Titanic task: to save deep-sea wrecks

Most mariners tap their barometers for a quick forecast. In June, marine explorer Robert Ballard plans to take his readings more than two miles beneath the Atlantic Ocean.

His "barometer" is the wreck of the RMS Titanic. What it reveals about the ship's rate of decay and the key causes behind it could help shape the future of preservation efforts there and at deep-sea wrecks worldwide. Anecdotal evidence has mounted that the torn, misshapen remains of the pride of Britain's White Star Line has deteriorated much more rapidly than anyone thought.

"I'm very concerned about the future of human history beneath the sea," Dr. Ballard says, referring to the hundreds of thousands of wrecks that are thought to lie in deep international waters. "We've just discovered ships in the high seas of the Black Sea that are absolutely perfectly preserved museum pieces - with no laws governing their long-term future. The Titanic is the barometer of the future of human history beneath the sea."

Ballard's cruise this summer represents the first expedition to the wreck dedicated solely to science since it was discovered and initially mapped in 1985 and '86.

Hunkered inside cargo containers lined with plasma-TV screens and control consoles, Dr. Ballard's team will spend 12 days guiding three new robotic "archaeologists" around the wreck. One vehicle is slated to conduct wide-scale photographic surveys. A second will photograph the ship's interior. A third will gently excavate and photograph artifacts on the sea floor. Images will be used to create maps that are more detailed than the ones Ballard and his colleagues generated nearly 20 years ago.

Located some 325 miles off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland, the Titanic has been a source of wonder and controversy since Ballard and French explorer Jean Louis Michel discovered the wreck during a joint expedition in 1985.

But nature has taken its toll. Softer woods used throughout the ship are vanishing, and sections of the ship appear to be increasingly squeezed by the pressure at such depths. Bacteria feeding on the ship's steel have formed warm-hued "rusticles" that appear to drip from railings and flow down the ship's sides like Dr. Seuss's gooey oobleck.

The rusticles actually are colonies made up of five species of bacteria that eat the iron out of the ship's steel structures, says Lt. Jeremy Weirich, who works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is the expedition's chief archaeologist. The Ronald H. Brown, a NOAA research ship, will provide the platform from which the robotic archaeologists will operate.

People also are suspected of adding to the decline in recent years. "Extreme" tourist trips to the wreck in small submersible watercraft are said to have left their marks and litter.

Meanwhile, RMS Titanic Inc., which owns salvage rights to the wreck, has been retrieving artifacts for its traveling Titanic exhibition and studying decay as well. The firm says that the Titanic's deterioration is so rapid that artifacts could be lost forever if they aren't recovered soon.

With the proper technology, Ballard envisions turning these wrecks into "living" museums. At a recent press briefing on the expedition, he said he envisions a network of high-resolution underwater cameras that can feed images of the wreck to museums and eventually to homes via satellite and the Internet.

This June's expedition will include live video feeds from the wreck that Ballard says will be a "proof of concept" for this approach to undersea maritime museums.

Thus, the results also are likely to feed into a broader debate over competing visions of how best to present to the public key pieces of this history. Should important artifacts be carted off to museums for preservation, study, and public viewing? Or should they be left in place as much as possible so people can view them in their original cultural context? These questions become thorny in the case of a site considered a memorial, such as the Titanic.

The US, Canada, France, and Britain have negotiated a treaty that would govern the wreck. Among other things, the pact would set conditions under which artifacts could be salvaged and would establish it as a memorial grave site.

So far, Britain is the only signatory, and two countries are required to ink the pact before it takes effect, according to a US State Department official. It's not clear when the pact will get its second signature, "but we're working on it," the official says.

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