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Three NG Explorers Ponder "What If?" at TEDx

Three National Geographic Explorers--Albert Yu-Min Lin, Sandra Postel, and Roshini Thinakaran--joined a lineup of more than two dozen speakers on the theme "What If?" at today's TEDxMidAtlantic event in Washington, D.C. In case you weren't in the audience at Sidney Harman Hall or glued to your laptop watching the live stream, here's some of what you missed:

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What if we crowdsourced archaeological exploration?

University of California San Diego Engineer, National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and NG Adventurer of the Year Albert Yu-Min Lin invoked the needle-in-a-haystack namesake of Where's Waldo? books and "Cigar Guy" in the now-famous photo of Tiger's botched Ryder Cup shot as examples of what humans have a tough time finding in images (Waldo) and what will leap right out at viewers. Lin went on to describe his Field Expedition: Mongolia survey (with archaeologist and NG Fellow Fredrik Hebert, high-resolution satellite imagery provided by GeoEye, and thousands of online image analysis volunteers) of the little-explored valley in northern Mongolia where Genghis Khan and his closest kin may lie buried.

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"We invited people to share their collective intelligence, to think as a crowd to solve a problem." The crowd's objective: View patches of Mongolian landscape and identify anomalous features and unexpected patterns. Exact locations corresponding to patches were kept secret, to protect newly-discovered sites from looting. With the help of computers, Lin and his team distilled more than 1.3 million tags on satellite images into dozens of promising, frequently noted hotspots meriting further investigation.

"Sometimes it was just sheep! But other times, you'd take a closer look and find something really surprising--bronze-age burial mounds dating back thousands of years, ancient monoliths." Over three months, the team discovered more than 55 ancient burial sites, plus other remnants of human settlement, and documented them using non-invasive techniques.

"So what if next, the crowd picks the problem?" asks Lin. "What if the data comes from our iPhones? What if the Internet evolves into a collective consciousness?"

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What if we used less oil and took more care extracting the oil we use?

Documentary filmmaker and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Roshini Thinakaran has chronicled the lives of women in war zones with her camera. Her work has taken her to Sri Lanka, Iraq, Liberia, Afghanistan, and Sudan. For the TEDx audience, she showed footage from her recent roadtrip to Buras, a small community in a Louisiana bayou 60 miles from the Deepwater Horizon site.

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Much of the damage from hurricane Katrina remains unrepaired in Buras more than five years after the storm clobbered the town. And now, what's left of the tattered local economy is threatened by the disappearance of shrimp and other marine life in the wake of the catastrophic oil spill. The film suggested questions: What will become of the people of Buras? What if we used less oil?

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What if we valued water for all it's worth?

National Geographic Fellow and water conservation expert Sandra Postel leads the Society's freshwater initiative. "We have lost our sense of wonder" over water, she told the TEDx crowd near the end of the program. But the "tears we shed today" over the most daunting problems in our world "are comprised of molecules of water that have cycled through Earth's ecosystems forever.

"We're now the master plumbers of the Earth: Dams to store water, canals to move it around, heavy pumps to bring it from underground. That's brought tremendous benefits, in many cases ... but we've somehow forgotten to work into our plans the most fundamental fact about water: That it's the basis of life."

Many rivers no longer reach the sea, Postel stated, and the ecosystems and economies they once supported have been devastated. People have constructed tens of thousands of large dams over the last 60 years. Species of sturgeon that have existed since dinosaurs prowled the planet may go extinct in our lifetimes. Tiny mussels can cleanse a gallon of water an hour, but more than 60 percent of freshwater mussel species are at risk of extinction.

"What if we put its most fundamental role, as the basis of life on Earth, at the core of how we think about and manage water?" she asked. "What if we made that the highest priority? How would that change what we do?"

Postel urged doing more with less, and said that in many cases, individuals and communities could conserve water painlessly by making better choices. Conservation requires more than turning off the tap, though: Water is "embedded in everything we own and consume--2,000 gallons in a typical day for the average American. 630 gallons go into the production of the average hamburger, 40 gallons in a cup of coffee, mostly to grow and transport beans, 16 gallons in a gallon of gas."

  • Learn about freshwater's importance and freshwater conservation, and calculate your water footprint, on National Geographic's freshwater site.
  • Learn more about TEDxMidAtlantic.

Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild--a digest of Society exploration, research, and events--and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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