Author Archives: Kate Littler

About Kate Littler

Lecturer in Geology at the Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter, UK. Paleoclimate, paleoceanography, geochemistry.

Core sampling in Kochi

Greetings from Japan.

The Expedition 353 team is currently in sunny Kochi, in the southern part of Shikoku island, about 600 km SW of Tokyo. We’re here for the so-called “sample party”, which probably sounds a lot more relaxing than it really is…

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 17.35.40     Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 17.35.46

Our job for the next couple of weeks is to take all the individual samples from the sediment cores we collected back in Dec/Jan, so we can take them back to our home laboratories and carry out experiments. As I’ve said before, actually getting the mud from the bottom of the deep blue sea is the fun part, but it’s only half of the scientific process. The only way we can answer the big questions we have about how the monsoon behaved in the deep past is to carry out sophisticated experiments and generate multi-proxy data that we will use to test our theories.

But taking all 47,000 samples that have been requested by the expedition participants is no mean feat.

The cores are being stored at the Kochi Core Center (KCC) where they are kept cool and safe by the expert team of curatorial staff. The team are capable of sampling the cores for us, but with so many samples to take, and with their placement within the core being so crucial, it’s best that the scientists who are requesting the samples come and take the samples for ourselves.


Racks of cores in the white D-tubes, waiting to be sampled on the table. The team is working hard to make sure everything goes to plan

So here we are, spending from 8am til 6pm every day in the windowless lab working on the cores. It’s just like being on the ship (except that you can go out and get a beer in the evening…).

We have all prepared our sample lists in advance, and the only thing left to do is actually take the samples and bag them up. We pull out the core sections one by one, carefully check that they are labelled correctly, before using either metal or plastic knives and scoops to take the samples from the exact depth in the core that they have been requested from. We replace the sediment we have removed with polystyrene to hold the core together and stop it moving about.

cores5     20151013_145344#1                                                    20151013_110316

We look quite serious, but that’s just because we’re concentrating hard on not mixing up samples. We also manage to have some fun, even if some members of the team think is is acceptable to play Genesis loudly from their laptops (they are mistaken…).

After sampling, some of the very popular cores have barely anything left in them, and are more polystyrene than mud!


As well as being here for the physical grunt work of taking the samples, the sample party is also a really good opportunity to talk to the rest of the 353 team and finalise our post-cruise science plans. We are all applying for research funds from our home institutes and funding bodies (NSF, NERC etc.), to carry out the important work on these samples over the coming years, and it’s important to make sure our efforts are coordinated between different labs.

Sample party kochi

It’s also just generally very nice to see our shipmates and friends again, and to be back in Japan to sample the amazing food, hospitality and culture of this beautiful place.


Nearby Kochi castle in the October afternoon light

Yee ha! It’s editorial meeting time

Hello monsoon fans,

Just an update to remind you that even though the super-fun, nautical part of Exp. 353 is over and done with, that doesn’t mean the work has stopped. Oh no indeedy, it’s just the beginning!

This week a crack team of iMonsoon participants has assembled in College Station, Texas – the (somewhat unlikely) beating heart of US-IODP operations – in order to get our shipboard reports spruced up and ready for publication and digestion by the scientific community at large.

IODP editing team

4/5 of the IODP Exp 353 editorial team on our last day of report editing. Go team!

You might remember me telling you that while we’re at sea we write the detailed site reports as we go, in between describing and analysing the cores and collecting the data. While this is certainly the most efficient way of getting the reports done, while the material is right in front of us and it’s all fresh in our minds, the high-pressure nature of the day-to-day work means that there’s not always time to get the reports 100% right while we’re at sea. No matter how much you love your science, in week 7.5 of an 8-week cruise, you’re a bit too tired to write coherent sentences and make beautiful figures. We’re only human.

So here we are, in a massively air-conditioned room in Texas filled with coffee and energy bars, sitting down together to fix up the reports. One to two members of each team (sedimentology, paleomagnetism, biostratigraphy etc.) has been invited, along with both our co-chiefs. So it’s not the whole jolly gang, but everyone on iMonsoon has had the opportunity to comment on the reports by email in the previous weeks and give feedback to their representatives.

