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Sylvia Earle  







NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
25 Sep 2001

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Show: Sylvia Earle interview at NPR
Log of DAT #:1
Engineer: McQuay
Date: September 25, 2001

Studio 2B

00:55 (AC) Alex Chadwick ¿ We, we live next to the reservoir, the Georgetown reservoir and uh, so there¿s a lot of bird-life there, including there are these kind of railings and stanchions and things back there at the edge of the reservoir, and these turkey vultures like to kind of hang out there and talk to each other. One afternoon a couple of years ago there were 8 or 9 of them up there and¿you want me to conduct this interview? I think I¿m in this turkey vulture story I should go on¿and there¿s a soccer ball down there and they came down into the back yard and played with the soccer ball for a little while (SE-oh my) they would kind of get up on it for a little while, one of them would and then he¿d fall off and one of the others would try¿8 or 9 of them just standing around this soccer ball for about 20 minutes and then they got bored and flew off. I was quite impressed with those birds. 1:49

1:50 AC Um, here we go. Are we rolling Bill? We are. Sylvia, just say who you are and how we should identify you.

1:56 SE (Sylvia Earle)--I¿m Sylvia Earle, explorer in residence at the NG society, I¿m uh, chairman, founder, whatever of Deep Ocean exploration and research.

2:08AC And author of many tomes but most importantly--

2:10 SE Oh the very exciting news that finally the Atlas of the Ocean, with the National Geographic has been published. It¿s been dominating my life now for quite some time.

2:24 AC Tell me, there have been other ocean atlases, uh, in the past, but what is new about this one--what is new and distinctive about this atlas?

2:34 SE What is new about the Atlas of the Ocean, just produced by the NG is that it is the first atlas produced by the NG about the ocean. And here is the organization so well known for its wonderful atlases of the land, of history, of peoples, so many things that have been produced over the ages. And also this: if they had produced this or if anyone had, say 25 years ago, given the amount of new information that has come about in the last couple of decades, we¿d have to start almost not from scratch necessarily but we¿d have to rewrite whatever there was because you know, new information is coming at an astonishing rate, still. I think perhaps one of the most important messages conveyed by this important book is how little we really know, even now despite the fact that perhaps in the last 25 years we¿ve learned more than all preceding human history about the nature of this incredible body of water that dominates planet earth.

3:40 AC You have two important partners in working on this book. The National Association of Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--

3:50 SE And actually the navy; we have three partners.

3:52 AC And the navy. And what is it that they have done to, to help you here.

3:58 SE Well, they¿ve opened their resources to us. The maps that are included in the Geographic¿s ocean--Atlas of the Ocean reflect information much of it that heretofore has not been publicly available but is here not just available but presented in such a beautiful and accessible form. This is meant to be a resource for the professionals but it¿s also meant to be accessible for students for teachers, for anybody, even if they didn¿t think that they needed to know anything about the ocean, they will really enjoy the images that are conveyed and it isn¿t just maps but in true NG style they dived into their files and sent out the word among photographers around the country and around the world and have distilled the most amazing assemblage of images about the part of the ocean, of course the bottom and yes the top but it¿s that juicy bit in the middle where most of the ocean is that is illustrated with the photographs in such wondrous detail.

5:13 AC There are, in this book you do have maps, extensive maps, of the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Indian ocean. Uh, and you have these of the ocean floor and looking at this atlas of yours I¿m wondering, is the ocean the ocean floor, or is it all the water that we see when we, when we look at the ocean? What do you think of as the ocean?

5:39 SE (laughs) Oh, well, as I think you do, it¿s all of those things. But the ocean is alive. It isn¿t just rocks and water, it¿s a living system that generates oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide, is home for most of life on earth. The greatest diversity of life on earth is really in the ocean. There¿s so much of this planet is dominated by the sea, and the creatures there, that some say we really ought to call earth not earth but ocean. When you first put your face in the sea and realize that there are creatures out there, looking back, huh, that this is a very lively place, populated from the top through the greatest ocean depths. That¿s seven miles down. The average depth of the sea is two and a half miles. The maximum, a few trenches, reach that mighty depth, that exceeds the height of Mt. Everest¿greater than, Everest is like 29 thousand and some odd feet, the greatest depths are 35 thousand 800 and a few feet. But only two people in all of history have been there¿and come back. The one-way trips are really easy, so we worry about getting down and coming back. But one thing that happened in this was back in 1960. they verified the existence of familiar forms of life all the way, from top to bottom. So the ocean is not a place that when you get down to where it¿s dark and cold and where the pressure is many times that which we feel here, at one atmosphere on the surface, the weight of all the atmosphere upon us, but, you know at the greatest depth, 7 miles down, 16 thousand pounds per square inch, and yet there are sea cucumbers, there are mollusks, there are jelly creatures, there are fish down there, alive and well, thriving. Aha! And it¿s astonishing to most people to realize how alive the sea really is.

