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Talking With Bill Ryan, Detective of the Deeps

During a career that began in the early 1960s at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, marine geologist William B.F. Ryan has delved into countless mysteries of the deep sea. Early on, he pioneered sonar equipment that allowed scientists to see small but significant ocean-bed features that previously went undetected. On dozens of research cruises, he has explored submarine plains, canyons and volcanoes, and advanced bold, sometimes controversial, ideas about them. His book Noah’s Flood, makes the case that the Biblical Flood was based on a real event. He also has hunted for shipwrecks, including the Titanic. Among his many honors, in 2021 he was inducted into Italy’s Accademia Nazional dei Lincei, which counts Galileo Galilei as one of its original members. In 2022, he was awarded the Geological Society of London’s Charles Lyell Medal, named after one of the founders of modern geology.

I recently spoke with Ryan about the oceans, his life, and his ideas.

Ryan aboard the French research vessel Le Suroît in the Mediterranean, 2000. (Serge Berné)

What drew you into marine geology?

Just prior to my graduation from college in 1961, I landed a job at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, based on my experience in electronics and studies in physics. On a five-month expedition across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, I took with me a recent publication, Floors of the Oceans by [Lamont-Doherty scientists] Bruce Heezen, Marie Tharp and Maurice Ewing, as my introduction to marine geology.

Seasickness haunted me, but could be dismissed in the excitement of daily watch-standing and my entrancement at graphic recorders displaying the seabed depth from echo-soundings. Our arrival at the edge of the Gulf Stream was announced by a string of thermistors towed behind the ship, reaching 500 feet below the surface. They showed us that the Gulf Stream was not a river of uniform warm temperature, but possessed a complicated signature, suggesting instead that it might be more like a stream of eddies similar to where one casts a fly for trout, except much, much larger.

On the continental rise, I watched recordings of the signals radioed back from a sonobuoy I had helped build as it listened to explosions from TNT launched from the ship’s stern. The acoustic waves indicated a sediment thickness of nearly ten thousand feet. It must have required immense time for the mud and sand to accumulate.

A few days later, we reached the abyssal plain. I was astonished by the flatness. Over the course of [about 50 nautical miles], the depth only increased one or two fathoms. Here the sediment thickness was about 3,000 feet. Further on, protrusions of presumably bedrock began to poke up. Then more and more until we reached the end of the abyssal plain and arrived on the rugged flank of the mid-ocean ridge. Sediment thickness was now just a few hundred feet.

The expedition’s plan had us stopping at the valley that Tharp’s map had placed along the crest of the mid-ocean-ridge. The task there was to make measurements of heat flowing upwards from the earth’s interior. But the apparatus we sent down to the valley floor kept coming up bent and torn apart.  A decision was made to send down a camera. Upon return, I was asked to bring it into the ship’s tiny darkroom, unload its 50 feet of 35-millimeter film and develop it. I found an enlarger and began to make prints. Coming into view was volcanic lava in the shape of corrugated pillows and tubes. No sediment. I made more and more prints that illuminated the narrow path the camera had traveled during the twenty minutes it had remained just a few feet above the seabed. Late that night I laid out on a laboratory table a mosaic that I had constructed from cutting and pasting consecutive enlargements.

What impressed me was that the age of the seafloor was zero at the axis of Tharp’s mid-ocean ridge. The decreasing sediment thickness during our departure from the edge of North America implied that the age of the bedrock of the Atlantic seafloor had also become younger and younger, with the newest seafloor at the center of the ocean.  Its birth was caught on film. To the budding geologist, this was evidence of the non-permanence of oceans.

Early on, you argued for the idea that millions of years ago, the Mediterranean had dried up and become mostly desert. Then it became a sea again by an inrush of Atlantic water through the Strait of Gibraltar. Was this considered  crazy at the time?

After finishing my Ph.D. in 1969, I was invited to join European scientists to plan sampling of the Mediterranean’s thick sediment carpet by deep-sea drilling.  To my surprise, I was chosen at the young age of just 30 to be a co-chief scientist, along with Kenneth Hsu from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

At our first drill site, we encountered a thick bed of gravel 500 feet below the seabed and 7,000 feet below the sea surface. The drill string got stuck, and it took an agonizing 6 hours to free. Buckets full of gravel were brought into the ship’s laboratory. All night long I sifted through the fragments and found mostly shiny crystals of gypsum of the type that precipitate on evaporating salt flats. Also, shells of mollusks that had once lived in freshwater lakes.

As we approached the end of the expedition, we recovered salt of the type you can walk upon in Death Valley. But here it was more than 10,000 feet below the sea surface. Ken was the first to ask: “Do you think that the Mediterranean once dried out?” Under a microscope, we chanced upon a crack in a silt layer sandwiched between beds of salt, with all the characteristics of the gaps that appear in mud that has dried out after a rainstorm. Our publication in the journal Nature created an initial maelstrom of disbelief. Although our hypothesis is widely accepted today, there are still vocal critics.

