Robert Ballard's Institute for Exploration

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Robert Ballard's Institute for Exploration
Mystic Aquarium logo.png

The Distinguished Achievement Award is being presented to the Institute for Exploration which is establishing a new field of research utilizing evolving technology, such as advanced mapping and imaging systems, underwater robotics, and remotely operated vehicles that are highly beneficial to the exploration geophysics industry and marine geosciences. An additional objective is to share Robert Ballard’s most recent discoveries with millions of young people through his various outreach activities which include the Mystic Aquarium and the JASON Project.

With support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Office of Naval Research, and the National Geographic Society, the Institute for Exploration has engineered systems designed to operate up to a maximum water depth of 3000 meters. These new underwater systems use cables with optical fibers to transmit video and other signals up to the control ship on the surface. These devices include Angus, an optical imaging towsled; Echo, a dual-frequency side-scan sonar and sub-bottom profiler; and Little Hercules, an imaging ROV.

Citation for the SEG Distinguished Achievement Award

Contributed by Haraldur Sigurdsson

Robert Ballard is a true exploration geophysicist, who has investigated the earth’s oceans with great energy, enthusiasm and innovation. He was born in Kansas in 1942, but his family moved to San Diego, where he found his life-long love of the ocean and its exploration. After gaining majors in geology and chemistry and minors in physics and mathematics at the University of California, he had an illustrious career in the U.S. Navy (he is now a commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve). His naval service was followed by graduate school, and in 1974 he obtained a PhD in marine geology and geophysics from the University of Rhode Island.

While serving at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the 1970s, Ballard quickly became the leading scientist in the application of submersibles to the study of the ocean floor. With characteristic drive, he led Project Famous to explore the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and mounted and collaborated in a number of other deep-dive expeditions with the use of submersibles. This culminated in 1977 in the stunning discovery of hydrothermal vents on the Galapagos Rift, a finding that is fundamental to our understanding of the chemical evolution of the oceans and the origin of polymetallic sulfide ore deposits. In order to accelerate deepsea exploration, Ballard developed ANGUS (Acoustically Navigated Geological Underwater Survey), a submersible camera system that could be towed close to the ocean floor for long periods and collect thousands of images.

Ballard quickly realized that the tools he had helped develop in the Deep Submergence Laboratory at Woods Hole had applications far broader than earth science. Here emerges the geophysicist-explorer, who has the vision to exploit the new technology to really open up the hidden secrets of the deep—which he has done particularly in the field of nautical archaeology. But Ballard has continued to break the mold in more ways than one; he rapidly realized that remotely operated vehicles were faster, safer, cheaper and much more efficient than the manned submersibles. The quick succession of discoveries—Titanic, Bismarck, Lusitania etc.—launched Ballard in orbit as the premier spokesman of marine science in the eyes of the general public. He reasoned that if you can replace the view through the tiny porthole of the submersible with a much better live image on a high-resolution monitor in the ship’s lab, then you could take this one step further and transmit the live image worldwide to allow the rest of humanity to share in the excitement of the moment of discovery on the ocean floor. Telepresence, as Ballard is apt to call it, could also bring the adventure and excitement of science and exploration into the classroom. Thus was launched the JASON Project, beginning with an expedition in the Mediterranean in 1989, and continuing annually ever since with resounding success. No other effort has done so much to excite youngsters about science and stimulate their curiosity about the way in which the earth works, giving millions of young students the opportunity to participate in the study of the earth. A tiny fraction of them may become scientists in the future but, most important, they will all carry with them and recall in later life the sense of excitement about scientific discovery and exploration.

In 2002 Robert Ballard became a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and set about to establish a new research program and a program in graduate education in archaeological oceanography. Thus began the latest and perhaps the most important chapter in his odyssey of ocean exploration: developing a graduate-level academic program that is devoted to the use of geophysical exploration tools and oceanographic techniques to investigate the wealth of human cultural remains scattered over the floors of earth’s oceans. He is now in a position to pass on his unique knowledge and experience to young graduate students who will continue the legacy he has created in this important field of geophysics.