IMG_6596      IMG_6597 Well, I never promised that this blog post would be a visual treat…

It’s great to see everyone again and look over all the great work we did last winter – gosh I’m proud of what we achieved on this cruise! – and it’s nice to know the Proceedings will be published soon so everyone can have a look. (The shorter Preliminary Report is already out there, but the real meaty stuff is yet to be released). This is also a great opportunity for us to talk about the follow-up science projects we are planning with the Exp. 353 material and to shore-up our collaborations. Everyone is busy writing grant proposals to their respective funding agencies (so, NERC for me, NSF for the Americans, etc.), and we’re hoping the funds are forthcoming to support the great work we’ve got planned.

The extreme heatwave in India over the last month, and the terrible toll this has taken on people’s health and livelihoods, is a stark reminder that understanding how the monsoon will respond to ongoing climate change in the future is of major societal relevance. We hope that the new knowledge about the past behaviour of the Indian Monsoon this Expedition will bring, will contribute to this effort in the coming years.

The Exp. 353 team be meeting up again in Oct 2015 for the sampling meeting in Japan, this time to get our treasured mud samples(!), and I’ll tell you all about that later on in the year, but for now it’s over and out from me. Wish me luck with the track changes and my steady diet of Texas tacos.

Meet the…. geochemists!

Hi folks,

Well, what with the ~2 km of core we pulled up in the final days of Exp. 353 there really wasn’t time to upload the final interviews for “meet the scientists” before we hit shore. So here is one of our esteemed geochemists, John, giving us his two cents about his role on the ship… (sorry it’s 3 weeks late, John!)…


Well hello there, and who might you be?

JK: I’m John Kirkpatrick from the USA, and I’m sailing as inorganic geochemist. My home institute is the University of Rhode Island where I’m currently a postdoc.

John waves1

[John sporting some fabulous facial hair around NYE, which sadly became more normal and respectable towards the end of the expedition….]

Jolly good, and what do you do onboard the mighty JR?

JK: I’m sailing as an inorganic geochemist: our main job has to been to extract porewater from the sediment and analyze it for many things, including pH, alkalinity, salinity, dissolved ions (e.g. sodium, magnesium, potassium, calcium, chloride, bromide, sulfate, et cetera), and other elements such as metals.

Ah I was wondering what you were doing when you were squeezing big pieces of the core in that giant vice – you were extracting the pore waters!

johns arm1

[Lab Tech supreme, Vinny, (and John’s hand), show the vice being used to squeeze porewaters out of a “squeeze-cake” taken from the base of each core]

So why exactly is inorganic geochemistry important to the expedition, and why in particular should we care about porewaters?

JK: The dissolved components in sediment porewaters reflect the history of the sediment, its composition, and how the composition came to be – for example, at our earliest site, U1443, there was a lot of carbonate. Where that carbonate came from, though, if it formed organically or inorganically, if it is currently dissolving or precipitating – those are questions that water chemistry can shed light on.

Interesting stuff. I guess we can also see other important things like the depth of the sulfate reduction zone, which will be related to the amount of organic matter in the sediments, among other things, and which will vary from site to site. (See, I do pay attention when the geochems are telling me stuff!).

So tell us about your area of research back home.

JK: My shorebased research involves tying this sort of chemistry to  biological data, typically DNA sequence data. We don’t sequence DNA  onboard, so all of that work is shore-based; plus, DNA analysis is now restricted to samples from international waters or samples that we first obtain permits for.

Yeah, it’d be nice to be able to see exactly what cool bugs we are pulling up from the “dark biosphere” in our cores, but I guess that’ll have to wait for another expedition…

John lab1

[John managing to do an excellent evil scientist impression whilst analysing the porewaters…]

So what is the scientific question you are most hoping to answer with the new material from Exp. 353?

JK: My own pet project, or topic of specific interest, involves the removal  of nutrients – nitrogen – in the sediment by forming N2 gas. Removing nitrogen can take that nutrient out of the biological cycle for a very long time (since N2 gas just floats around in the atmosphere where it is mostly inert). Of course, gases are very ephemeral and so to do these analyses we need fresh, active sediments to incubate and measure under highly-controlled conditions. 80% of the gas in our atmosphere is a
potential contaminant for these measurements!

