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A titanic effort
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The disaster continues onboard the RMS Titanic.

“Over the last several years, submarines have been coming for salvage operations, filming (and) tourism, and they’ve been landing on the deck of the Titanic,” said Robert Ballard, a member of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. “They’re doing a tremendous amount of damage.”

It was Ballard who discovered the Titanic wreck in 1985. “We’re working with the State Department to create an international treaty to protect the Titanic,” he said.

Ballard made his remarks during a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration media briefing at the G8 Summit International Media Center. However, Ballard wasn’t at the center -- he was speaking from the deck of the NOAA ship, the Ronald H. Brown, which was over the Titanic wreck at the time.

With him was Capt. Craig McLean, director of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration. “We’ve been working for the past several years in the international community to develop a protective regime for the Titanic,” he said.

“Congress passed the Memorial Act in 1986, shortly after the original discovery by Dr. Ballard, and the international community shares the sense that the Titanic should be treated as a memorial, among many other subjects,” McLean said. “It is a site of science -- that is what we are doing out here. But it is also a maritime memorial to the 1,522 souls that were lost here.”

At one point, underwater cameras panned over the debris field that resulted when the Titanic broke in half. Shoes were clearly visible and mark the spot where many of the bodies landed, Ballard said. “All throughout the debris field we are finding signatures of humans, reflective of the nature of the people aboard,” he said.

Since the discovery of the Titanic, Ballard has turned his attention elsewhere. “We discovered the remains of the German battleship Bismarck, the aircraft carrier Yorktown from the Battle of the Midway,” he said.

“We’ve made a number of discoveries of maritime ships of fairly recent -- World War I and World War II (vintage),” Ballard said. “We’ve been working a great deal over the last several years in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. We have found Roman ships, Phoenician ships, Carthaginian ships, Greek ships.

“This is why it’s very important (to understand) that the deep sea is a museum,” he said. “It contains more history than all of the museums of the world combined and yet there’s no laws covering a vast majority of it. A great deal of it is at risk. And we need to have international cooperation to preserve the history, the cultural history of our cultures through time.”

The timing is of critical importance, Ballard said. “What I’m concerned about is the technology that we have developed is now entering the private sector and is being used by salvage operations and other operations to go out to sites and recover things before they are properly documented,” he said.

In addition to archaeological treasures, NOAA is seeking to promote global observation of the oceans and coastlines. Last July, the United States hosted the first Earth Observation Summit to establish a comprehensive earth observation system.

“The G8, last year at Evian, put in place a fairly large agenda of topics around science and technology for sustainable development,” said James L. Connaughton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “The effort is to link thousands of different technological assets and measurement capabilities around the world and build on them so that we can get real-time, on-the-ground data about what’s happening in our earth system, and the key component of that is what’s happening in our ocean and coastal systems.”

The system is being used to mitigate natural disasters, for water resource management and conservation, marine resource management, air quality monitoring and forecasting and improved human health.

The world’s oceans cover 70 percent of its surface. Oceans observation is vital to the global economy and wellbeing.

“It changes everything,” said. Richard Jahnke, a professor at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. “This technology holds great promise in supporting societal needs and providing economic opportunities.”