A member of the Explorers Club since 2013, Terry Garcia was the executive vice president and chief science and exploration officer for the National Geographic Society (NGS) where, for 17 years, he was responsible for its core mission programs, supporting and managing more than 400 scientific field expeditions annually. Prior to joining the NGS, Garcia was the assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere for the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Deputy Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He is currently president of Exploration Ventures, a company providing strategic advice to global clients. Chris Rainier, a recipient of The Explorers Club’s 2004 Lowell Thomas Award, is a photographer, documentary filmmaker, National Geographic Explorer, and director of The Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation. Their new book, The Future of Exploration: Discovering the Uncharted Frontiers of Science, Technology, and Human Potential, features 36 essays from some of the world’s leading explorers and thinkers. Proceeds from its sale will support new and emerging explorers and scientists.
Ever since the first Homo sapiens ventured out of Africa, perhaps as early as 180,000 years ago, humans have gone in search of the unknown, often at almost unimaginable risk, driven by a curiosity that has taken us across seemingly endless oceans around the world. We have planted our proverbial flag at both poles, on the top of Everest, at the deepest depths of our oceans, and on the Moon. We have journeyed remotely throughout our solar system and, with the aid of the James Webb Space Telescope and its predecessors, we have laid eyes on other galaxies and glimpsed the dawn of time itself. While we have accomplished great things, we have only just begun.
Together, the two of us have more than seven decades of combined experience in the field of exploration and, over those years, we have worked with many hundreds of scientists, photographers, and explorers who have ventured into the field in search of the truth. Almost without exception, they have returned with a commitment to improve our planet because the truth that they found was that things were and are slipping away. The climate is changing, Indigenous cultures and languages are disappearing, habitats are shrinking, and whole species are teetering on the edge of extinction.
Yet, as we learned from the 36 explorers who contributed essays and interviews to our new book, The Future of Exploration, there is so much to be excited about. Each inspires new questions about the past, presents new ideas for the future, and provides new insights into our common humanity, while collectively providing a path toward finding the solutions that we need to protect our precious planet home. As Sir Richard Branson told us, “Exploration is key to our survival as a species…We can only protect what we know about…Most of the time we don’t even know what we don’t know.”
A new age of exploration is upon us, and it promises to be the greatest period of discovery in human history. This new era is different from what has come before, as it is being driven by three powerful forces: technology, diversity, and a profound since of urgency.
Technology is revolutionizing the way we explore, giving us the keys to unlock extraordinary opportunities and make major advances.
In the area of archaeology, for instance, high-resolution satellite imagery and remote sensing in the form of side-scan sonar, ground-penetrating radar, muon detectors, and lidar (laser imaging, detection, and ranging) are opening arenas of exploration in ways never before possible.
Archaeologist Chris Fisher has used airborne lidar technology to map an ancient city that had remained undisturbed for centuries in Honduras’s La Mosquitia jungle, while satellite imagery has led paleo-
anthropologist Lee Berger to a site outside of Johannesburg where he discovered a new species of hominin, Homo naledi, and “the largest assemblage of ancient human relative remains discovered on the continent of Africa.” Egyptologist Zahi Hawass describes how a new generation of DNA sequencing techniques and remote imaging are fundamentally changing his field of study. Sarah Parcak continues to make remarkable discoveries combining a unique form of satellite archaeology with the might of crowdsourcing to uncover previously unknown tombs in Egypt.
In the 90 years since William Beebe made his first dives in his bathysphere off the coast of Bermuda, technology has been instrumental in oceanic exploration as we have continued to push forward in depth and endurance. And yet, as “Her Deepness” Sylvia Earle has so cogently pointed out, to date we have explored but five percent of our oceans, which cover some 71 percent of Earth’s surface. In the words of Robert Ballard, “The age of exploration of Earth, its life, and the lost chapters of human history beneath the sea has only just begun.”
Among the exciting campaigns currently underway to rapidly redress our scant knowledge of our seas is one undertaken by deep sea explorer, Katy Croff Bell. She has brought together a global network of deep-sea explorers to deploy small, low cost, and easy-to-use modular data collection systems to carry out AI-enhanced image and environmental data analysis, accelerating the speed at which data can be collected. And time is indeed of the essence. As oceanographer Enric Sala has cautioned, “If we don’t focus our ocean exploration on finding solutions to rewild the ocean, we risk writing the obituary of ocean life.”