7:42 AC When you look at these maps, although I¿m not sure whether they¿re maps or charts, how one refers to ah, ah, a depiction of the ocean floor, I see things on it that of course I can¿t imagine when I look at the ocean. That is, turns out there are chains of mountains running around on the ocean floor--a big ridge of mountains down the middle of the Pacific, another big ridge of mountains running down the middle of the Atlantic.

8:10 SE Yeah, some 40 thousand miles that, when I was a kid, we did not know existed.

8:18 AC 40 thousand miles of mountain chains--

8:19 SE --mountain chains right. Um, just running down, like big backbones down the great ocean basins. Sort of a continuous feature. I mean, it was suspected that there were peaks and valleys and so on in the deep sea floor but it¿s really in the lifetime of many of us now around that these major new breakthrough discoveries have been made. The first class I ever had in oceanography was sort of built on tradit-along traditional lines. We were encouraged to scoff at the idea of continental drift. It was thought that the planet as we know it today is much the way it always has been. But it is only in fairly recent times that the idea of plate tectonics, that the sea floor is continuously spreading and moving the continents around, that, basically, what we see today is not what¿s going to be around in the tomorrows that follow.

9:15 AC And part of your book here there are several, uh, charts and illustrations that show you exactly where this ha¿exactly where this action is happening on the out in the Atlantic ocean. How these dividing ridges are dividing even farther.

9:33 SE Right. Well, you know, as a kid I had a globe. In the classrooms that we went to had maps of the world. They depicted the oceans as great expanses, big blobs of blue. The continents were in great detail--some even portrayed the, you know, the heights and depths of the mountains and valleys and broad plains and so on. But the oceans, generally were viewed as being featureless, empty, just-just water. Well the maps in this book, the charts, that the NG has prepared, sort of flips that around. And what you see in the major portrayals of the great ocean basins is the oceans in exquisite detail and the landmasses appear like giant islands floating around in the midst of this immense feature, or the features of the sea, that really dominate the world, and the way the world works (10:34). I think historically, and maybe many people even today, tend to take the ocean for granted. So many people, although more people live near the sea than inland, more than 50% live within 50 miles of the ocean, around the world. Still, the relationship of the sea to our everyday lives, to many seems remote. I hope that this atlas of the ocean, and we say ocean because it all does connect even though we speak of oceans it all is one ocean when you think about it. I really want to cause people to appreciate that with every breath we take that we are reliant on the sea. Most of earth¿s oxygen that is generated is generated out there in the sea, greater than 70%. The carbon dioxide is absorbed by the living systems. The chemistry of the planet is shaped by the ocean. Imagine the earth without the ocean. You¿d have a place much like Mars. A-huh, not very hospitable as those who are planning to set up housekeeping there some day are beginning to really coming to grips with what is it going to take? Water is the key. And there was apparently water on Mars once and there is still some but not enough to create the wondrous relatively stable, ever changing but stable within a range that is hospitable to us.

12:08 AC I was really interested to read early on in the book that the that there is a theory that water exists on earth because it got here on a meteor. A lot of meteors out zooming around there in space are actually giant globs of frozen water and I guess one theory about how water got here on earth is that it arrived in a series of huge meteors.

12:35 SE And is arriving still. (laughs) I mean we were constantly the recipient of a rain of materials that come from afar. It didn¿t stop suddenly when we arrived here. It continues. And yes, it does appear that this is a mechanism, perhaps the principal mechanism by which the vast amounts of water that make up our current ocean did arrive here. Think of the comets that swing around, they appear to be big, as they say, dusty snowballs. And until quite recently the existence of water elsewhere in the universe was thought to be pretty rare. Now it¿s understood to be very common. But to find an ocean of water, I mean think of Mars that apparently once had an ocean but lost it for whatever reasons. I mean the configuration of the face of Mars suggests a vast body of water that created formations that are familiar to us as-as I fly back and forth across this country, across the American west¿

13:48 AC Plateaus and valleys and drainages and things¿

13:50 SE Oh sure, you can see the old shorelines and the fossils that reflect the existence of life millions, hundreds of millions of years ago. It¿s absolutely fascinating to think of what we, take for granted today is truly the distillation of four and a half billion years of history and what we are now doing to the planet and to most particularly to the ocean is an inheritance that we are passing along to all future generations.

