Revealing Earth's secrets: How JOIDES deep earth sampling missions help us all

by Jenny Nicholls / 16 June, 2018

A rare sight in Auckland Harbour: the 143m-long scientific research vessel JOIDES Resolution, which docked here briefly in May.

Cutting edge science meets high adventure in Southern Hemisphere waters.

“How inappropriate to call this planet ‘Earth’, when it is clearly ‘Ocean’.” - Arthur C. Clarke

Most of us have heard of vast global science collaborations such as the Human Genome Project, or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

But when an odd-looking ship with an outsized derrick on its back slipped into Auckland harbour in May, few would have recognised it as a floating symbol of one of the world’s oldest and most successful scientific collaborations.

The JOIDES Resolution, aka the “JR”, is a research vessel paid for, in complicated ways, by 23 countries, and operated by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), a group involving hundreds of universities around the world. It is this group which plans the ship’s path around the globe. Heavily subsidised by the US National Science Foundation, a patron of these drilling missions for more than 50 years, the ship is owned by a Norwegian company and operated by a group based at the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The catering company is Scottish, and the captain, Terry Skinner, is from Nova Scotia, where, by coincidence, the ship was built in 1978.

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Armed with drilling technology continually redeveloped onboard, the JR bores deep – very deep – into the ocean floor to collect core samples. Its 62m derrick lowers a drillstring that can reach depths of up to 8km beneath the ocean surface.

Cores like these have confirmed the theories of plate tectonics and continental drift, and provided detailed information about the Earth’s climate over the past 100 million years. In 2004, for example, core samples from beneath the Arctic revealed that 55 million years ago the Arctic wasn’t chilly – it was subtropical.

Onboard each expedition is a fresh crop of 30 scientists, who have each submitted a proposal to show how their research will add to the expedition’s mission. They fulfil national quotas – but they also, we are told, represent a careful balance of gender, skills and career levels. The shifts are gruelling, but exciting – and 12 hours long.

“The food is great, though,” says expedition project manager Dr Katerina Petronotis, who hails from Greece, but lives in Texas.

It is a top deal for our earth sciences. New Zealand membership to IODP is $US300,000 per year, the annual cost of belonging to the “IODP Club”. If you think that sounds like a pricey subscription, consider that we share our membership with Australia, which pays the lion’s share. The Australian Research Council, in fact, pays most of the membership fee ($US1.5m of the total annual fee of $US1.8m) with the rest paid by organisations and universities in Australia and New Zealand, including GNS Science, NIWA, the Universities of Auckland and Otago, and Victoria University of Wellington.

Further consider that each expedition costs $US13 million – for equipment, ship and a crew that includes ocean-drilling specialists – and there can be five or six expeditions per year. And food; while in Auckland, the JR picked up a grocery order for a two-month voyage that included 1000 eggs.

For its contribution, New Zealand does extremely well, a testament to the high international standing of our earth scientists.

“This is the biggest international investment in New Zealand science in a single year, ever,” says Laura Wallace, geophysicist at GNS Science and co-chief scientist for the recently completed expedition that investigated the Hikurangi subduction zone, a huge fault system off Gisborne. Under her watch, two “observatories” worth $US1 million each were lowered into drill holes to monitor the processes involved in mysterious, infinitesimally slow earthquakes called “slow slip events”. These seem to have a connection with the kinds of earthquake we do notice.

The May-July expedition to drill a hole into an active volcano is another extraordinary mission, co-led by GNS scientist Cornel de Ronde. The hardness of the rock, its fragmented state, and the volcano’s corrosive fluids will test the ship’s innovative drilling technology to the limit – probably why no one has ever done it before.

Microbiologists from China, the US, Brazil and Japan are looking for “extremophiles”, organisms living in environments inimical to all other life on Earth. Joining them is a school of job descriptions you’d never know existed – three igneous petrologists from Australia, Germany and the US; a German metamorphic petrologist; a Japanese sulfide petrologist; a fluid geochemist from the US; five alteration mineralogists from China, Canada, the UK and Germany; an organic geochemist from Germany; two inorganic geochemists from the US; a sedimentologist from Germany; volcanologists from Korea and the US; and... a paleomagnetist, two physical properties specialists, and an education outreach officer from Wellington.

After each expedition, JR’s samples and cores are made freely available, and researchers’ findings are published by the IODP. Data-hogging after an expedition pretty much disqualifies any scientist who tries to reapply, says Petronotis. “Because that’s not what this is all about.”

Mission Specs

How many onboard?

Around 120.

What does the ship’s name mean?

JOIDES: Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling. The ship is named after James Cook’s HMS Resolution.

Recent and current expeditions:

Kiwi scientists are co-leading five of six JOIDES expeditions in Southern Hemisphere waters. Each voyage costs roughly $US13 million. Below is a list of each expedition and the New Zealanders onboard:

Expedition 371, Tasman Frontier Subduction Initiation and Paleogene Climate
Co-chief scientist Rupert Sutherland from Victoria University; Wanda Stratford, Hugh Morgans, Kristina Pascher (all GNS) – 61 days at sea.

Expedition 372, Creeping Gas Hydrate Slides and Hikurangi LWD (Logging While Drilling)
Co-chief scientists Ingo Pecher (Auckland University); Phil Barnes and Joshu Mountjoy (NIWA); education officer Erin Todd (Otago University) – 39 days at sea.

Expedition 374, Ross Sea West Antarctic Ice Sheet History
Co-chief scientist Rob McKay (Victoria University); Giuseppe Cortese (GNS); Rosa Hughes-Currie, an Auckland science teacher – 63 days at sea. Additional costs: a $US500,000 ice breaker.

Expedition 375, Hikurangi Subduction Margin
Co-chief scientist Laura Wallace, Martin Crundwell, Claire Shepherd (GNS); Phil Barnes (NIWA); Annika Greve (Victoria University); education officer Aliki Weststrate – 58 days at sea. The $US13m cost included observatories worth $US1m.

Expedition 376, Brothers Arc Flux
Scheduled to end 5 July in Auckland. Co-chief scientist Cornel de Ronde, Fabio Caratori Tontini, Cécile E. Massiot, Agnes G. Reyes (GNS); education officer Perry Hyde (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.)

Leg 378, South Pacific Paleogene Climate
14 October-14 December 2018. NZ scientist: Chris Hollis (GNS). NZ education officer yet to be appointed.

The JR blogs and tweets: follow expeditions on Twitter @TheJR,  Facebook and http://joidesresolution.org/.

This was published in the July 2018 issue of North & South.

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