Yikes, well good luck with that!
So what is the best part about being at sea on the JR for you?

JK: Being away from the day-to-day hustle and bustle of work at the university, the meetings and conferences and emails and stress – we  have a LOT of work to do here on the JR, but it is all focused on a single set of goals; I relish being away from the feeling of being pulled in a hundred directions that I get in my office. Plus, it is a lot of fun getting to know new colleagues!

john twister

[John getting to know new colleagues through the medium of “Microfossil Twister”, surely the most fun game ever (re)invented!]

Good getting to know you too John! And I fully agree with the part about the hustle and bustle – now a full 2 weeks after the end of the expedition, I still have another ~200 emails to plow through before I’m all caught up. Ergh!

Apart from the long hours and the hard work, what do you think is the worst part about being at sea? What do you miss most from home?

JK: I’ve never been apart from my wife this long since I first met her (we  got married last year). Actually now that I think about, never this far apart either – literally on the opposite side of the Earth! I also really miss being able to stretch my legs and go running outside; that always makes me feel better when I’m too busy to think, or feeling a bit down. We have exercise equipment on board, but a treadmill ain’t the same.

Yup, missing loved ones is the pits – hopefully by now you’re all fully reunited, well exercised in the great outdoors and enjoying a break from the office 🙂

Thanks for the insight into the world of the shipboard geochemist, John. Hope to sail with you again!

Coming up soon (well, when I get through these 200 emails, and the rest of the mountain of work that has built up since November!):

-What happens now that the expedition part of Exp. 353 is over?

-When do we all meet up next?

-What are we going to do with all this mud??

The end is nigh (in a good way)

Good afternoon folks,

Well the expedition is drawing to a close as we’re currently only a few miles off Singapore waiting for another ship to move out of the way, then we’ll be off the ship and into the nearest bar! Wayhey!

It’s been a fantastic expedition, despite the delays we had at the beginning with obtaining permissions from India….and the lightening strike that damaged the hydraulics…. and the broken core cable that took 6 hours to fish out of the hole…. yeah, well, despite all that we still managed to get over 4.2 km of pristine core from a region of the ocean that has never been scientifically drilled before – a huge achievement!

Doubtless we, and other scientists around the world, will be working with the material we collected for years to come, discovering new insights into monsoon dynamics and adding to the great pool of human knowledge. Fingers crossed the grant-giving gods are smiling on us and we can get the all important post-cruise science funded!

I still have some blog posts and interviews that I never got round to putting up (sorry, I’ve been kinda busy with the cores!) that will get put up belatedly over the next week or so, but I thought that by way of a wrap-up it would be nice to share my ongoing list of things I miss from home vs. things I will miss from the JR…

Things that I miss from home

Loved ones. Do I even need to mention that. Ok then I’m mentioning it, loved ones – you know who you are!

Eating vegetables that are not boiled to buggery, fresh salad, real non-UHT milk and bananas. God I never knew how much I loved bananas until I couldn’t just have one whenever I fancied.

Sitting in a park and breathing in the smell of grass, and hearing birds in the trees.


[The last trees and greenery I saw… back in November 2014!]

Having a day off to do what I want. Weekends and regular ~8-hour working days are going to seem so deliciously decadent after 61 days of straight work. Phew.

Having a lay-in. Oh dear god a kingdom for one extra hour in bed from time to time!

My own lovely king-size bed, with a proper spring mattress and room to spread-eagle if I want. Oh yeah. Bring it on!

Being able to buy anything any time I want. Run out of shampoo? No problem. Fancy a Twirl? Done. You have to have foreseen every last whim back in November and planned accordingly, or it’ll be February before you can scratch that itch. (Luckily as this is the second time I’ve sailed I managed to get it mostly right this time… except for only bringing one jar of Nutella. Rookie mistake).

Being able to walk in a straight line for more than 10 strides, and without going up or down a staircase. When I get home I’m going to go for the longest walk (in a straight line) of my life!

