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  • As a boy in Lima,

  • my grandfather told me a legend

  • of the Spanish conquest of Peru.

  • Atahualpa, emperor of the Inca, had been captured and killed.

  • Pizarro and his conquistadors had grown rich,

  • and tales of their conquest and glory had reached Spain

  • and was bringing new waves of Spaniards, hungry for gold and glory.

  • They would go into towns and ask the Inca,

  • "Where's another civilization we can conquer? Where's more gold?"

  • And the Inca, out of vengeance, told them,

  • "Go to the Amazon.

  • You'll find all the gold you want there.

  • In fact, there is a city called Paititi -- El Dorado in Spanish --

  • made entirely of gold."

  • The Spanish set off into the jungle,

  • but the few that return come back with stories,

  • stories of powerful shamans,

  • of warriors with poisoned arrows,

  • of trees so tall they blotted out the sun,

  • spiders that ate birds, snakes that swallowed men whole

  • and a river that boiled.

  • All this became a childhood memory.

  • And years passed.

  • I'm working on my PhD at SMU,

  • trying to understand Peru's geothermal energy potential,

  • when I remember this legend,

  • and I began asking that question.

  • Could the boiling river exist?

  • I asked colleagues from universities,

  • the government,

  • oil, gas and mining companies,

  • and the answer was a unanimous no.

  • And this makes sense.

  • You see, boiling rivers do exist in the world,

  • but they're generally associated with volcanoes.

  • You need a powerful heat source

  • to produce such a large geothermal manifestation.

  • And as you can see from the red dots here, which are volcanoes,

  • we don't have volcanoes in the Amazon,

  • nor in most of Peru.

  • So it follows: We should not expect to see a boiling river.

  • Telling this same story at a family dinner,

  • my aunt tells me,

  • "But no, Andrés, I've been there. I've swum in that river."

  • (Laughter)

  • Then my uncle jumps in.

  • "No, Andrés, she's not kidding.

  • You see, you can only swim in it after a very heavy rain,

  • and it's protected by a powerful shaman.

  • Your aunt, she's friends with his wife."

  • (Laughter)

  • "¿Cómo?" ["Huh?"]

  • You know, despite all my scientific skepticism,

  • I found myself hiking into the jungle, guided by my aunt,

  • over 700 kilometers away from the nearest volcanic center,

  • and well, honestly, mentally preparing myself

  • to behold the legendary "warm stream of the Amazon."

  • But then ...

  • I heard something,

  • a low surge

  • that got louder and louder

  • as we came closer.

  • It sounded like ocean waves constantly crashing,

  • and as we got closer, I saw smoke, vapor, coming up through the trees.

  • And then, I saw this.

  • I immediately grabbed for my thermometer,

  • and the average temperatures in the river

  • were 86 degrees C.

  • This is not quite the 100-degree C boiling

  • but definitely close enough.

  • The river flowed hot and fast.

  • I followed it upriver and was led by, actually, the shaman's apprentice

  • to the most sacred site on the river.

  • And this is what's bizarre --

  • It starts off as a cold stream.

  • And here, at this site,

  • is the home of the Yacumama,

  • mother of the waters, a giant serpent spirit

  • who births hot and cold water.

  • And here we find a hot spring,

  • mixing with cold stream water underneath her protective motherly jaws

  • and thus bringing their legends to life.

  • The next morning, I woke up and --

  • (Laughter)

  • I asked for tea.

  • I was handed a mug, a tea bag

  • and, well, pointed towards the river.

  • To my surprise, the water was clean and had a pleasant taste,

  • which is a little weird for geothermal systems.

  • What was amazing

  • is that the locals had always known about this place,

  • and that I was by no means the first outsider to see it.

  • It was just part of their everyday life.

  • They drink its water.

  • They take in its vapor.

  • They cook with it,

  • clean with it,

  • even make their medicines with it.

  • I met the shaman,

  • and he seemed like an extension of the river and his jungle.

  • He asked for my intentions

  • and listened carefully.

  • Then, to my tremendous relief --

  • I was freaking out, to be honest with you --

  • a smile began to snake across his face, and he just laughed.

  • (Laughter)

  • I had received the shaman's blessing to study the river,

  • on the condition that after I take the water samples

  • and analyze them in my lab,

  • wherever I was in the world,

  • that I pour the waters back into the ground

  • so that, as the shaman said,

  • the waters could find their way back home.

  • I've been back every year since that first visit in 2011,

  • and the fieldwork has been exhilarating,

  • demanding and at times dangerous.

  • One story was even featured in National Geographic Magazine.

  • I was trapped on a small rock about the size of a sheet of paper

  • in sandals and board shorts,

  • in between an 80 degree C river

  • and a hot spring that, well, looked like this, close to boiling.

  • And on top of that, it was Amazon rain forest.

  • Pshh, pouring rain, couldn't see a thing.

  • The temperature differential made it all white. It was a whiteout.

  • Intense.

  • Now, after years of work,

  • I'll soon be submitting my geophysical and geochemical studies for publication.

  • And I'd like to share, today, with all of you here, on the TED stage,

  • for the first time, some of these discoveries.

  • Well, first off, it's not a legend.

  • Surprise!