Looking to the stars, too, technology is showing us new horizons. Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco believes “the future of space exploration [lies] with the…best telescopes we can build and from spacefaring robotic vehicles, be they Earth- or Sun-orbiting telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), robotic orbiters like Cassini, or far-ranging explorers like Voyagers 1 and 2.” Already, the JWST is giving us some of the most spectacular images of our universe that any of us has ever seen. It is even showing us our own past. Astronaut Jeff Hoffman contends that future developments will “push the outer boundaries of robotic exploration into realms previously explored only by telescopes and, at the same time, will push the boundaries of human presence into realms previously explored only by robots.”
Finally, technology is also proving to be a game changer in our understanding of life around us and allowing for major advances in understanding new diseases and developing new vaccines; in genetics and biomechanics; and in the development of robots and AI to enhance the human experience and ultimately unlock the secrets to healthy and happy longevity.
One of the most exciting developments we have witnessed has been in the changing face of exploration. Once seemingly the exclusive preserve of white European men planting their nations’ flags on behalf of a grateful monarch or church, the 21st century will and must be witness to a new generation of explorers.
They will come from more diverse backgrounds, geographies, and disciplines, and they will bring with them unique perspectives and approaches that will foster a richer understanding of our planet and its inhabitants. As several contributors to our book point out, however, barriers remain in place and hinder progress.
As ecologist Paula Kahumbu explains it, “…exploration has always looked different from an African perspective,” noting that what was new and exotic for the early European explorers of the continent was well understood by its people. Their studies, she stresses, would have been greatly enhanced if locals had been consulted rather than having their knowledge of its cultures, seasons, wildlife migrations, and geography dismissed as superstition and folklore. “True understanding,” she says, “demands a capacity to view a situation from multiple perspectives: human and nonhuman; global and local; and worldviews informed by those of Western science and by traditional knowledge.”
As Kahumbu rightly argues, local knowledge has for too long been ignored. Anthropologist Wade Davis reminds us of how Hiram Bingham shot to international fame and a place in the U.S. Senate with his discovery of Machu Picchu, an Inca site well-known at the time to local farmers who told him where it was and how to get there.
Climber Wasfia Nazreen describes a similar perversity in her mountainous world: how European climbers conquering the prodigious challenges of the Himalayas have been lauded, while the Sherpas who achieved as much, if not more, and who understood their environment so intimately, were routinely not mentioned.
Economic disparity also continues to be a barrier for many. Entomologist Sammy Ramsey has described how, on a recent trip to Southeast Asia, “the cradle of civilization for honeybees,” he was puzzled by how little of the scientific research was by scientists from the region. “When just accessing a single paper in an online scientific journal can cost five days’ wages, it is prohibitively difficult to conduct the same sort of prerequisite literature search to start a study that many in the Global North take for granted. This has dampened the voices of people with some of the most useful knowledge and expertise to contribute and provided us no gain in return. Forcing those attempting to scale the mountain of curiosity to pay their way to the top has always favored the privileged. And, in so doing, we reinforce the idea that they are somehow naturally equipped for the climb, promoting a future of exploration as monochromatic as the past.”
“Pioneers take other people’s beliefs about what is possible and shatter them into a million pieces.” – Erik Weihenmayer
Explorers, like exploration itself, embody many forms. Erik Weihenmayer is one of the most accomplished climbers and athletes in the world. He also happens to be blind. He tells us: “Pioneers take other people’s beliefs about what is possible and shatter them into a million pieces. The literal definition of ‘discover’ is ‘to unveil.’ Imagine how much of science, technology, and human potential is still veiled by darkness. It is only by attacking our personal challenges with a pioneering spirit that we can drive our lives forward and even shape the destiny of our organizations, our communities, and society at large…The answer probably involves reaching much further than what is comfortable. Life is one reach after another—into the darkness, toward immense possibilities rarely seen, yet sensed.”
At a time when so much about our planet is changing, and because we can’t save what we do not know about or understand, the work of discovery and exploration has never been more urgent. In many areas of research, we have but a few years to find the answers that we seek. Exploration is therefore so much more than it used to be. In the face of an existential crisis, science and understanding are key to our very future.
We truly are in a race against time, but as we reflect on the collective voices of the explorers we spoke with, we are hopeful about the possibilities the future holds.
As Jane Goodall told us, “We can save our world. We have the know-how…Let us use the gift of our lives to make this a better world,” adding, “We can’t just sit…and wish that hope will come to us. We have to roll up our sleeves, crawl under, climb over, and work our way around all the many, many obstacles.” That is surely what exploration is all about.