Meet the…. biostratigraphers!

Good afternoon folks.

This week on “meet the scientists” we’re going for another double-whammy of scientific introductory goodness. So without further ado I will introduce you to Clara and Oscar, who are part of our paleontology (“Paleo”) dream team here on Exp. 353.


Hello interviewees! Can you tell the nice people at home what your names are and where you come from please?

CB: I’m Clara Bolton from the UK, and I’m a junior CNRS researcher at CEREGE in Aix-en Provence, France.

OR: I’m Oscar E. Romero, German/Argentinean; a Senior Researcher at MARUM, Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University Bremen, Germany. 

clara microscope_small                                      Oscar microscope_small

[Clara and Oscar working hard at their respective microscopes, deep in the Paleo-annex]

Good stuff. So can you tell us what your specialty is on the JR and what it involves?

CB: Nannos! Mostly this involves making slides of the mud from each core as it comes up, looking at it in the microscope, and based on what species of calcareous nannofossils I see, working out how old it is. Nannos are the fossil remains of a group of phytoplankton that used to live in the surface ocean (coccolithophores).


[Some truly awesome modern coccolithophores filtered from the seawater around the JR this expedition. So. Darn. Cool.]
OR: On the JR I am sailing as a micropaleontologist/biostratigrapher. My specialty is studying diatoms, which are siliceous microorganisms thriving in surface waters of all ocean waters. When they die, their remains sink and accumulate in bottom ocean sediments. As a JR biostratigrapher, I help determine the ages of the collected sediments. Diatoms and other microfossils deliver these ages.


[A cute little modern diatom – totally made of silica, so pretty much glass. Beautiful!]

Sounds like you get to look at awesome tiny fossils all day – what could be nicer?! But why is this job so important to the expedition objectives?

OR: As soon as sediment cores are on board, scientists need to know how old (or young) sediments are. Since biostratigraphers are the first scientists working on collected sediment, we can rapidly find out in which part of the geological time scale we are.

CB: Nannos have a very high evolutionary turnover, so they can provide quite precise ages based on the presence/absence of marker species. They are also very abundant in the tropical open ocean fossil record, like here in the Indian Ocean, so they can provide information where other microfossils are absent. In real time, we are able to tell the scientists how deep in time they are, so they know whether to go [drill] deeper or stop!



[ A fresh core surface: both Clara and Oscar take tiny “smear slides” from the cores by mixing a toothpick-sized piece of sediment with a drop of water on a glass slide. Looking at these slides under the microscope lets them identify the different species of nanno and diatom in each sample in no time at all!]

clara slide

[Clara skillfully making a smear-slide with a toothpick – Credit: Bill Crawford and IODP]

Ah so that’s why we brought you guys along 🙂 Can you briefly tell us what floats your metaphorical boat research-wise when you’re not on the JR?

OR: I do research on marine sediments from different parts of the world ocean and teach micropaleontology to undergrads.

CB: Paleoceanography. I use nannos (and sometimes foraminifers) as a proxy for understanding past changes in oceanographic conditions (like nutrient conditions and ocean chemistry), to understand the two-way relationship between climate and biotic responses.

 Ah, so with all the lovely mud we’re coring in the Bay of Bengal, this is just the expedition for you, eh? What is the scientific question you are most hoping to answer with the new material from Exp. 353?

CB: I hope to see how primary productivity varied in relation to the evolution of the monsoon and Earth’s orbital cycles.

OR: I am interested in (1) basin-to-basin changes of nutrient availability and (2) high-resolution variability of paleoclimatic conditions. As for human beings, nutrients (food!) are needed by diatoms for growth and to stay alive; depending on whether these nutrients were present (or not) in the surface waters of the ocean in geological past times, diatoms were there or they were not. This gives us clues about past changes in productivity. Since I am also working in the Indonesian area, the eastern equatorial Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska, I can compare sediment records –of the same age- from different parts of the world ocean. This brings me to my second interest: by looking at diatoms, we can also describe how the climate and the ocean conditions changed through time.

Cool beans. Well thanks for enlightening us about your science. What would you say is the best part about being on the JR?

CB: Making new friends and future collaborators, the amazing ever-changing clouds and all the sunsets…

OR: Sharing time with an incredible amount of amazing scientists and learning from different fields of research.

clara cake_3_small

[Clara enjoying her amazing nanno-themed birthday cake last week! Birthdays are taken very seriously on board, with lots of singing, cakes and good times]


[Oscar having a good time on the catwalk – credit: @holy_kau]

Agreed, definitely some of my favourite things about being here too. Now what’s the worst part about being at sea on the JR, and what do you miss most from home?

 CB: Friends and family (a bit obvious but true!)

OR: I miss several things; family, friends, meals, my mountain-bike, jogging outdoors, my bed!

Well thanks very much Clara and Oscar – a fascinating glimpse into the secretive world of the sea-going paleontologist. Next time on “meet the scientists”, what is a “stratigraphic correlator” when he’s at home…?