  • (Laughter)

  • When I first started the research,

  • the satellite imagery was too low-resolution to be meaningful.

  • There were just no good maps.

  • Thanks to the support of the Google Earth team,

  • I now have this.

  • Not only that, the indigenous name of the river, Shanay-timpishka,

  • "boiled with the heat of the sun,"

  • indicating that I'm not the first to wonder why the river boils,

  • and showing that humanity has always sought to explain

  • the world around us.

  • So why does the river boil?

  • (Bubbling sounds)

  • It actually took me three years to get that footage.

  • Fault-fed hot springs.

  • As we have hot blood running through our veins and arteries,

  • so, too, the earth has hot water running through its cracks and faults.

  • Where these arteries come to the surface, these earth arteries,

  • we'll get geothermal manifestations:

  • fumaroles, hot springs and in our case, the boiling river.

  • What's truly incredible, though, is the scale of this place.

  • Next time you cross the road, think about this.

  • The river flows wider than a two-lane road

  • along most of its path.

  • It flows hot for 6.24 kilometers.

  • Truly impressive.

  • There are thermal pools larger than this TED stage,

  • and that waterfall that you see there

  • is six meters tall --

  • and all with near-boiling water.

  • We mapped the temperatures along the river,

  • and this was by far the most demanding part of the fieldwork.

  • And the results were just awesome.

  • Sorry -- the geoscientist in me coming out.

  • And it showed this amazing trend.

  • You see, the river starts off cold.

  • It then heats up, cools back down, heats up, cools back down,

  • heats up again, and then has this beautiful decay curve

  • until it smashes into this cold river.

  • Now, I understand not all of you are geothermal scientists,

  • so to put it in more everyday terms:

  • Everyone loves coffee.

  • Yes? Good.

  • Your regular cup of coffee, 54 degrees C,

  • an extra-hot one, well, 60.

  • So, put in coffee shop terms,

  • the boiling river plots like this.

  • There you have your hot coffee.

  • Here you have your extra-hot coffee,

  • and you can see that there's a bit point there

  • where the river is still hotter than even the extra-hot coffee.

  • And these are average water temperatures.

  • We took these in the dry season to ensure the purest geothermal temperatures.

  • But there's a magic number here that's not being shown,

  • and that number is 47 degrees C,

  • because that's where things start to hurt,

  • and I know this from very personal experience.

  • Above that temperature, you don't want to get in that water.

  • You need to be careful.

  • It can be deadly.

  • I've seen all sorts of animals fall in,

  • and what's shocking to me, is the process is pretty much the same.

  • So they fall in and the first thing to go are the eyes.

  • Eyes, apparently, cook very quickly. They turn this milky-white color.

  • The stream is carrying them.

  • They're trying to swim out, but their meat is cooking on the bone

  • because it's so hot.

  • So they're losing power, losing power,

  • until finally they get to a point where hot water goes into their mouths

  • and they cook from the inside out.

  • (Laughter)

  • A bit sadistic, aren't we?

  • Jeez.

  • Leave them marinating for a little longer.

  • What's, again, amazing are these temperatures.

  • They're similar to things that I've seen on volcanoes all over the world

  • and even super-volcanoes like Yellowstone.

  • But here's the thing:

  • the data is showing that the boiling river exists

  • independent of volcanism.

  • It's neither magmatic or volcanic in origin,

  • and again, over 700 kilometers away from the nearest volcanic center.

  • How can a boiling river exist like this?

  • I've asked geothermal experts and volcanologists for years,

  • and I'm still unable to find another non-volcanic geothermal system

  • of this magnitude.

  • It's unique.

  • It's special on a global scale.

  • So, still -- how does it work?

  • Where do we get this heat?

  • There's still more research to be done

  • to better constrain the problem and better understand the system,

  • but from what the data is telling us now,

  • it looks to be the result of a large hydrothermal system.

  • Basically, it works like this:

  • So, the deeper you go into the earth, the hotter it gets.

  • We refer to this as the geothermal gradient.

  • The waters could be coming from as far away as glaciers in the Andes,

  • then seeping down deep into the earth

  • and coming out to form the boiling river

  • after getting heated up from the geothermal gradient,

  • all due to this unique geologic setting.

  • Now, we found that in and around the river --

  • this is working with colleagues

  • from National Geographic, Dr. Spencer Wells,

  • and Dr. Jon Eisen from UC Davis --

  • we genetically sequenced the extremophile lifeforms

  • living in and around the river, and have found new lifeforms,

  • unique species living in the boiling river.

  • But again, despite all of these studies, all of these discoveries and the legends,

  • a question remains:

  • What is the significance of the boiling river?

  • What is the significance of this stationary cloud

  • that always hovers over this patch of jungle?

  • And what is the significance

  • of a detail in a childhood legend?

  • To the shaman and his community, it's a sacred site.

  • To me, as a geoscientist,

  • it's a unique geothermal phenomenon.

  • But to the illegal loggers and cattle farmers,

  • it's just another resource to exploit.

  • And to the Peruvian government, it's just another stretch

  • of unprotected land ready for development.

  • My goal is to ensure that whoever controls this land

  • understands the boiling river's uniqueness and significance.

  • Because that's the question,