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Uncharted Waters

Think Tank Oceans Transcript

ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' is made possible by Amgen,recipient of the Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen,helping cancer patients through cellular and molecular biology,improving lives today and bringing hope for tomorrow.


Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundationand the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.


MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. We are here at theScripps Institution in La Jolla, California, the largest and oldestcenter for marine research in the world.


PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: (From videotape.) We choose to goto the moon in this decade and do the other things.


MR. WATTENBERG: President John F. Kennedy, best known as achampion for exploration of outer space, also called on Americans totap the oceans' depths. And yet today we know more about the surfaceof our dead moon than the bottom of our own oceans, which may beteeming with almost alien life.


Joining us to navigate through the waters of oceanographicstudy are: Don Walsh, copilot of the Trieste, the deepest mannedunderwater mission to date, and former dean of the Institute forMarine and Coastal Studies at the University of Southern California;Ed Frieman, director of this Scripps Institution of Oceanography atthe University of California, San Diego; Sylvia Earle, former chiefscientist at the National Oceanographic and AtmosphericAdministration and author of 'Sea Change'; and Edward Miles,professor of marine studies and public affairs at the University ofWashington and the United Nations lead expert on maritimeenvironmental protection.


The topic before this house: Uncharted waters. This week on'Think Tank.'


Three-quarters of the world is covered by water, and yet weknow surprisingly little about our oceans. Scientists here and manyothers around the world are trying to change that. They study oceancurrents and patterns to help predict weather and natural disasters,they seek answers about how the earth was formed, and they search formineral resources and new medicines.


Just one example. Recently, scientists discovered a compoundfrom deep-sea bacteria just a thousand feet off the California coastwhich may inhibit the growth of the HIV virus.


Today explorers are excited about the race to the bottom. Inrecent years, scientists have discovered bizarre creatures from thepreviously inaccessible depths of the oceans. Until only a few yearsago, scientists did not believe such creatures could live on thisplanet.


Some of our guests today have actually been down there. Ladyand gentlemen, thank you for joining us. Let me begin with you,Sylvia Earle. What do we know about these oceans today that wedidn't know 10 years ago or 15 years ago?


MS. EARLE: Well, in my lifetime, I think it's safe to say thatwe've learned more about the oceans than all preceding history, andmost of that is concentrated in the last few decades. And it'sincreasing, the rate of accumulating new insights.


But I think, on balance, the most important new insight thatwe've gained about the sea is the magnitude of what we don't know,the magnitude of our ignorance.


MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Ed Frieman.


MR. FRIEMAN: I'd like to focus on issues involving globalscales because we're beginning to have the technology throughsatellites, high-speed communications, new ways of doing things to beable to understand the earth as a total system. And we've learned anenormous amount, for example, just in the last months about acousticpropagation between here and New Zealand.


MR. WATTENBERG: What does that mean, acoustic propagation? We're going to have to get our terms straight here because we notonly want our viewers to understand it, your host will want tounderstand it.


MR. FRIEMAN: This is use of sound as a probe through theoceans projected from up near Monterey and detected and listened tothrough the oceans in New Zealand. And the signals have come throughmore crisply than we ever believed. And it's telling us somethingabout the structure of the ocean which we never knew before.


MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Don Walsh.


MR. WALSH: The thing that impresses me the most -- and I'mmore of an engineer and physical scientist -- is the biologicalreality that there's a new life system on our planet.


If we were taping this program 20 years ago, we couldn't havehad this discussion. We would have assumed that the entire lifesystem on our planet depended on the sun through the process oftransferring the solar energy to the plants and to people viaphotosynthesis through the plants. And now we discovered this entireparallel, separate life system in the deep parts of the ocean that isfueled up by the earth's heat energy coming into the sea floor in thedeep ocean and creating an entire life system that is chemosyntheticrather than photosynthetic.


And now some of the recent work suggests that this may havebeen the original life forms on our proto-planet when it was firstformed 4-1/2 billion years ago and that the biomass of this type oflife system may exceed that on the surface of our planet. To methat's very exciting, and we're talking within 15 years.


MR. WATTENBERG: And you were down there? Do you still holdthe record for the deepest --


MR. WALSH: Yes, I do, but it was not on a dive I made, but I'mfamiliar with a program, Woods Hole's Alvin submersible, and theywere on a geological mission, so unintended consequences. Not abiologist on the ship, not a biologist on the submersible. They hadto go get them and bring them back.


MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Ed Miles, what is your -- what is thething we know now that we didn't know?


MR. MILES: Pushing on from Don's comment, I would generalizeit, especially in context of the discovery about possible3.8-billion-year-old fossils on Mars, and say that these discoveriesallow us to hypothesize that there are very large microbial biomasssystems on most, if not all, planets, and that they are associatedwith volcanos and water in some form. That's the really excitingthing, that the youngest, hottest areas of our planet in thesespreading centers, where the tectonic plates pull apart at the bottomof the ocean, contain such large colonies of microbes of greatpotential interest to industry.


MS. EARLE: I think it's one of the best things that could havehappened to the ocean that life was discovered on a rock that camefrom Mars, or evidence of life. Mars and earth and the rest of thesolar system is about the same age, and we date life on this planetback to 3-1/2 billion years or so ago. And look what's happened. Imean, microbes still dominate, although we like to think we're thebig boss. Huh -- the microbes, that's where the action is.


But look what else has happened here. This place ischock-of-luck full of diverse life forms.


MR. WATTENBERG: This place, meaning the ocean.


MS. EARLE: This place, earth, this planet, but especially theoceans. The greatest diversity of life, no question, hands down, isin the ocean. All the major divisions of plants and animals havesome representation out there.


MR. WATTENBERG: How much time, Sylvia, have you spent in theocean, down deep?


MS. EARLE: Well, not nearly enough. It comes to something inexcess of 6,000 hours diving so far, in submarines and underwaterhabitats and just plain snorkeling or diving around, mostly divingwith scuba, but you rack up hours very fast when you live under waterfor a while.


MR. WATTENBERG: Don Walsh, I can't let you stop withouttelling us, at least briefly, what it was like down there. How deepwere you, 30,000 feet?


MR. WALSH: 35,800.

MR. WATTENBERG: And this was 35 years ago?


MR. WALSH: A third of a century. That makes me feel youngerthan 35 years ago. (Laughter.)


MR. WATTENBERG: Have people compared you to Neil Armstrong? Imean, is that a correct comparison?


MR. WALSH: I don't know. Not many, I'm sure.


MS. EARLE: I do.




MS. EARLE: Yeah, absolutely.


MR. WALSH: This was kind of a stealth thing and the story'stoo long for this program, but the Navy did not want us to seekpublicity for this particular event.


Bluntly, the Navy had promised a lot of scientificspectaculars, including the first satellite. And these things werecrashing in the Canaveral Bay in great flashes of flame. So when Ias a young Navy lieutenant showed up with my plan to merely go to thedeepest place in the world ocean --


MR. WATTENBERG: Which was where?


MR. WALSH: Near Guam, Marianas trench -- the Navy said, well,that's very interesting, you go do it, and then if you're successful,we'll tell the world.


MS. EARLE: We'll notice.


MR. WALSH: So it was not a very well publicized thing. Butthat was in the Challenger deep in the Marianas trench about 200miles from the island of Guam.


MS. EARLE: That gives you a clue, though, about the magnitudeof our ignorance now. Don Walsh and his pal Jacques Picard are theonly two people in all of history who have made a successful roundtrip to the deepest part of the sea. One way is easy. It's theround trip that counts.


MR. WALSH: That defines ocean engineering, the round trip.


MS. EARLE: That's right. But think of it. Here we are, we'resending probes to Mars and beyond our own -- the edge of our solarsystem and outside of our own solar system, but we cannot evensuccessfully get to the bottom of the ocean on a regular, routinebasis. And it's only 7 miles, I can say with a straight face,because I traveled 7 miles to get here today.


MR. WALSH: Sure.


MS. EARLE: Above -- going up.


MR. WATTENBERG: What is the problem? The technologicalproblem is the intense pressure down there?


MR. WALSH: Yeah, but there's no real technical problem.


MS. EARLE: It's intense indifference.


MR. WALSH: It's a matter of will, of curiosity, of nationalinvestment.


MR. WATTENBERG: Is what you are all interested in pure scienceor applied science?


MR. MILES: That is a really overworked distinction, I think. (Laughter.)


MR. FRIEMAN: First you draw the line.


MR. WATTENBERG: Excuse me for asking.


MS. EARLE: It's not either/or.


(Cross talk.)


