Map by Juan José Valdés and Rosemary Wardley, NG Staff; Ryan Morris, NGM Staff; Theodore A. Sickley. Sources: U.S. Department of State; NOAA; Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center
Map by Juan José Valdés and Rosemary Wardley, NG Staff; Ryan Morris, NGM Staff; Theodore A. Sickley. Sources: U.S. Department of State; NOAA; Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center

New America

Robert Ballard embarks on a ten-year expedition to discover what lies beneath the waves of this country’s latest frontier.

This story appears in the November 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.

America has had two great ages of exploration. The one that every schoolchild learns about began in 1804, when Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their epic journey across North America. The other one is just beginning. During this new age of exploration we will go farther than Lewis and Clark and learn the secrets of territories beyond even Jefferson’s wildest imagination. Yet it seems safe to say that most Americans don’t know anything about it.

Few realize that the single largest addition to the American domain came on March 10, 1983, when President Ronald Reagan, with the stroke of a pen, expanded the country’s sovereign rights 200 nautical miles from its shores “for the purpose of exploring, exploiting, conserving, and managing natural resources.” By establishing an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Reagan roughly doubled the area within United States boundaries, as Jefferson had with the Louisiana Purchase.

Other countries have increased their jurisdiction over natural resources through EEZs and are eager to add more. Under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the United States has not joined, countries can claim sovereign rights over a larger region if they can prove that the continental shelf—the submerged portion of a continent—extends beyond their EEZ and meets certain other conditions. The United States potentially has one of the largest continental shelves in the world.

A lot is at stake. Just like the land that Lewis and Clark explored, the ocean floor contains natural resources, many of them untapped. Vast oil and gas deposits lie under the waves. So do hydrothermal vents, where copper, lead, silver, zinc, and gold have been accumulating for hundreds of millions of years. By some estimates there are more than 100,000 seamounts containing minerals critical for national defense. That’s not all that lies beneath. These watery zones encompass fisheries that nations rely on for sustenance, shipwrecks that may reveal lost chapters of history, and habitats that need to be preserved as marine sanctuaries.

Most of the U.S. EEZ hasn’t been explored. In 1803, with the territory from the Louisiana Purchase newly in hand, Jefferson instructed expedition leader Lewis to “take observations on ... the soil & face of the country, its growth & vegetable productions ... the mineral productions of every kind ... volcanic appearances [and] climate as characterized by the thermometer.”

Reagan did not follow Jefferson’s example. To this day we have better maps of Venus, Mars, and the far side of the moon than we do of much of underwater America.

But now it’s time for a new epic journey. Last June the United States’ only dedicated ships of exploration launched a joint, concentrated effort to find out what lies within the country’s EEZ. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Okeanos Explorer mapped some of the New England Seamount chain near Rhode Island, among other places, while my vessel—the Ocean Exploration Trust’s Nautilus—mapped portions of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Both ships use multibeam sonars mounted on their hulls, which enable the creation of maps in three dimensions.

Lewis and Clark traveled for more than two years and had to wait until their return home to share their discoveries with an expectant nation. Although the ocean depths plumbed by these modern expeditions are more remote than the land Lewis and Clark charted, we are in constant communication with oceanographers and other experts on shore. The moment a discovery is made, scientists can step aboard either of the two ships virtually, take over operations, and share findings in real time with a plugged-in world. This is a voyage of discovery everyone can make.

THE NEW AGE OF EXPLORATION is a yearlong series of articles celebrating National Geographic at 125.

Society Grant This research project was funded in part by your National Geographic membership.