National Geographic's 2011 Explorer of the Year dives into a perilous submerged cave system known as the Blue Holes of the Bahamas in search of clues to evolution and climate change.
Kenny Broad doesn't shy away from tough physical conditions or tough
issues. Through a unique combination of underwater cave exploration and
environmental anthropology, he tackles challenging expeditions to
unexplored caves and probes controversial problems ranging from climate
change to inequity in natural resource management, focusing on the
potential use and misuse of scientific information.
surface, underwater caves and pressing societal problems may seem
unconnected, but Broad reveals important links. "Underwater caves may
just look like dark, eerie holes, but they can be critical reservoirs of
clean fresh drinking water and are integral to the health of the
surrounding habitats," he says. "If pollution or climate change
threatens that ecosystem, it also threatens local people." His fieldwork
in the Bahamas and other countries is attempting to demonstrate how
caves and fresh water supply are part of an interconnected system that
plays a crucial role in coastal cultures.
Broad's long history of
diving and documentary film expeditions includes the exploration of one
of the world's deepest caves in the Huautla Plateau in Mexico. "You
can't send a remotely operated vehicle in to explore caves because the
technology simply doesn't exist," he says. "It's one of the few
environments left on the planet where you must physically go to learn
Underwater and aboveground, Broad is committed to an
interdisciplinary approach—developing teams that bring together
hydrologists, biologists, oceanographers, climatologists, psychologists,
and anthropologists to see the big picture. "Traditionally,
environmental and social problems have been looked at in isolation by
different disciplines," he observes. "But until the sciences engage with
people who actually experience problems and the policymakers who deal
with those issues, we'll never find the best solutions."
interdisciplinary training includes a Ph.D. in anthropology from
Columbia University and an M.A. in marine affairs and policy from the
University of Miami. He is currently a professor at University of
Miami's (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, is the
Director of the UM's Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, and
is Co-Director of Columbia University's Center for Research on
He also stresses the importance of
recognizing and communicating the level of uncertainty inherent in any
scientific information. Broad cites an example of this from his research
to illustrate his point: "A climate forecast that's right eight out of
ten years may be considered very successful in the science community.
For a big farm, sustaining a loss two out of ten years for those
'missed' forecasts may be possible—even if it occurs two years in a row.
But this may not be the case for a more vulnerable small farming
household in northeast Brazil. Let's say that farmer changes his/her
strategy to monocropping based on the forecast versus planting multiple
crops to hedge against too much or too little rain. If the forecast is
wrong the first two out of ten years, they'll have no seed for the next
year's crop and may in fact face a critical food shortage. So while
being right 80 percent of the time is impressive from a scientific
standpoint, how the probability plays out may be devastating for some
Despite such disparities, Broad believes that scientific
fact can have great practical utility if all aspects of a problem are
studied within context, uncertainties are openly communicated,
unintended consequences are anticipated, and issues of equity in
distribution of benefits are considered from the start.
believe in setting boundaries or firm expectations—those are just
limitations. That's why I find both underwater cave exploration and
interdisciplinary research so engaging. You never know what you're going
to discover until you get there. You never know what the answer—if
there is one—may turn out to be."