Things I will miss from the JR

The people. You get so close working 12 hours a day with a small group of dedicated people, and manage to have lots of fun and laughs along the way. I’ll miss these guys!

last sunset

[the gang enjoying the last sunset on the top deck last night. Good times]

Having someone do all my laundry for me. Such luxury. I think I’ve forgotten how to work a washing machine…

Having someone preparing all my meals and doing all the washing up afterwards. Absolute. Bliss.

Being called “miss Kate” by the lovely catering guys, and seeing all the effort they put into making the holiday season fun for everyone.

Watching the sunset and the moonrise over the beautiful Indian Ocean. Watching the ripples on the surface, the fish under the surface, and having a 360 degree view of nothing but ocean all around.

sunset small1

The fact you are excused from checking emails and dealing with banal elements of your regular life whilst at sea. (I am not looking forward to dealing with the backlog of emails when I get back though!).

Being a part of a functioning and focused team. Although being a successful academic requires collaboration with other scientists, most of the time it’s something of a solo effort where you spend lots of time working alone on several different projects and proposals at a time. Here on the JR you all pull together towards one common goal as a unit, which is a nice change.

Being surrounded by people from lots of different cultures, countries and scientific specialties – when I’m at sea I always learn so much about different customs, languages, food…. and funding agency peculiarities!

Improving my ping pong skills (from a very low baseline, I have to confess).

Having a gym about 12 steps from my bedroom. There really is no excuse for not getting in shape on the JR. And with that ice cream machine available 24 hours a day, it really is a necessity…


So, it’s been fun! Thanks for reading along with me and saying hi on Twitter from time to time. Hopefully it’s been an interesting insight into life at sea with IODP.

So long from the JR for now!

windy day

Meet the… Technicians!

I’ve introduced you to a bunch of the scientists on board (although there are still more to come and the expedition is drawing to a close!), but we haven’t yet met some of the most important people on the whole cruise… the techs!

The technical crew include a raft of folks who really make the expedition run smoothly – without them the whole shebang would surely fall apart. So today we’re going to meet Chieh, one of the key cogs in the JR wheel….


Good morning/ afternoon (time has no meaning in this place)! Can you tell us who you are and what you do on board the JR?

CP: My name is Chieh Peng, and I work for IODP. I was from Taiwan originally, and now I’m a USA citizen.

Cheih catwalk1

[Chieh leading the core onto the catwalk, ready to be cut and curated]

My background is in geochemistry. I am one of the 2 assistant lab officers, who act as laboratory foremen. We oversee all technical support activities, make sure all the cores and samples are processed and taken accordingly and in a timely fashion, and manage logistics support including preparation of shipping document for off-going samples, cores, and equipment.

And why exactly is this job important to the expedition? Why would happen if you (or someone doing your job) wasn’t here?)

CP: IODP technical staff provide laboratory support for the scientific party. We maintain all instruments to their optimal operating conditions, We help curate cores and samples to keep up with the IODP standards.

The assistant lab officers are senior technicians; we understand the tasks in the lab, we have a lot of experience in various fields, and we know the ship crew and our technical staff very well. It is important that we can coordinate efforts among the ship crew, the technical staff, and the scientists to fulfill all requests.

Hopefully, if one of us can’t be here, there are other senior technicians that can step into the role.

[Chieh is being modest – if she or her nightshift counterpart Heather weren’t here, chaos would reign! We scientists need a firm hand in the lab or we get out of hand 🙂 ]

Cheih catwalk 4

[Chieh cutting the core into sections ready to be capped and taken inside to the labs]

I know you’re one of our most experienced techs out here, but how long exactly have you been working for IODP/ODP, and how many expeditions have you been on?

CP: I have been with the program since 1991, I have sailed over 60 expeditions.

60 expeditions???? That’s insane, considering that each expedition is 2 months long. How many years of your life have you spent at sea in total?

CP: Over 10 years

Wow, hats off to you Chieh. The JR really is your second (first?) home.

Core view

Well with all that time spent out here, what would you say is the best part about being at sea?

