The JOIDES Resolution departs Astoria on the first Integrated Ocean Drilling ProgramThe JOIDES Resolution left Astoria Sunday on an expedition to learn more about a part of our world that, while right in our backyard, we know less about than the moon or Mars.
The venture is the first research cruise of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, the latest project to investigate the depths of the ocean. Four decades of ocean drilling research has yielded information about climate change, earthquakes and volcanoes, and the ways in which mineral deposits are formed.
The primary research goal of this expedition, however, is to set up experiments that will let scientists explore the "plumbing system" of the sea floor, which can influence geological events like earthquakes and volcanoes.
Every year, as much water flows through the top portion of the Earth's crust as empties from its rivers, said JOIDES co-chief scientist Andrew Fisher of the University of Santa Cruz. (JOIDES stands for Joint Oceanographic Institutions Deep Earth Sampling.) But most of what scientists know about ocean hydrogeology stems from hydrothermic vents, where water leaves the crust.
To study the water while it is in the rocks, the researchers will drill holes about 2,000 feet into the sea floor and place sensors to gather information about water flow, temperature, and pressure. Sediment samples, known as cores, will represent the vertical layers of the crust. The cores will allow microbiologists to study the bacteria that make their home in these seemingly inhospitable rocks.
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Mark Nielsen, an O.S.U. grad student, will be involved in research aboard the JOIDES Resolution.The Resolution is outfitted with drilling and coring technology, including 33,000 feet of drill pipe in 100-foot sections, as well as seven floors of laboratories in which scientists can study these cores.
"This is a cutting-edge lab, it's as good as you'd find anywhere in the world," said Steven Bohlen, president of the Joint Oceanographic Institutions, which manages the drilling program. "There isn't another drill ship on the planet like this."
The research begins as soon as a core is removed from the ocean. Organic geochemists take samples first, and ensure that the team is not drilling through gas pockets that could be explosive or pollute the environment.
The lab has stations where scientists can study the density of the core rock, as well as its composition, magnetism, and any radiation it may emit. In the microbiology labs, investigators can attempt to grow the deep sea microbes in different food sources, and freeze them for further study in to shore-based laboratories.
On another floor, a dozen microscopes are available for researchers to look at thin sections of the core to identify rocks and any fossils that might provide clues to their age.
The researchers realize that it will take a while to collect all the data from this expedition, however. The sensors that they put in the crust will gather information that will be collected by submarine every few years. The scientists anticipate that a network of fiber-optic cables will be laid down in the next four or five years, which would allow researchers to take measurements in real time.
"There's people from all different countries doing all different kinds of research," said Fisher, the co-chief scientist. "The experiments that we do are going to have a ripple effect across marine geology and Earth science."
On Friday, many of the scientists had just arrived in Astoria and were getting settled on the ship. All of the 120 people on board work a 12-hour shift, seven days a week, for the 52 days the vessel is at sea. It is a long time to be away from home, some of the participants said, but they came prepared.
"As soon as I found out I was coming, I went out and got an iPod (music player)," said Oregon State University graduate student Mark Nielsen, who will take rock samples back to OSU to study the activities of its microbial inhabitants. He also stocked up on chocolate, Sour Patch Kids and five books he's been meaning to read.
For him and others, though, the chance to be with colleagues from other institutions is one of the main benefits of the voyage.
"There's a lot of opportunity for good scientific discussion," said Verena Heuer of Bremen University in Germany. On a boat, she said, "No one can escape your questions."