TED 2008: Robert Ballard on exploring the ocean

(I'm liveblogging from TED 2008, in Monterey, CA)

Presenter: Geophysicist and shipwreck explorer Robert Ballard unearth's lost histories in the ocean.

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Why are people interested in going into space, but not in exploring the ocean? Most of the Southern Hemisphere is unexplored. It's naive to think that the easter bunny put all the resources on the continents. We are leaving so much of the table. 71% of Earth is ocean.

Ballard's gone on over 150 expeditions. On a good day we might have four people at the average depth of the Earth. 1/4 of our planet is a single mountain range, but we went to the moon before we went to the largest feature of our own planet. Tens of thousands of active volcanoes are down there. It's a very alive place.

No one had gone into that boundary of creation until 1974 when we went in a little submarine and went into the rift valley. No light can penetrate, no photosynthesis. We thought there'd be no life down there. Lots of tube worms, clam beds sitting on barren rock but when we opened them their body had taken over by a bacteria that uses chemosynthesis, not photosynthesis.

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Ballard designed robotic subs to continue to search the bottom of the ocean (I would not let an adult drive my robot sub, because they don't have enough gaming experience, but I'l let a kid do it because they know how to control it). Found upside-down pools of water with the pH of Drano but it harbored life. Methane volcanoes. Also finding ships -- Titanic, the Bismarck, and many of the estimated 1,000,000 ships that have sunk.

NOAA's Office of Exploration is a ship that will explore unknown America - the 50% of US territory that's underwater.

Chris Anderson, who runs TED, asks Ballard whether or not we should learn about sustainability on the surface before we start harvesting what the "Easter Bunny" left for us in the Ocean. Ballard isn't really answering the question, he just says he didn't take artifacts from the Titanic or belt buckles from sunken Navy ship.



  1. I’m an adult and I’m hella dextrous from a lifetime of video games. I’ve been playing longer. Just saying.

  2. Why are people interested in going into space, but not in exploring the ocean?

    Well, thats an easy question. We wanted to explore space to prove we could beat the Russians in a technology race, and prove that we could send missiles and monitor anywhere on Earth with the use of satellites.

    It’s a matter of vantage point, from space you have access to a wider area!

  3. I used to think that humanities best chance of long term survival is to spread across multiple planets and moons. That’s probably still true, but our best bet for short term survival is to colonize the ocean.

    A self sufficient undersea colony could survive the destruction of the atmosphere brought on by a large meteor strike.

  4. good point. The odds of asteroid-smacking scare me.
    An undersea colony, if it were by chance not on the strike hemisphere, would do well.

  5. Yeah, I think the world will end with a whimper, then a bang.

    Astronomer: whimper
    Asteroid: BANG!

    Having a collective undersea lair would help us weather the inevitable storm. I bet I’m not the first person to have this idea. I wonder how far along the secret colonization of the ocean floor has progressed.

    Any speculations?

  6. I wonder how far along the secret colonization of the ocean floor has progressed.

    Given that those with money never think about anything other than getting more money right this second, not at all.

  7. couldn’t keep it secret at any scale. Too many ears and eyes looking for missiles. Also, there is no vision. Our politicians are scum with their heads in the sewers, they would damn their own children’s futures – nevermind ours.

  8. Undersea colonies have the same problems harvesting energy from the ocean has. The sea isn’t kind to building materials – even boats are stored in fresh water, not sea water.

    Also, the shock wave from both the impact and the probable massive tsunami would do a number on your little colony’s ability to keep the water out.

  9. I foresee problems involving standing waves forming from ocean currents, then being interrupted by giant-sea-squid collisions, causing the plastic to snap – or, just losing it’s elasticity because of the intense pressure and extreme cold.

    Maybe it can be made from the self-healing urea-rubber? I’m sure the fishies will keep us in a steady supply of the basic ingredients.

  10. I don’t totally get that first link. It sounds like 1 + 1 + 1 – 1 = 2. How is it beneficial to use wind power to move water to use water power?

  11. we don’t “make” energy, we move it around. The idea is that the gravitational differential (just like any hydro dam) is created by using wind and then the stored energy is withdrawn as required by normal flow of water. At least, that’s how I read it. Wind blows whenever,a head of water ready is always ready.

  12. Marisa wrote a verry good point with the space and the ocean.
    If you have to choose one, with one you take?

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