MR. FRIEMAN: Let me try to answer you because I think therewas recently a study that Frank Press led, the former president ofthe National Academy of Sciences, a very interesting study of whatscience is all about. And he said we are blurring the distinctionsbetween basic and applied research. And what we're talking aboutspans both. And so you can ask the question, is it basic, is itapplied? It's both.


MS. EARLE: It is.


MR. FRIEMAN: Much of what goes on in the ocean domain haspublic policy implications. By its very nature, it's applied in thatsense. From the perspective of the researchers, it's basic. Butit's both.


MS. EARLE: Well, we need to know.


MR. FRIEMAN: We need to know.


MS. EARLE: Absolutely.

MR. WATTENBERG: The space program secured billions andbillions of dollars in public funds, in some measure because theyclaimed immediate public benefit, be it from Teflon or Tang, theorange juice thing.


MS. EARLE: Or defense.


MR. WATTENBERG: Or defense, certainly. Was that sort of apublicity trick?


MR. MILES: Of course it was.


MS. EARLE: It's marketing.


MR. MILES: We went to the moon because the Soviets -- wewanted to prevent the Soviets --


MS. EARLE: It's a race.


MR. MILES: -- getting there first because they were successfulbefore we were in orbiting the planet.


MR. WATTENBERG: Had there been no Soviet Union, do you thinkwe might have gone to the ocean bottoms before the moon?


MR. MILES: I don't know. One can't say that. But wecertainly would not have gone to the moon on the time table we did.


MR. FRIEMAN: Ben, there is something about the human spirit ofexploration. We want to explore the planets, we want to explorespace, we want to explore the deeps of the ocean. So yeah, it mayhave been a publicity stunt, but I think there is something biggerinvolved and something more majestic and grand in this exploration ofboth space and the world around us.


MR. WATTENBERG: Is it -- I mean, the old riddle, what is it,from the Kilimanjaro story, you know, why do you go there? Becauseit's there. Is that why you go there, because it's there?


MS. EARLE: That's I think inherent in being a human being. I'm a kid. Everybody around here is a kid in various shapes, sizes,et cetera. Scientists don't lose their curiosity, that sense ofexploration.


But we are at a point right now in our history, in globalhistory, that is of critical significance. We have seen parallel withthis great era of discovery, of understanding more about how theplanet ticks, more changes that we can attribute to ourselves, holdup the mirror. What have we as citizens of this planet done tochange the nature of the place?


The oceans particularly, through what we're putting into thesea and what we're taking out. Huge quantities of wildlife are beingremoved from the ocean, changing the basic structure, the characterof the living systems there, and therefore changing our life supportsystem. My concern --


MR. WATTENBERG: Are you talking principally about fisheries? Is that what --


MS. EARLE: Fisheries. Through what we're taking out, throughwhat we're putting in. The changes that we're causing, that we arecausing, through what we put into the atmosphere that falls back onland and sea alike -- there's no line that says don't go in theocean. What is in the atmosphere comes back throughout the entireglobal system.


MR. WATTENBERG: Do you have reason to think this is harmful?


MS. EARLE: I would rather err on the side of caution. We areadding new materials to the oceans --


MR. WATTENBERG: But wait a minute. I mean --


MS. EARLE: -- that we don't know what the consequences are.


MR. WATTENBERG: But what is causing what you are describingare the forces of modernism which are making life better for peoplehere on earth. I mean, I can counter that by saying if we err on theside of caution, we are hurting people who are alive now who aretrying to do better through the very forces of science that you allrepresent.


MS. EARLE: Not necessarily.


MR. MILES: There are patterns of use of natural environmentswhich cannot be sustained indefinitely. If we are to --


MR. WATTENBERG: For example?


MR. MILES: Any commercial fishery can put its targets at risk,or most of them, by the process of overfishing, which comes about asa result of a failure to control the amount of fishing efforteffectively.


MR. FRIEMAN: I think what we are all saying is that in orderto understand the planet as a total system, which we must understandto bring about a consonance between economics, between environmentalissues, between equity as a development out into the future, 50 yearsfrom now, it's not enough to understand oceanography and physics andchemistry and geography and astronomy.


MS. EARLE: And economics.


MR. FRIEMAN: And economics, and so on. It's all part of anintegrated whole.

MS. EARLE: Human culture.


MR. FRIEMAN: And we are beginning to get our arms around it. The kind of research that Ed and his colleagues do is critical tothat understanding.


