Kenny Broad knows you don’t have to leave the planet to explore other worlds.
Named National Geographic’s 2011 Explorer of the Year and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, he focuses on cave diving, descending into deep water caverns that are cut off from sunlight and the surface.
“It’s just an amazing other world that most people never see,” he said by phone. “You’re sort of transported to another world, with no cellphones, no gravity. It’s this inner space.”
The caves he visits are actually aquifers, deep reserves that provide much of humanity’s drinking water. The structures inside are often cavernous vistas of stalagmites and crystals, formed during periods when the caves were dry and water dripped down through the earth. That means the accumulation of minerals provides a sort of map of past weather patterns, which lets scientists study how the climate has changed over thousands of years. They can also find evidence of life that is long since gone.
“A lot of underwater caves are sort of time capsules for fossils, because there’s no oxygen in salt water,” Broad said.
He will share his deep-water adventures at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on April 26 with his program, “Extreme Cave Diving: Exploring the Bahamas’ Blue Holes,” part of the “National Geographic Live!” series. In addition to Broad’s appearance, the series includes “On the Trail of Big Cats: Tigers, Cougars and Snow Leopards” with Steve Winter on July 12, and “Exploring Mars” with Kobie Boykins on Sept. 27. The Gazette is the presenting sponsor for the events.
Broad said his appearance at the Paramount will be more than a simple talk, with plenty of video and visuals to draw people into the underwater world with him.
“It’s a little bit about taking people on an adventure to part of the world we don’t really know much about,” he said. “I want to show people there are still places to explore on our planet that are literally right under our noses or our feet.”
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When he’s not exploring underwater, he is a professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and is director of the university’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science, as well as co-director of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.
He grew up in Florida, working on and in the water, and then got into commercial diving. That eventually led to cave diving. An environmental anthropologist, he’s interested in the different ways humans and the environment interact, and he’s studied everything from the wildlife trade to how people think about climate change.
How we think about and relate to the water beneath us is a large part of what he’s interested in.
“Most of the world’s drinking water is beneath our feet. It’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “We pay a lot of attention to lakes and streams, which are important, but we don’t pay a lot of attention to our aquifers. ... Whatever we put on the ground, in a lot of parts of the world, will eventually seep down and be part of our groundwater.”
The extreme environments of underwater caves might also provide insights into life elsewhere in the solar system. Broad said the small creatures that survive in the caves might give clues to what kind of life could exist on Jupiter’s moon Europa or under the surface of Mars.
“There are a lot of crazy creatures that tell us a lot about life and what kinds of life might live in outer space,” he said.
He said swimming into one of these caves can feel like entering another reality, fantastic and unearthly.
“You might squeeze through a tiny underground hole and pop out into a room bigger than a football stadium that’s full of crystals,” he said. “You really feel like you’re on this other planet.”
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The environment shares another characteristic with outer space — traveling through it is dangerous and sometimes deadly. Divers can become disoriented in the dark caves, use too much oxygen or try to ascend too quickly and get decompression sickness.
“Unlike when you’re diving in open water, if you have a problem, you can’t just come back up,” Broad said. “It takes different training, a different mind-set, different equipment.”
But just because not everyone can take it on doesn’t mean they can’t find adventures of their own, he said. That’s what he hopes to illustrate — that even something like where our drinking water comes from has a deep and fascinating story behind it.
“Hopefully it (National Geographic Live) inspires people to explore in their own way,” he said. “Not that everyone has to go into an underwater cave — but many things we take for granted are much more exciting than we think.”
WHAT: National Geographic Live with Kenny Broad
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 26
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
TICKETS: $30 to $40, Paramount ticket office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com