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The Titanic: Seeing is Knowing

By Susan K. Avery

From: The Boston Globe Online, April 13, 2012

On April 15, 1912, the Titanic slipped beneath the waves and disappeared from view, presumably forever. At the time, humans’ ability to explore the deep sea where Titanic sank hardly existed. This despite the fact that the ocean produces half the oxygen we breathe, regulates our planet’s climate and rainfall, gives the world a sizable percentage of its food, is a source for new medicines and materials, and provides a primary transportation route for much of the global economy.

New images from the seafloor, like those of Titanic that were recently captured and assembled by a team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and released by the National Geographic Society, show how far we’ve come in our ability to explore the ocean. But even this represents a small step in a very long and crucial journey to peer beneath the waves.

What we knew in 1912 of the ocean floor beyond the coast came largely from the few samples we could bring to the surface, like a scattered collection of frames from an epic film. Our views of the vast and dynamic ocean floor came from small samples of rock and mud dredged up; our understanding of the diversity of marine life, from the occasional surprise washed up on shore or accidentally caught in nets.

World War II and national security efforts motivated a concerted effort to unravel the complexities of the ocean. The US Navy invested, and continues to invest, in research to explore the seafloor, to understand how sound travels through water and how water itself circulates around the globe, and how marine organisms interact with the things humans put in the sea.

In the 1960s, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, with the support of the Office of Naval Research, launched Alvin, the iconic human-occupied submersible. For the first time, scientists had a ready way of taking into the ocean the most sophisticated observing instruments known — the human eye and brain.

Alvin remains one of the most reliable ways for researchers to get a close-up view of the intricate and largely hidden world of the deep and it has played a role in some of the most captivating discoveries in recent years. But even this is still limited by the fact that it is only one vehicle, and the ocean is incredibly vast. So vast, in fact, that by some estimates we have only surveyed about 5 percent of it in any detail — a startling fact for something so fundamental to our well-being.

The discovery of Titanic’s final resting place in 1985 marked a fundamental shift in our ability to observe and explore the ocean. The team that found the wreck, led by WHOI marine geologist Robert Ballard aboard the research vessel Knorr, used what was at the time the most sophisticated deep-sea imaging device available. It was an underwater sled with a video camera that was able to transmit real-time images (albeit rather grainy black-and-white ones) directly to the surface.

Before then, scientists towed 35-millimeter cameras in special pressure housings through the water. Those lucky enough to have a photo lab with them on board could see the results of their surveys the next day. Those that didn’t had to wait until they reached shore.

Today, we expect to see new, spectacular visual evidence of the mysteries of the deep from almost every research expedition. With this information, oceanographers can fine-tune their exploration on-the-fly, making their work far more efficient and successful than in the past.

Many of these new imaging and data-gathering techniques trace their roots back to efforts to find and explore the wreck of Titanic. These advancements, in turn, have helped improve our ability to develop increasingly sophisticated deep-ocean instruments and techniques that we can use to find, monitor, and preserve our nation’s rich maritime heritage; to conduct marine forensic investigations on some of the 14 or so ships that sink each year to learn why they failed; and to understand previously unknown organisms and ecosystems like those that thrive on wrecks. In addition, tracing the slow degradation of Titanic will help shed more light on the processes at work on other wrecks scattered around U.S. waters, many of which still carry potentially hazardous cargo.

The public’s desire to understand what happened to Titanic is in many ways the same desire that drives oceanographers to better understand the two-thirds of the planet covered by ocean. By finding better ways to explore the ocean, Titanic may be transformed from an icon of luxury and hubris into a symbol of thoughtful stewardship of our watery planet.

Susan K. Avery is president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Last updated: January 3, 2013