Famed ocean explorer speaks at MSU

Robert Ballard speaks at Mississippi State (Photo by Beth Wynn)
Staff Writer

A nearly full Bettersworth Auditorium ventured to the deep Tuesday night, when renowned oceanographer Robert Ballard spoke as part of the Mississippi State University Global Lecture Series.

“We’re going to take you to my world, and show you what’s down there and maybe get you interested in what we haven’t found yet,” Ballard said.

Much of Ballard’s presentation focused on his discoveries in the Mid-Ocean Ridge, a mountain range covering around a quarter of the earth’s surface.

“All along it are these volcanoes,” Ballard said. “We were trying to understand why the Mid-Ocean Ridge was a positive feature under tension. When we got to the ridge itself, it was hot but not hot enough. It was missing heat. We found out that there’s a totally separate circulation system on the planet we didn’t know about. The entire volume of the ocean is going inside Earth and out through this system.”

Along these vents, Ballard and his team found never before seen forms of marine life, including 13-foot-long worms feeding on toxic compounds being released from the vents, emitting deadly hydrogen sulfide gas.

“We found these crazy critters living around these vents, dominated by these giant tube worms,” Ballard said. “It sticks out its lung, and it’s ingesting poisonous gasses in solution from the vents.”

He also found deposits of several metal ores along the ridge, which several mining companies, particularly Russian and French firms have taken great interest in. He said overall, he considers his work on the ridge his favorite in his career.

In a question and answer session following the lecture, Ballard told the SDN about his work in the Gulf of Mexico, some of which, including research of the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion involved MSU scientists.

“We’ve also found a privateer off of Galveston,” Ballard said. “That was something we did with Texas State and Texas A&M Galveston … My first paper that I wrote as a researcher was on the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf of Mexico is a fascinating body of water … there’s a lot to be done in our own backyard.”

He also discussed his purchase of a research vessel, the Nautilus and the work he planned to do using the ship and his Corps of Exploration. The ship is named for the fictional submarine Nautilus in Jules Verne’s classic “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

He also said his Corps of Exploration primarily consists of university students and senior academics.

He hopes to make the group parallel with the U.S. population, with 55 percent of leadership positions filled by women.

“A child needs to see their face in our corps,” Ballard said “They see their face, and they know there’s no ceiling. There’s none in ours.”

Ballard added that data from the corps is completely open-sourced, which is “heresy in academia.”

Ballard is best known for his 1985 discovery of the wreck of the RMS Titanic, as well as several other famous shipwrecks. He is currently a Professor of Ocean Engineering at the University of Rhode Island, and served in the U.S. Navy Reserve from 1967 to 1997, obtaining the rank of Commander.