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Time is a relative concept

and nothing brings that home more than realizing your ship is on a different time zone to the port it’s currently in…

Welcome to India_2

So we’re currently in Visakh port on the eastern coast of India, getting some last little bits of bureaucracy out of the way and picking up three Indian scientists as new shipmates – welcome aboard!

India is GMT+5.5 so it’s currently about 1.30 pm, but here on the JR we started the expedition on Singapore time (GMT+8) and for convenience we haven’t shifted timezone as we’ve traveled west towards India. So…. here it’s actually already 4 pm.

So to make that super clear: on the JR: 4 pm; one single step off the JR: two and a half hours earlier.

You can imagine this is making arranging meetings with the Indian officials onshore lots of fun 🙂

Visakh isn’t the most picturesque of towns (well what port is, apart from Falmouth of course…) but it is nice to look outside the window and see trees and birds for a change, even if we’re not allowed off to explore exotic India itself. As a bird-nerd I especially enjoyed looking at the egrets, kingfishers, and bee-eaters flitting around in the scrub next to the ship.

Indulge me:

Bea-eater2                  egret-2-small

Soggy crow     blurry kingfisher


[Also, I don’t know why they are all looking to the right. Maybe there was something interesting over there?]

Off to our next sites tomorrow morning hopefully. More updates and “meet the scientists” coming up…

Any port in a storm…

So we wrapped up successful coring operations at Site U1444 last night, pulled up the pipe overnight, and are now on our way to Visakhapatnam port (“Vizakh” for short), eastern India – huzzah!

We will arrive in the early hours of tomorrow morning (the 29th) and hope to get ushered into port as quickly as possible. We have a few last inspections to pass before we head into Indian waters (keep all your fingers and toes crossed…), but this should be the last hurdle in our quest for the monsoon-critical sediments we are all hoping for. Watch this space.

In the meantime, the weather has gone all to hell.

big Waves

After heading to bed at the respectable time of 2am last night, I was rudely awoken this morning at 7am-ish by an increase in motion and noise, which tells me that a) the thrusters have been pulled up and we’re no longer stationary, and b) the ocean swell had increased. After trying to go back to sleep unsuccessfully for about half an hour, I had to get up, take a sea-sickness pill (the first one in the last 10 days!), and go and eat a ginger biscuit from the galley. Clearly this did the trick as I managed to then sleep way past my alarm, shuddering awake only 15 minutes before cross-over at 11.30 am – uh oh!

So what’s up with the weather?

Well at this time of year the warm and wet summer monsoon winds from the south have reversed, bringing cooler and drier air from the north to most of India. However, if you’re in the Bay of Bengal, like us, or on the south eastern coast of India, this air from the north picks up moisture as it passes over the ocean which translates into rainfall further to the south. We haven’t had a whole lot of rain so far, but we are feeling the effects of this northerly wind, and the big depression to the south of us.

bad weather                        bad weather 2

[Hint: bright green lines = big winds, purple = bad; we are in the green circle in the LH picture, the red marker in the RH picture is Vizakh port]

Certainly not a good day for a BBQ or a spot of sunbathing on the “steel beach”.

wet picnic

[A soggy day on deck]

Anyway, it’s nothing too serious, and certainly nothing the JR can’t handle (she’s a sturdy girl!) but it does make report writing a bit more challenging. Nothing like staring at a screen while the ground moves underneath you to make you feel really awesome 😦

Hopefully we’ll soon by tied up in port and out of the swell, and then on to our next coring adventure!  Stay tuned.

Meet the…. sedimentologists!

For our next “meet the scientists”, we’re going to be chatting to the absolute most important people on the whole ship. Yes, it’s the sedimentologists*.

And because we are so important, and indeed, because there are 8 of us on Exp. 353, I am going to interview two of them simultaneously! My powers of multi-tasking are indeed profound.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Sunghan and Kau, who are going to explain what we do on board the JR and why it’s so intensely vital…


Greetings interviewees. So to start us off, can you please introduce yourselves?

SK: My name is Sunghan Kim. I’m the only Korean here on the JR, and a Post-Doc Researcher from Pusan National University, Busan.

KT: I’m Kaustubh Thirumalai, or Kau (pronounced ‘cow’) for short. I hail from Bangalore, India where I was born and brought up. I went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree from the National Institute of Technology Karnataka where I majored in chemical engineering (with a minor in procrastination) at Surathkal, a small college-town on the southwestern coast of India. Currently, I am a PhD candidate at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics in Austin, Texas, USA.

kau                                  Sunghan

[L: Kau staring down the barrel of a core; R: Sunghan having a great time with the microscope]

Ok, nice to meet you both! What is your specialty on the JR and what does it involve?

SK: Sedimentologist. We have 8 sedimentologists on Expedition 353; do you know what that means? Sedimentologists are involved in the most difficult and important parts of Expedition 353.

KT: For Expedition 353, I am sailing on the JR as a sedimentologist, which is a glorified term for a mud describer. Essentially, my job is to make detailed reports about the cores that continuously come up on deck from the drill floor. This includes distinguishing the sediment’s color, coarseness, composition, and noting down when, where, how and potentially why, changes in these characteristics occur in the cores. For this leg, there are eight sedimentologists (four on each shift) and we all work together to ensure that the cores are described in a consistent manner: the devil is always in the details!

investigation kau

[Kau making sure no devilish details are overlooked!]

