Return to Titanic Mission to Document Wreck's Destruction

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 23, 2004
Robert Ballard is returning to the scene of his greatest discovery with
an urgent new mission—to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) study the Titanic's alarming and possibly
increasing rate of deterioration.

"I'm returning to Titanic to see what has happened to the ship in the almost 20 years that have elapsed since I first discovered her," said Ballard, president of the Institute for Exploration at Mystic Aquarium and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society.

See a previously published photo gallery of the Titanic >>

The R.M.S. Titanic sank 92 years ago this month—on April 15, 1912—while on her maiden voyage from Southampton in the U.K. to New York. Because the builders had not provided enough lifeboats for the evacuation of all the passengers, more than 1,500 people were left to go down with the ship after it was holed by an iceberg—a tragedy that has reverberated down the years in the form of countless films and books.

Ballard was the first to locate the resting place of the legendary vessel in 1985 in the icy waters off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

He returns May 30 with a team of scientists and specialists from NOAA, the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration (MAIFE), the University of Rhode Island's Institute for Archaeological Oceanography, and the JASON Foundation for Education.

The expedition will spend 11 days at the site aboard the NOAA research vessel Ronald H. Brown, mapping the ship and analyzing the causes and rate of its decay.

State-of-the-art remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) Hercules, Argus, and Little Herc will employ lighting systems and high-definition cameras, sensors that gather data on water current, temperature and oxygen conditions, and manipulators, such as moveable arms and water jets, which help with excavation.

The robots will be steered and manipulated by operators on board the ship more than two miles away, on the surface of the ocean, under the direction of Ballard and other scientists.

The expedition will be aired on Monday, June 7, 2004, at 9 p.m. ET/PT, when the National Geographic Channel (NGC) will broadcast the one-hour special Return to Titanic. The show, live from the Ronald H. Brown, will include the first live telecast from the wreck of the Titanic some 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) under the Atlantic Ocean.

Are Dives, Salvage Hastening Titanic's Demise?

Various environmental forces eventually break down shipwrecks, but Ballard suspects more than natural forces are at work in this case.

"We know Titanic has been naturally deteriorating over time, but I'm convinced that the deterioration is being accelerated by manmade impacts as well," said Ballard, a professor at the University of Rhode Island (URI) and director of its Institute for Archaeological Oceanography.

The 1986 photo mosaic of the ship that was published in National Geographic magazine will serve as a baseline for comparative studies to determine the level of degradation that has occurred since then.

"Using high-definition cameras, we will take images of the ship and its surrounding debris field and compare them to the images we made in 1985 and 1986," Ballard said. "This will allow our team of scientists, and the viewers at home, to contrast the ship's past and present and see the level of change for ourselves."

Since its discovery in 1985, over 6,000 artifacts have been salvaged from the wreck and various tour companies have visited the site. There have even been reports of subs landing on the sunken ship's deck.

"Someone needs to go down and begin assessing the condition of the wreck, and analyze the data that they retrieve," said National Geographic Society Executive Vice President for Mission Programs Terry Garcia. "From that data others will make judgments about what steps might be appropriate for protection of the Titanic." The National Geographic Society is helping fund the research portion of the expedition.

Natural Forces Attack Titanic

Whether humans are present or absent, natural factors are unceasingly at work in the dark, icy world of the Titanic.

Toredo worms, mollusks that feed on organic matter, have consumed most of the ship's woodwork. Other conditions, such as tremendous pressure, frigid temperatures, and salinity also contribute to the ship's inevitable demise.

Eating away at the very structure of the ship herself is a rather benign-sounding formation known as a "rusticle." The concrete-like forms cling to the side of the ruined vessel like rusty icicles.

Roy Cullimore, of the Canadian firm Droycon Bioconcepts, Inc., has studied rusticles on several trips to the Titanic, and even reproduced them in a lab.

"A rusticle is not a plant, it's not an animal, it's a product of bacterial activity," Cullimore said.

Inside a rusticle, a mix of different bacterial communities feed on iron, extracting it from the ship's refined steel structure. This turns the steel back into a type of pig iron, weakening the ship.

"It's a bit ironic actually," Cullimore explained. "Mother Nature is turning the steel back into a type of pig iron, and that refined steel was made from pig iron in the first place. So the cycle becomes complete, which is kind of fascinating."

Rusticles grow in many environments, but Cullimore explains that the Titanic is particularly fertile ground.

"It happens that the Titanic is a kind of oasis in a relatively nutrient poor area," he said. "So it's a real focus for a lot of this activity, and other deep-ocean shipwrecks are going through the same kind of event. Near the surface there is too much competition for rusticles to thrive. Down in the dark zone, that's their real home."

By comparing evidence from previous trips Cullimore hopes to get an understanding of just how quickly rusticles are eating the Titanic's iron.

"I think what I have to do is use my eyes," he said, "look at archival and current video and understand the rusticle growth rate, the pig iron extractions, and the deterioration of the ship."

He'll be helped by the retrieval of "staircase" test platforms, constructed of different shapes and types of steel. The platforms were placed on the wreck site in previous years, and bringing them up for analysis could help tell how long the Titanic herself will last.

Baseline for Other Wrecks

While protecting perhaps the world's most famous shipwreck is important, the expedition's ultimate goals extend across the world's oceans.

"NOAA's focus is to build a baseline of scientific information from which we can measure the scientific processes and deterioration of Titanic, and apply that knowledge to many other deepwater shipwrecks and submerged cultural resources," said Captain Craig McLean, director of NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration.

"The Titanic is really representative of many cultural sites around the world that are suffering from a variety of ailments," National Geographic's Garcia said. "In the ocean, where there is no way of protecting shipwrecks, it's particularly acute. Because everyone knows the Titanic, it's an excellent way of getting the message out; as the Titanic goes, so go many other sites of cultural significance."

The JASON Foundation for Education will be creating a new middle school math curriculum called JASON Math Adventure: Geometry and Return to Titanic, which will follow the work of researchers on the Titanic expedition. Students will learn how geometry concepts are used to position the Ronald H. Brown at the Titanic wreck and the ROV Hercules on the bow of Titanic.

JASON will also provide a behind the scenes look at the expedition using the Internet and video conferencing technology to allow Ballard to teach middle school science classes across the country live from sea.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.