The Transylvania Times -

Ballard: Humankind's Survival Rests In The Seas


April 16, 2018

If humankind is to survive, the solution is in the seas, not the stars.

That was one of several messages renowned oceanographic discoverer Dr. Robert Ballard delivered to a packed house at Brevard College’s Porter Center for Performing Arts last Thursday evening. Though born in Wichita, Kan., Ballard and his family moved to southern California when he was 5.

“We lived very close to the ocean and that became my backyard,” he said.

He fell in love with the ocean and when his parents asked him what he wanted to be, he answered, “I want to be Captain Nemo.”

“Never laugh at a child’s dream,” said Ballard.

Instead of mocking his desires, Ballard’s parents took him to the nearby submarine base and the Scripps Institute.

“I was also wedded to the National Geographic magazine,”’ said Ballard, who was intrigued by the stories of deep-sea explorations in bathyspheres.

While his father was working in the aerospace industry on the Minuteman projects, Ballard began attending the University of California – Santa Barbara, where it was mandatory to enroll in ROTC.

“All they had was Army ROTC,” he said.

When he was called to active duty a few years later, however, it was with the Navy as an intelligence officer and so he headed east to Woods Hole, Mass.

Ballard was stationed on the NR-1, Naval Reactor-1 submarine, the smallest nuclear submarine put into operation. The quarters were incredibly tight since the ship was small and the reactor was in the middle.

“You went down for a month at a time,” he said.

Since the NR-1 performed deep-sea research and recovery, “It had wheels and it could drive along the bottom.”

On his first deep-sea excursions, he saw things that people had never seen before, such as the Hooded Octopi, which uses its huge Dumbo-like ears to swim.

Ballard said the largest mountain range is not on land, but in the oceans. The Mid-Ocean Range runs for some 40,000 miles and covers 23 percent of Earth’s total surface. He said man did not explore the Mid-Ocean Range until after man had landed on the moon, and scientists have better photos of Mars than the ocean bottom.

“Most of our planet is in eternal darkness,” said Ballard.

Ballard said the earth is an “organism” that is about 4.5 billion years old, and that like humans, it has a skin that can be opened and bleeds. It bleeds various gases and minerals.

“All along this mountain range the earth is being ripped open. I call this the bleeding earth,” he said.

The earth’s 23 plates are constantly moving, some slower than others, with the plates subducting, forcing one plate below another. Where these plates come together and separate are the “boundaries of creation,” according to Ballard. Scientists had known for centuries that the oceans are salty, but they could not match the chemistry of the ocean with the rivers that were flowing into it. Ballard said the answer came when they discovered “black smokers,” a discovery he said was more important than the discovery of the remains of the Titanic.

“Black smokers” are hydrothermal vents that occur on the edges of tectonic plates. The vents are so hot they melted the first thermometers Ballard and his crew attempted to use to measure the temperatures.

These hydrothermal events also bring valuable minerals such as copper, lead, zinc, silver and gold from inside the earth to the ocean floor.

“It’s mindboggling what we discovered,” said Ballard.

Even more impressive, however, was the discovery of life deep in the oceans where photosynthesis cannot occur. He said they found giant clams with no internal organs or mouth that looked like a liver with human blood. He said the clam ingests the highly poisonous hydrogen sulfide.

“Yet, this creature thrives on it,” said Ballard.

The fact that creatures could live without sunlight and consume highly toxic gases as food led to the concept of chemosynthesis, a process by which bacteria get their energy from the oxidization of inorganic chemicals, such as the toxic sulfur released from hydrothermal vents. The concept also explains why bacteria can survive on meteorites.

Ballard said the oceanographic exploration game changed with the implementation of computers and concurrent technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s, technology that would allow humans to explore deeper and longer because the submersibles would be remotely operated.

When Ballard approached engineers with his drawings of submersibles using this technology, they thought he was “nuts.”

But when he pushed them to acknowledge no physical laws were being broken in his concept, they admitted it could be done but that it would be difficult.

“We’re past ‘it’s impossible’,” said Ballard.

Ballard said his concept was not well received in the private sector, but when he approached the Navy, they viewed it as “cool” because it meant a shift toward robotics and away from humans in the battlefield.

The Navy told him they would fund the project, but he had to fulfill a favor in return – find the remains of two U.S. nuclear submarines, the Scorpion and the Thresher. So that the Soviets would not suspect the U.S. was looking for the two sunken submarines, it was reported he was looking for the Titanic. Using an unmanned submersible that could be controlled from the surface, Ballard and his team were able to find trails of debris, the result of the submarines imploding from pressure at the ocean’s depth. The debris trails led them to the hulls of the two ships. He used that same strategy to later find the Titanic.

“The Pentagon was pissed when I found the Titanic,” he said.

Ballard then went on a 20-year binge of discovered lost ships: the Bismarck, Britannica, Guadalcanal, Yorktown and PT-109.

According to Ballard, there have been some estimated 3 million shipwrecks throughout history. He combines an understanding of history, human nature and science to find them. During the Roman Empire, ships would transport bottles of wine from Carthage to Rome. He figured that the crew would drink some of the 3,000 bottles of wine while in route and throw the empty terra cotta bottles overboard. Since sediment collects at the rate of only one centimeter a millennium in the Mediterranean, the terra cotta bottles should still have been resting on the bottom. By scanning for the bottles, he and his crew were able to find a 4-kilometer wide swath of empty wine battles.