CP: Meeting new people, learning new science, and helping scientists achieve their goals

And what’s the worst or hardest part about being at sea? What do you miss most.

CP: Being away from family and friends. I miss my dog.

I’d have to agree, being on the JR is fun but I sure do miss my family. I don’t have a dog, but if I did, I suspect I’d miss it too…

Well thanks for joining us Chieh. Keep on sailing!

Meet the… paleomagicians!

For our next “meet the scientists” we’re going to have a chat with our resident paleomagicians, Yoichi and Sam, who are going to explain why measuring the magnetic signature of ancient sediments is so important to an IODP cruise…


Good afternoon gentlemen. Can you please start by introducing yourselves to the good people of the internet…

ST: Hi, I’m Sam and I am a British rock magnetist (magician) working in IPGP (Insitut de Physique du Globe de Paris), France.

YU: I’m Yoichi Usui from Japan, and I work at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC).

Yoichi core pose   sam magentometer

[Yoichi taking pmag cubes from the core, and Sam getting ready to run the samples]

Thanks for joining us guys. So what’s your specialty on the JR and what does it involve?

ST: On this wonderfully-big boat, I make up one-half of the paleomagnetism team. In addition to the biostratigraphers, we use our magic to determine the ages of the recovered sediments. Here is a brief explanation of how. First I should mention that the Earth has a magnetic field, which protects us from solar wind. It is averaged as a dipole (i.e. a North and South pole) and through geologic time, these N-S poles have flipped, so the North becomes the South and so on (which is probably confusing for fish and birds). These ‘flips’ are known as polarity changes and have been reliably dated for many tens of millions of years. Therefore we look for changes in polarity within the sediments to give us age markers. This is possible since iron-bearing minerals, especially iron-oxides, are ubiquitous in natural sedimentary environments. They have the ability to record the state of the Earth’s magnetic field at their time of deposition (generally), so we can see whether we were in a normal polarity, or a reversed polarity

 YU: Paleomagnetism. As Sam says, it involves reading the geomagnetic field record naturally imprinted in sediments in the form of subtle alignment of nano-scale iron sand and alike (and packing cores after measurements; we are the last persons to process the cores in the lab). 


Ok, so you’re using the natural flips in the earth’s Magnetic field as a way of telling time. That’s very clever. So why exactly is this job so important to our expedition?

YU: Paleomagnetism can date the cores, by comparing the geomagnetic record with a standard pattern established elsewhere. The nice thing about the magnetic dating is that you can compare the results with almost everything everywhere; it would equally work on Hawaiian lavas or speleothems in caves.       

 ST: It is one of the most important jobs in any expedition. Sedimentary profiles wouldn’t be as useful are they are, and have been, without an estimate of their age and sedimentation rates as a result. Paleomagnetism is an independent method away from biostratigraphy, and in my (esteemed) opinion, provides more defined age determination than biostratigraphic events. This is because changes in the Earth’s magnetic field is a global phenomenon and therefore can be recorded anywhere, even with extremely low trace amounts of minerals.

Yoichi magentometer

[Yoichi working at (behind) the magnetometer – it wins the prize for the biggest piece of equipment we have in the JR lab]


Ah I see, so by measuring the paleomag signature in the rocks you can create a normal-reversed barcode pattern, which means we can convert depth in the core into time – always our ultimate goal! You and the biostratigraphers (like Clara and Oscar who I interviewed a few weeks ago) work closely together to produce the beautiful age models, which all the subsequent work is based on.

So that’s your job on the ship, but what is your regular area of research at home, and what are you working on at the moment?

YU: I’m trying to find the oldest geomagnetic record (so far I found one from 3.4 billion years ago). I’m also building an equipment to measure magnetic record from on-land rocks more accurately and rapidly, so that I can compare the results with sediments recovered by the JR or other ships.     

 ST: So I have just finished my PhD (woo!). I was using rock magnetism on loess-palaeosol deposits (terrestrial aeolian sedimentary deposits) to understand changes in the climate and environment during the last glacial period. I predominantly focused on 1) changes in the concentration, grain size and mineralogy of the mineral magnetic assemblage and 2) the anisotropy of magnetic susceptibility (magnetic fabrics), to further understand how changes in climate can shape magnetism.         