14:23 AC Let me just explore a little bit more if I may this-this-the history of the or the theories about the creation of water. Why wouldn¿t there have been water on earth? How is it that scientists began speculating about water coming here at all?

14:38 SE Well it¿s been a mysterious issue. Uh, where did all this water come from? As you look around within our own solar system, ¿course only recently has it been determined that there truly is water still on Mars and that there¿s some small amount on the moon and that there¿s a large amount on one of the moons of Jupiter. Europa is blessed, apparently with quite a lot of water, but frozen at the top maybe liquid below uh, a thick layer. Plans are being made to actually send probes to Europa perhaps in due course to better understand our own planet and how it acquired its ocean. And maybe there¿s life out there beyond where we rest in the greater scheme of things. But one thing¿s for sure: if there is life elsewhere, water is the key. It¿s the single, nonnegotiable thing that life requires. But how did it get here? You know, volcanic action spews forth from the heart of the earth small amounts of water and that¿s been considered to be the source of some of the water that now occupies the ocean basins. But over time and it¿s so hard for we who live such a short period of time, geologically speaking, typically less than a century, and we¿re talking about not just thousands or millions but billions of years that preceded the present time. And the ocean has been a part of earth history for very nearly the whole time. Not perhaps at the very beginning. In fact it appears that maybe earth lost an ocean, its ocean, its water, nearly all of it at least at some point in its early history but regained it as you¿re pointing out through this process of getting inundated with the cascade of water that comes small bits at a times, sometimes large bits. Suppose, and it has been supposed that a large amount may have come through a collision of a rather large, water blessed unearthly body coming from space and leaving behind its supply of water. It¿s you know, one of the great things about our time that we have the ability to begin to piece things together that 25, 50, a hundred years ago we didn¿t even know enough to dream about some of the things that now puzzle us and tantalize us with the possibilities, but the shreds of info that we¿re gathering from space and from deep in the ocean, the ability to analyze the bits and pieces in a coherent fashion with new computer technologies. It¿s a wonderful time to be alive, and for me, putting together the Geographic¿s atlas of the ocean, with a lot of help from a good many experts who joined in, and there are sidebars from real experts on various topics who have a chance to sound out-sound off-on their particular re--areas of expertise, um, as we begin a new century and a new millennium, to take stock of what we know, and perhaps most importantly what we don¿t know. And I hope that 25 years from now, probably long before then, there will be a revision of this volume, many revisions in fact, to cause people to really wake up and dive in and get to know the ocean that takes care of us.

18:26AC Let me ask you, you mentioned our historical view of the ocean and interest in it. Um, but your book talks about the, ah but your book talks about figures like Benjamin Franklin, very interested in how ocean currents flowed, wanted to help encourage trade, and um, this ah, and this naval officer, Matthew Maury (sp?) is it, who was ah, in the 1850¿s was director of the US¿

19:01 SE hydrographic office, yeah.

19:03 AC the US naval--was director of the--in the 1850¿s was director of the US hydrographic office. These people are saying ¿let¿s get out there, get all these charts from these whalers and try to figure out if there¿s really a system to this ocean we can understand it.¿

19:18 SE Well, thank goodness there were pioneers a hundred years ago, and before then, who really began to take stock of the nature of the sea. The first oceanographic expedition ever, on a global scale, was 1872. That wasn¿t that long ago, when you think about it.

19:39 AC A British ship, the Challenger, and they went out sailed almost 70,000 miles different places, but their methods were a little more, uh¿

19:53 SE Well you could say basic.

19:54 AC Their efforts were a little more basic than yours. How were they figuring out about the ocean?

20:00 SE In the early days of understanding out how deep the ocean is people would simply take a lead weight or a rock and attach it to a line and throw it over to basically see how deep the ocean floor was below. Later, sometimes ringing a bell, literally sounding the ocean, ringing a bell underwater created a dull sound but you could hear the echo coming back. If it was a short echo the distance to the bottom was not that great. A longer echo meant a greater depth. In a more sophisticated way, that¿s what we do today to obtain much of the information about how deep the ocean is and what the configuration is. Acoustic means of literally sounding the depths. But we have new methods that are actually available by satellite, to measure the difference in the height of waves. It¿s possible to gain information about the depth below. It¿s amazing that we can now, with such precision, see the differences in sea level from high in the sky.