MS. EARLE: Astronauts have given us this view of the earth asnever before. That's something new in our lifetime that has changedour perspective forever. Looking at other planets in the way that wenow do and finding the possibility of life elsewhere has changed ourperspective.


We're getting at some of the big questions, such as where do wecome from and where are we going and how are we going to get there? How are we going to ensure that we have a future at least assuccessful as some of the -- oh, citizens out there in the ocean, thesharks, that have been around for 300 million years. And our historygoes back maybe 5 million, or our culture, civilization maybe 10,000years.


And we'd like to be able, given our great knowledge, let's hopewe have some wisdom sort of in there somewhere as well to take allthis information and plot a course for the future.


MR. WALSH: One brief --


MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask Don --


MR. WALSH: -- reminded me of something that Marshall McLuhanonce said, and that was that on spaceship earth, there are nopassengers. We're all crew.


And so we are all responsible for taking care of this mannedsatellite that we live on, and it all comes down to a question ofocean awareness. If there's no public will, then there's nogovernment investment. If there's no government investment, there'sno good science.


MR. WATTENBERG: All right. You said the magic word,investment. How much do we need?


MS. EARLE: Equal time with the space program would be a goodstart.


MR. WALSH: Yeah, a good start.


MR. WATTENBERG: What does that involve? What are the numbers?


MS. EARLE: Well, one shuttle launch is about a billiondollars. The entire national commitment, government financing ofocean science is about half that.


MR. WATTENBERG: How much is space getting annually now?


MR. FRIEMAN: NASA's budget is about 12 billion (dollars) peryear.


MS. EARLE: Big 'B'.


MR. FRIEMAN: Yeah, big 'B'. Total ocean sciences across allof the agencies, basic research and applied, which then includesNavy, is probably a billion, billion and a half, but that includesweapons systems and things of this sort.


MS. EARLE: But the kind of ocean research that one generallythinks of as the national commitment to civilian ocean science isabout half a billion.


MR. WATTENBERG: So you are looking for a mere bagatelle, $10billion a year?


MR. FRIEMAN: We probably couldn't spend that much.


MR. WALSH: No, no. We'd waste 10 billion (dollars) a year.


MS. EARLE: Well, you would. I wouldn't. (Laughter.)


MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I mean you're saying the differencebetween what oceans are getting and space is getting is, give ortake, a few billion dollars in there, about $10 billion a year,right?


MR. FRIEMAN: Well, after all the -- but the space missions arehelping us.


MS. EARLE: Yes, they are.


MR. FRIEMAN: Because they are launching things which we use. So you have to be careful about how you count it.


MS. EARLE: True.


MR. WALSH: Seeing this whole question of looking at the globalocean-atmosphere interaction, the global warming, sea level rise, thewhole question there, you have to have platforms that can essentiallysample data faster than or at the same rate these processes arehappening. With the ocean and the atmosphere interacting, you can'tdo this by conventional ships or even aircraft.


The only thing that can kind of freeze-frame this dynamicprocess between the oceans and the atmosphere so we can really figureout what's happening on a global basis are space platforms. And sothey are very, very unique.


MR. WATTENBERG: There is a school of thought in the publicpolicy community that the enormous amount of publicity that has goneto the idea of global warming is, at least in some measure,politicized and purposefully hyped by environmentalists I guessseeking a role or seeking a new catastrophe of the week, or whatever. Where do you all come out on that?


MR. WALSH: I think you can answer very simply, what if they'rewrong? Things in the ocean happen very gradually, almostimperceptibly, and once you discover you've got a problem, it'ssometimes too late. And our government runs on the two, four,six-year cycle. We're talking about 20, 50, 100-year problems.


The principal argument is maybe we're on a spike. We don'thave a long enough time sample. Topek's satellite is showing everyyear a rise in sea level, but it's only four years, isn't it, thatwe've got the samples. So we realize we need a longer time line.


But you have to come back to the basic question, what if you'rewrong? Should you be more conservative?


MR. WATTENBERG: Well, the other question, of course, is, youknow, what if you're right? I mean, who was the character inmythology who couldn't hold back the ocean in any event?


MR. WALSH: If we're wrong, then all we've done is spent someof the public treasure to accelerate our knowledge of the earthatmospheric system. Nothing wrong with that.


MR. WATTENBERG: How do you deal with this question, which wehear over and over again, that there are poor children in America, inthe ghettos, in the barrios; we're cutting back welfare, we'recutting back the amount of dollars spent on public schooling, and soon and so forth. Every dollar you take to go into a submersible togo down and look at the pretty fishes is taking dollars from thosekids.