Finding intact wooden ships, however, is highly improbably because the seas have their own form of termites, so the wood of sunken ships deteriorates relatively quickly. In the Black Sea, however, there are no herbivores because the water is toxic. There Ballard and his crew were able to discover well preserved remains of ships and their travelers – DNA, hands, molars, etc. – from as early as 350 B.C.

Ballard said the exploration of the oceans is important for the survival of mankind.

He said the earth can only support a population of 10 billion people, a number that should be reached by 2050. However, mankind lives on only 5 percent of the earth. In addition, the amount of arable land is decreasing by 5 million acres per year because farmland is being converted into residential areas.

He warned that the answer to this dilemma of an increase in population with a decrease in arable land is not in the stars, but in the seas and oceans.

“Mars is not the solution,” he said. “This is a false prophecy. We have to do it in the ocean.”

But the oceans present their own challenges. Ballard said that 90 percent of the ocean’s large fish – tuna, swordfish, etc. – have been depleted through overfishing.

He said the answer is to convert carnivores into herbivores. Experiments have been done in which carnivorous reef fish have been placed in relatively sterile waters and have been given nothing to eat but plant life. The fish have converted to herbivores and are now ready to be sold on the commercial market.

“That’s where we’re headed,” he said.

In order to expedite oceanographic research and make the seas more useful to mankind, Ballard has established his own Corps of Exploration, a team of scientists, engineers, educators, students and communications specialists whose primary objective is to explore the ocean in hopes of making discoveries in the fields of geology, biology, maritime history, archaeology and chemistry.

Ballard said he hires young people with the latest expertise in technology and science and “old farts,” experienced scientists who no longer care about personal acclaim but want to find answers and share their wisdom before they die. He does not hire middle-aged people who seek acclaim.

“Never trust a scientist trying to get tenure,” he said.

As the head of the organization, he has mandated that 55 percent of the personnel be female. He said that goal is not difficult to meet since 55 percent of college graduates are female.

The other personnel goal is to have every racial and ethnic demographic represented in the organization so that when any child goes online to look at the members, they see someone like them.

“I want a child to see their face,” he said.

Another goal of Ballard’s organization is to reach youth and have them become more interested in math, science and oceanography.

“They’re born scientists,” he said of children. “The first question they ask is ‘why’?”

He said children are very interested in math in fourth grade, but by 10th grade it is their most boring subject.

“We focus on middle school,” he said, noting that once a student has reached 10th grade he cannot compensate for the math and science he may have missed in earlier years.

Ballard now has his own exploration ship, the E/V Nautilus, whose mission is to “Boldly go where no his one has gone before – on planet Earth.” On May 20, the adventures of the Nautilus and the work being done by the Corps of Exploration will go live on the internet at

“We hope you’ll follow us,” he said.

Questions and Answers

When asked what can be done to reduce the mass of plastic garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean, Ballard encouraged people to use cloth, paper or bio-degradable plastic. He noted that around Midway Island, which is thousands of miles from any continent, many birds are dying because they are ingesting plastic.

As for why people should continue to support explorations, Ballard said, “We’re the most curious creature that has been made.”

He said if a person is put into a room, the first thing they want to do is find out what is on the other side of the door.

According to Ballard, people are on a journey.

“It begins with a dream to do something, to be something,” he said. “Then you go forth to be tested.”

There are two fundamental tests, according to Ballard. The first is the easiest, and that is to see if one is prepared. The second, and more difficult test, is how one responds to failure, if one can get back up after being knocked down.

“Failure is the greatest teacher you will ever meet,” said Ballard.

Ballard also was asked about a FLIP ship constructed during the Cold War to help conduct surveillance on Soviet submarines. Since ships rest vertically on the ocean surface, the slapping of the ocean waves can interfere with listening to submarines. The U.S. then developed a 350-foot FLIP ship, which could be flipped, with the length of the ship not on the surface but instead being perpendicular to the surface. With this alignment, the motion of the ocean was minimized and it became much easier to detect submarines.

“It becomes an extremely quiet platform,” Ballard said.

He said he would like to obtain the FLIP ship so that he could use it as a oceanic farmhouse.

“We will be eating more and more from the sea,” he said.

When asked about the Galapagos Islands, he said it is an “amazing place,” but there is a cap on the number of visitors and “only rich people get to go.”

“That’s not right,” he said.

Ballard said that with the latest and future technology, people will be able to experience things on distant lands and seas that they would never have been able to experience before without leaving their homes.

“We’re going to have the power to be anywhere we want to be,” he said.

He said these virtual visits, as well as real-life visits, to other places and cultures help people understand the value of diversity and that people who have met one another are less likely to drop bombs on each other.

He said the earth will bounce from any destruction but mankind may not.

“Earth will be fine,” he said. “Will we?”

Ballard said some scientists, such as the late Stephen Hawking, said mankind will not survive. But he believes the question has not been answered and that if mankind is to survive, the single most important thing to do presently is empower women. He said the average age of mothers in the world is 19. By empowering women economically, they have children later in life, which helps decrease population growth.

“That’s our only hope,” he said.

Ballard’s presentation, complete with slides, was part of the J.R. McDowell Speaker Series, which is sponsored by the Transylvania County Library Foundation and Brevard College.


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