21:12 AC I uh, was, really surprised, looking at the charts here, to see that the ocean is not deep in the places where I expect it to be deep. There¿s a part of the Caribbean, the Cayman islands, south of Cuba, where it¿s 24 thousand feet deep. I don¿t expect it to be that deep there.

21:34 SE Uh these the trenches around the ocean basins, where the seafloor basically dives under the continental masses, areas that are known as subduction zones, that gobble up the seafloor, which is a good thing; you can¿t infinitely expand, I mean it¿s being created down the mid-ocean ridges in the heart of these mountain chains that run down the center of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. Um, in the Pacific there¿s an entire ring of trenches that run like a giant necklace along the land, um, masses. And of course the deepest part of the ocean is off one of these areas, off the Philippines, where the greatest depth, the magnificent 7 miles, 35,800 feet, is uh, at least we think it¿s the deepest part of the ocean, it appears that it really is. When scientists and engineers were out there in1960 trying to determine, well how, where¿s the deepest part of this deepest trench, the Mariana trench, the challenger deep, they actually lobbed hand grenades over the side and listened for the sound of the explosion echoing back. And they did this, you know, dozens and dozens of times until they got the longest echo and they put a figurative map, an X on the chart and said here and that¿s where the triest (sp), a bathescafe (sp), descended and brought back the news that yes, they had attained the deepest depth. And no one has been to that depth since. Japan sent a robot down just in the last several years. It is a robot on the end of a long cable, you can imagine a cable extending that deep into the sea. First of all they did go back to where, close to where, the descent was made to the deepest part of the sea. And most wonderfully they were able to document the existence of many forms of life down there. It¿s not just an empty space. It¿s just filled with many variations of the theme of that wondrous business we call life.

23:57 AC The atlas of the ocean is uh¿well the atlas of the ocean is, I was going to say it¿s three dimensional but of course we think of our own maps as three dimensional because we can, we can see them. But the atlas of the ocean, of course is not just the ocean floor but it¿s this-this life that you talk about. And it¿s the physical aspects of the ocean, these the changes in the temperatures that you write about, the current patterns that uh we¿ve discovered and now know about. The water itself is shifting and moving in ways that you say are quite predictable, are understandable, you can see things happening in them.

24:47 SE They¿re predictable but they¿re also wonderfully unpredictable in that, if we could really understand how the ocean works, and we have a much better grip today than we did even 10 years or 5 years ago, every year it gets better, we¿d have a much better way to predict the consequences in terms of weather. Uh, one phenomenon which is discussed and that we couldn¿t really have portrayed in such a way 25 years ago, is the el nino and the converse, the el nina phenomena. we years ago thought that the phenomenon was something more or less limited to the coast of Peru. Warm water-weather-warm water would occasionally sweep along the shores where cold water is considered the norm. And with it came changes that drastically affected that particular part of the world. But now with global views of the ocean and how it works, we know that el nino and el nina affect global climate and global weather in ways that now that we have this perception, this ability to see the whole picture, from satellites, the whole image of earth, and understand the currents, understand the temperature regimes, and the interactions with rain, with drought, with flooding and all the rest, we are able as never before to peer into the future and have greater confidence about what is out there, and down there.

26:28 AC There, ah¿oh ah¿where is it, I lost it!

26: 36 SE We probably should--

26:37 AC We should go?

26:39 SE I have to¿

26:40 AC There¿s this wonderful DH Lawrence quote that you use early in the book. Here it is: DH Lawrence says, ¿water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one part, but there¿s a third thing that makes it water, and nobody knows what that is.¿

26:55 SE Isn¿t that great? (laughs) Water is magic. Without it consider how the world could function. We are absolutely and totally dependent on the existence of water. Our own bodies are some 70% water. Chemical reactions as we know them would simply be impossible without this aquatic medium in which these processes occur. We should never, never take water for granted.

27:33 AC Thank you Sylvia. I¿m sorry that we¿ve kept you that long, but you can make your Capitol hill appointment.

27:38 SE I¿m sorry that we don¿t have longer. This is terrible. 27:41

END OF DAT (27:41)

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