Ends of the earth: new age exploration

Scientific exploration - in all its forms - still plays a major role in shaping our understanding of the world, as Vision finds out

“When we talk about exploration, we’re talking about something much broader than the image of the pith helmeted man or woman hacking their way through the jungle,” explains Terry Garcia, Executive Vice President for Mission Programs at the National Geographic Society. “Although, of course, that still happens – there are still those blank spaces on the map.”

Garcia knows a thing or two about exploring. Amongst other things, he heads up the society's Explorers-in-Residence and Emerging Explorers programs, and is responsible for supporting more than 400 scientific projects annually. Not that he’s about to get complacent – he wants to see even more exploration taking place, whether it involves going to the depths of the world’s oceans, the most remote places on the globe – or pushing the boundaries of science in a laboratory.

National Geographic hopes to help through its development of five centres in key regions around the world, providing regional hubs that can support explorers, including scientists and conservationists, in their work. There are currently two pilot centres – in Stockholm and Beijing, with a centre in the UAE intended for 2015/16.

“We plan to establish a centre to cover North Africa, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula,” says Garcia. “The UAE is the obvious place to be based, not least because Abu Dhabi is where our magazine and TV channel for the Arab-speaking world is headquartered.”

Varied expeditions

Garcia explains that top scientific talent from each region will oversee the centres: “They know it [the region] best and would help us identify individuals that we could then provide resources for.” And yes, he says, this could include the odd Indiana Jones-style explorer – but equally, it could be a microbiologist whose idea of an expedition is a trip to the local supermarket.

Garcia’s passion for pushing the boundaries of exploration isn’t about exploring for exploring’s sake, of course. Whether it’s NASA putting a man on the moon or the findings of oceanographer Robert Ballard (best known for discovering the Titanic), Hiram Bingham’s 1912 excavation of the Inca city of Machu Picchu or Jane Goodhall’s study of primate behaviour in the 1960s, exploration in its many forms has led to scientific, technological and theoretical advances that have shaped modern life and thinking.

“The nature of exploration is that you have an idea and you want to go and confirm it,” says Garcia. “And often you may come up with an entirely different answer and different question to what you started with. That’s why you do it.”

As for current projects, Garcia says there’s plenty to be excited about. He cites the work of Spencer Wells who, by using genetics, is able to plot the migratory routes humans took from Africa some 60-100,000 years ago. The oceanographer Enric Sala, who is mapping the last truly pristine ecosystems in the world’s oceans, is also singled out: “His work highlight’s what’s being lost, the need to protect these environments, and the benefits to humankind of doing this.”

And there’s much more to come. “We’re in a new age of exploration,” he says. “I firmly believe we’ve only scratched the surface.”