MR. MILES: Well, that just isn't true. (Laughter.)


MR. WATTENBERG: Well, there are --


MS. EARLE: They breathe air, don't they?


MR. WATTENBERG: Excuse me. Well, there are a finite number ofdollars and if you put them down on the bottom of the ocean, you'renot putting them in the ghettos.


MR. FRIEMAN: If I add up all the pork-barrel projects thathave been put in for things in a particular district, it overwhelms. I mean, I could feed every kid in America. So I mean it's not a faircomparison, Ben. The funds just aren't fungible.


MR. WATTENBERG: How is somebody supposed to make a judgmentbetween competing interests that come to the public policy arena, toWashington, and say, You just don't get it, this is really important?

MS. EARLE: This is really important.


MR. WATTENBERG: Well, as you've said --


MS. EARLE: The oceans are a cornerstone to what makes theplanet tick. The oceans are in trouble, and therefore so are we.


MR. WATTENBERG: Why shouldn't we do this internationally, withinternational funds?


MS. EARLE: We are.


MR. WALSH: We do.


MS. EARLE: Yeah, we are, but we should do more.


MR. MILES: Most large-scale programs are internationalprograms. No one country has the resources to do it all. But weought also to recognize that the modern global economy is an economythat runs on research and development and the results therefrom --that is, scientific research and technical development -- and oninformation. And if we don't keep up, we fall behind.


MR. WATTENBERG: What is the public policy argument aboutwhether to just go down or way down? I mean, what is the cutofffigure --


MS. EARLE: Why stop?


MR. WATTENBERG: -- 30,000 -- 5 miles?


MR. MILES: The public policy criteria should be focused onfundamental processes and have a mixed portfolio.






MR. MILES: Those are the two most critical points.


MR. WATTENBERG: But wait a minute, let me get to the specificargument. There are people who say that 97 percent of the ocean isnot very deep in this language.


MS. EARLE: It's within 6,000 meters.


MR. WATTENBERG: Within 6,000 meters. And then there's 3percent that's below that.

MS. EARLE: An area the size of the United States is belowthat, so it's trivial.


MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, but it costs much, much, much more money--


MS. EARLE: That's an illusion.


MR. WATTENBERG: -- to get way down than to do the other.




MR. WATTENBERG: Is that correct?




MR. WATTENBERG: It is not correct?




MR. FRIEMAN: With robotic vehicles, no.


MS. EARLE: Or even with manned vehicles.


MR. FRIEMAN: Even with a manned vehicle.


MS. EARLE: No, it's just a mindset. It's an excuse.


MR. WALSH: It is two-thirds of the maximum depth of the worldocean, the 20,000-foot or 6,000-meter mark. And it's attractive toengineers and bean counters because they say, Well, look, fortwo-thirds, I get 98 percent, what a deal.


MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, but Sylvia's saying that it's no bigdifference.


MR. WALSH: That's the truth.




MR. WALSH: I'm talking about the unwashed, common argument youhear.


MS. EARLE: The perception.


MR. WALSH: The fact is that --


MR. WATTENBERG: Which your host presented.


MR. WALSH: Well, and I'm glad you did. The last third is, asshe said, an area the size of the United States. It's like themetaphor she's used before about being able to climb to nearly thetop of all the highest mountains, but excluding the top 2 percent ofall the mountains of the world.


MS. EARLE: Why bother?


MR. WALSH: That would sound silly to terrestrialinvestigators, scientist explorers. You're locked out of the top 2percent of the mountain peaks.


MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, Sylvia Earle, EdwardFrieman, Don Walsh, and Edward Miles.


And thank you. As always, we enjoy hearing comments andquestions from our viewers. Please contact us via e-mail atthinktank@pbs.org; on the World Wide Web at World Wide Web.pbs.org;by fax at (202) 862-4885; or by phone, toll-free, at 1-888-87THINK;or by the old-fashioned snail mail at New River Media, 1150 17thStreet, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.


Regardless of which way you communicate with us, please do letus know where you are from.


For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.


ANNOUNCER: This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, inassociation with New River Media, which are solely responsible forits content.


'Think Tank' is made possible by Amgen, recipient of thePresidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen, helping cancerpatients through cellular and molecular biology, improving livestoday and bringing hope for tomorrow.


Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundationand the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.



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