Later on, you came up with a similar scenario for the Black Sea. That it was once a fresh-water lake, separated from the Mediterranean by a natural dam spanning what is now Turkey’s narrow Strait of Bosporus. The dam broke, and the Mediterranean rushed in. People living there at the time passed this story down, and it was transmuted into the Biblical flood.

The evidence was quite different than with the Mediterranean. Working with Russian colleagues aboard their research ship, we recovered shells of freshwater clams and mussels that had once lived along ancient shorelines far off the present Black Sea coast. These past shorelines are now deep under younger sediments, more than 300 feet below the surface of today’s Black Sea. The shells are directly beneath those of saltwater specimens, and that transformation appeared at more than 20 locations. This could only be explained by an abrupt introduction of saltwater through the Bosporus. The sea surface in the Mediterranean at that time was far above that of the lake below, which meant that the sea water would have arrived as a flood.

Our carbon-14 date from the first saltwater clams was 7,550 years ago. When my co-conspirator Walter Pitman asked: ”Was anybody there?” we knew right away that we would have to turn to archaeology. T. Douglass Price had just published an article in which he wrote, “The explosive expansion across Europe reflects colonization by expanding farming populations in a time period so brief as not to be resolvable by radiocarbon dating.” His date and ours were the same. Subsequently, anthropologist Joachim Burger used DNA from the bones of Europe’s first farmers to deduce that they had arrived suddenly about 7,500 years ago, spreading in a few centuries from Anatolia to France.

In the 1980s, you made a deal to search for the wreck of the Titanic. You came close—but no cigar! That went to Robert Ballard. Any regrets?

On my way to an expedition in the Galapagos Islands, I was delayed at the JFK airport. I bought a New York Times and read that Jack Grimm, a Texas oilman, was planning to find the Titanic. With nothing else to do, I wrote him a postcard and suggested that he contact Fred Spiess at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. A month later I returned to my office to find a flood of phone messages from Grimm. Scripps was already committed to other work, so he asked if I could assemble the necessary equipment and lead the expedition.

A contract was signed with Columbia, and we departed in mid-July 1980 with a brand-new digital side-looking sonar, deep-sea still and video cameras, six miles of steel tow cable and an enormous winch and crane.  At 10:20 pm on August 7, 1980, the sonar imaged what we now know was the hull of the Titanic, resting bow-down in the seabed at a depth of 12,400 feet. However, its apparent length was less than three-quarters that of the Titanic. The discrepancy left Mr. Grimm and his documentary film crew in doubt. In addition, the target was 14 nautical miles from the telegraphed distress position prior to sinking. Ten more days of surveying all around the distress position turned up no other possible candidate targets.

On a follow-up expedition the next year, we spent all our time in the distress region to no avail. On the last day, we towed our video camera to the August 7 target and collided with what some thought was the large blade of a ship’s screw. As the camera sled climbed up the object, the video recorded loud clanging, as if scraping on steel.

In 1985 Bob Ballard of Woods Hole and Jean-Louis Michel from France’s National Institute for Ocean Science gave it their try. With no targets found around the distress position, they used the last days of their two-month effort to visit the outlying target given to them by Grimm and Columbia. They arrived at boilers spilled from the Titanic. A trail of coal led them to the bow section of the severed hull, dripping in rust.

I have no regrets—Columbia located the wreck site. Subsequent searchers would never have ventured 14 miles from the distress position without that precise location. And afterward, without the distraction of the Titanic, the same instruments we used went on to enable numerous scientific discoveries in submarine canyons, mid-ocean ridges, volcanic seamounts and monstrous debris flows on continental margins.

Human-induced climate change is warming the oceans and messing with water chemistry. We’re dumping pollutants and plastics. Fisheries are collapsing. Does this upset you?

Very much.

What are some of the remaining mysteries about the ocean?

Its capacity to store further heat, its growing acidity, and its changing circulation.

Recently, you helped invent a series of apps that allow the general public to easily access all kinds of images and data about the seafloor. Why did you invent these?

When towing our instruments and cameras close to the seabed on long cables, we would call the officer on the ship’s bridge to inform him or her about what speed or which direction change we needed. This meant that inexperienced students and technicians in flop-flops and sometimes scruffy appearances were communicating to professionals on how to steer their ship. This concerned me. So, I decided to write software called MapMaker that could present our real time data on video screens at the helm so officers could make these decisions themselves, and avoid collisions with other ships. After all, we were blind from within the ship’s laboratory.

Some of the software was incorporated into a system for seafloor mapping that is now widely used. My Lamont colleague Bill Haxby went on to create an application called GeoMapApp to display the newly mapped seafloor over the Internet. Columbia’s Earth Observer and Polar Explorer apps for the iPhone and iPad brought the world’s seafloor and its changing climate to the broad public. With the mobile phone you literally have the whole world in your hand.

If you were to go into some other profession, what would it be?

Not even a dream!

What are you working on now?

I am back to the Mediterranean. I just submitted a manuscript on its giant salt deposit. I have also been invited to write a review due this summer of the Mediterranean desiccation hypothesis for its 50th anniversary.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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