Congratulations on finding such an old record, Yoichi, and on becoming Dr Taylor, Sam! And what’s the scientific question you are both most hoping to answer with the new material from Exp. 353?

YU: Exactly when did the geomagnetic field reverse (we know it did reverse many times), and what happens at that times. 

 ST: The main aim of the expedition is to understand the physical mechanisms that drive changes in monsoonal precipitation, erosion, run-off and both atmospheric and ocean circulations. I wish to directly address these with an environmental magnetism study, while further improving the age models for the sediments in a region and time period questing for high quality data.

I’m sure the great material we’ve recovered will take you nearer to answering those questions over the next few years of work. So what’s the best part about being at sea on the JR? What has been the most fun (apart from hanging out with me which goes without saying)?

YU: Talking (both scientific and non-scientific) with people from various countries.            

ST: Food, food, oh glorious food.

 (They feed us constantly on the boat with cakes and cookies and fried food – if you have a big appetite, the JR is the place for you…).

IODP Expedition 353 Indian Monsoon

Ok, food and talking. Good choices. Now what is the worst part about being at sea and what  do you miss most from home?

ST: As Juliet (Education Outreach officer) would say every time she comes past the lab during a video outreach  session “So who has had problems with seasickness?”. I had one bad day with seasickness, which I blame myself 100% for because I bought the wrong tablets. Fortunately, there is a very good doctor on board! In terms of missing things from home, not being with family over Christmas was a little sad. However, we all had a lot of fun on Xmas day with caroling, lots of entertainment and of course, too much food.

YU: Fresh vegetables.

 I hear you Yoichi – the first thing I’m going to do when I get to Singapore is have a salad. Most probably with a generously proportioned beer.

Ok gentlemen, thanks very much for taking the time to inform us about the wonderful world of paleomagnetism. You’ll never be as cool as the sedimentologists, but you give it a good try! 🙂

Andaman Sea update: beautiful cores but long working days…

Evening all,

Apologies for the terribly slow updating to the blog this last week – I blame the phenomenal coring success and subsequent enormous work load.

Free time… what was that again? 🙂

So, we’ve successfully finished coring over 700 meters of seafloor at Site U1447, our first Andaman Sea site, obtaining a record that stretches all the way back to the late Miocene (whoaaa!). This will allow us to peer back in time to when the Indian Monsoon first began to intensify about 8 million years ago, and help us to answer lots of interesting questions about how it has evolved over that time. Great stuff.

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 2.27.07 AM

Having finished coring at U1447, we pulled up pipe and completed the painfully short transit to our next site, U1448, a little ways to the south. I say “painfully” because we normally use the transit to catch up on our site report writing (each site must have a detailed report written about it, complete with figures and photos and lithological units all defined –we really do have a whole book written in just 2 months out here!), and 5 hours is totally not enough time to do that. Oh well.

But despite being very sleep-deprived and a bit crotchety (sorry shift-mates, I need my 8 hours or I’m a grouch), I’m also really chuffed with the sediments we’ve managed to recover at this site so far and excited about all the work we’re going to be able to do with them back on shore. Definitely worth being a bit tired for 🙂

Core view

[First core of U1448 up on deck. More lovely mud and no sand in sight!]

So for now we’re still coring Hole A, probably for another 12 hours or so, then we’ll start on our final (yay!) hole of the expedition, in order to get a second copy of the material and allow as much post-cruise work as possible to be carried out on them. Only another 100 or so smear-slides to go then…. oh dear lord.

We’ll be back in port in Singapore on the 29th, in just one week’s time, so plenty of work to do before then. Eeek. Hope there’s some time to enjoy a few more sunsets before then.

sunset watchers

So for now, toodlepip and good night.

[Still to come: What do paleomagnetists, phys props, and geochemists do? Where do we exercise and chill out after shift (er, when there’s time!)? What will I miss most about the JR?
Wow, I’d better get writing or this’ll be updated from Cornwall…]