Earth’s interior sprang up between them.

A 1972 study of a center of spread in the eastern Pacific near the Galapagos Islands observed that the water temperature was slightly warmer near parts of the center of spread – a surprising find at depths of 8 000 to 9,000 feet (2,440 to 2,750 meters) – but cools rapidly as one moves away from site. This suggests that hydrothermal vents could be present.

In 1974, Ballard participated in the FAMOUS project, which used the manned American submersible Alvin and a French submersible to explore the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The researchers descended 8,000 feet into deep rift valleys on the ocean floor and ascended into adjacent rift mountains to depths of around 3,300 feet (1,000 meters). The fresh basalt suggested recent volcanic activity and the creation of a new oceanic crust, but their study did not locate any hydrothermal vents.

The Alvin submersible exploring hydrothermal vents in 1978. NOAA

Meanwhile, other researchers were exploring the center of the Galapagos spread. In 1976, Kathleen Crane, a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, studied marine heat flux in this region for her doctoral research. To do this, she sailed an elaborate seabed exploration machine, Deep Tow, which was pulled behind a research vessel near the ocean floor and transmitted data to the ship.

Crane’s measurements identified hot springs. The photographs showed clam shells nearby. She dropped acoustic transponders marking the site she called “Clambake” for future research.

A year later, scientists returned to the area with Alvin and another deep-drawn vehicle, ANGUS, which could move closer to the ocean floor, providing better photographs and thermal measurements. Ballard and Crane were both on this expedition, along with other researchers from Oregon State University, MIT, Stanford, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Scripps.

The new photographs allowed scientists to locate the most important dive sites. They did 24 dives at Alvin. At hot spots, they were stunned to find dense clusters of seashells, anemones, crabs, tube worms and other organisms around the vents on the ocean floor where warm water rose from below. . Analysis showed that these organisms performed chemosynthesis – creating energy from chemicals in seawater, in complete darkness.

Hydrothermal vents are located in cold, dark waters, but they support rich and diverse ecosystems that live off chemicals from the seabed.

Disappointingly, all Ballard says in “Into the Deep” about Crane’s role in this discovery is that Scripps researchers scanned the area in 1976 using Deep Tow and “detected some anomalies. subtle temperature “. In the race for credit for important scientific discoveries, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to clearly identify who made the discovery. In a collective effort, who should we recognize?

Crane, whom I have known since 1978, was listed as a co-author of the 1979 article in the journal Science which described hydrothermal vents, and pursued a distinguished career in the study of the oceans and the Arctic. But his role in this discovery received relatively little credit in popular accounts. In my opinion, Ballard’s memoir would have been the perfect opportunity to recognize his contribution to one of the most important oceanographic discoveries of the 20th century.

Find the lost ships

Ballard received much wider praise when he led the expedition that found the RMS Titanic in 1985. This trip was funded by the US Navy – not out of interest in the Titanic, but in addition to covert studies of the wreckage of two nuclear-powered attack submarines, the USS Scorpio and the USS Thresher, which sank in the 1960s.

On September 1, 1985, Ballard and his team took the first photos of Titanic remains 2.4 miles (3.8 kilometers) below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean and nearly 400 miles (600 kilometers) south-southeast of Newfoundland. They found the wreckage using Argo, a new deep-towed sonar and video camera system, to search back and forth over a 100 square mile area of ​​the seabed. Oceanographers call this process ‘mowing the lawn’, hoping and praying that something new will be revealed.

After TitanicBallard found other well-known lost ships. In 1989, he and his crew located the Bismarck, a German WWII battleship sunk by Allied forces in the North Atlantic in 1941. And in 2002, they found PT-109, the patrol vessel commanded by John F. Kennedy, 26, which sank in the South Pacific in 1943 when struck by a Japanese destroyer.

In 2008, Ballard had led five expeditions to the Black Sea, where oxygen-depleted deep water preserved old ships and their cargo. Scientists are still probing and analyzing these archaeological time capsules.

All hands on the deck

Over the past decades, Ballard has put a lot of effort into increasing diversity in ocean exploration and research, especially gender diversity. The Jason Learning Project, which Ballard founded in 1989 to engage K-12 students in science, technology, engineering and math through the enthusiasm of ocean research, highlights featured many women. His research vessel Ocean Exploration Trust, the EV Nautilus – named after Captain Nemo’s submarine in Jules Verne’s classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – has many women as permanent crew members, which would have been unheard of 50 years ago.

For me, working with a team of qualified scientists and technicians on board a ship is one of the most exciting aspects of marine research. No one can be an expert on all the components of our planet’s amazing ocean system, from tiny plankton floating in surface currents to tectonic plates that propagate and collide underwater. Being at sea with other marine scientists has given me immense joy in my career.

There is a lot to discover on the ocean, and we need all kinds of talent to do it. Ballard’s talent lies in his construction and use of remote-controlled vehicles to explore the seabed, as well as his storytelling and fundraising abilities, which are an inspiration to future generations of ocean explorers.

Suzanne O’Connell is Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Wesleyan University.

This article is courtesy of The Conversation and can be found in its original form here.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.

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