Fabulous. So can you tell us why exactly the job of a sedimentologist is so important to the expedition? What does it contribute scientifically?

SK: We provide basic information about core materials for further study. I think the basic information provided by us is the gateway to great science.

KT: Since Expedition 353 is a sediment-heavy mission, the sedimentologists are really important, not only for other working groups aboard, but also for shore-based scientists who would like to obtain a clear idea about what we have drilled. Besides providing descriptions of the core, the eight of us will play a big role in relating the actual sedimentology of the core to the output of different groups including downhole data, physical properties, and age constraints [See later posts for more about these jobs]. Our descriptions can also help the chemists and biostratigraphers in choosing “interesting” sediment sample for their measurements. Stratigraphic correlators can also use our observations in making comparisons between different core-holes at the same location. Most importantly, our reports will help several scientists who would like to sample these sediments for various purposes in the future.
Smear slide prep_1

[The boys being schooled by “smear-slide-Steve” in the ways of the core]

Ok great, and what are your normal areas of research back at home, when you’re not on the JR?

 SK: The fields of paleoclimate and paleoceanography. Using various proxies, I have studied the paleoceanographic/paleoclimatic changes mainly in the high latitudes: Bering Sea, NW and NE subarctic Pacific, and additionally central equatorial Pacific, as part of collaborative projects. I am interested in the regional/local changes and in understanding of the relationship between low and high latitudes.

KT: My normal area of research is in paleoceanography (my abnormal areas of research is reserved for another post). In particular, I try and understand how hot/cold, salty/fresh oceanic waters were in ancient times and why they changed over time. How do I do this? Using small plankton-shells (called “foraminifera”) that record all this information in their chemistry of course! I am very much interested in using geochemical methods that are tried and tested to extract climatic information (like sea-surface temperature and salinity) from these shells that are found in marine sediments. This climatic information can be used to validate complex global climate models that try to simulate future climate considering manmade global warming. Instead of ‘forecasting’ climate, some of these models are ‘hindmost’ to investigate past climates. Only through a marriage of modeling and paleo-data can we truly understand past climatic changes and gain a better handle on future changes that we will see (and are already experiencing).

Ok thanks for the background information fellas. Going back to Exp. 353, what is the scientific question you are most hoping to answer with the new material from the expedition?

SK: I want to understand how paleoproductivity, clay mineralogy, and trace metal distribution changed in relation to the evolving Indian Monsoon? If so, how are they connected? Moreover, I hope to find the connection between changes in the Indian monsoon system and the oceanographic/climatic system in the high latitudes, or the North Pacific, as a final goal.

KT: I would love to get my hands on ‘young’ sediment in the Bay of Bengal. For me, ‘young’ sediment can be anywhere from present to 40,000 years ago. As I mentioned above, there are many climate models that try and simulate past climate over this time – but many of them give different ‘answers’ regarding the strength and sensitivity of the Indian monsoon. Using the geochemistry of foraminiferal shells, I would like to reconstruct monsoonal variability and use the newly generated data to validate and test climate model output during this time period.

Great, well that raps it up for the science part. Now for the nitty gritty… what is the best part about being at sea on the JR?

SK: Communication with other excellent scientists from all different fields. I don’t do Facebook at all, but some friends of mine told me about my photos in the IODP Facebook. So, this kind of thing is also nice just to imagine that people around the world are watching me.


[Sunghan leading us in the Korean version of Silent Night – good job!]

KT: The best part about being at sea on the JR is the people that you meet including the crew, staff, drillers, engineers, technicians, and last, but not least, the scientists! Everyone has an intriguing story as to how and why they ended up here on this one vessel that is seemingly floating in the middle of nowhere!


[Kau and Markus jamming with the JR guitars]

Every silver lining has a cloud. What is the worst part about being at sea on the JR? What do you miss most from home?

SK: I have to be apart from my family. My 11-month daughter and wife. My wife’s birthday was a few days ago and what is more is my daughter’s FIRST birthday is just coming next month. When I go back home after the Expedition, I am sure that my daughter will treat me as a stranger for a few days, weeks, or months? I have no idea. [Aww don’t worry Sunghan, I’m sure she won’t forget you!]

KT: I don’t know if there is a ‘worst’ thing about being at sea – I really enjoy it. But one of the more annoying things is not being able to instantly communicate with your family and friends in today’s smartphone age. Although, I must say, so far on the JR, this has been quite refreshing!

Ok well thanks for taking the time to answer the questions gentlemen. I look forward to continuing to work with you both over the next 5 weeks!

Next time on “meet the scientists”, what do biostratigraphers do and how tiny are microfossils?

*I am in no way biased by the fact that I am a sedimentologist. And even if I was, what are you going to do about it? It’s my blog.

Have yourself a very merry Christmas

A belated Merry Christmas from all on the JR, on this fine and frosty Boxing Day morning.

IODP Expedition 353 Indian Monsoon

(Well, here it’s about 25C and I’m wearing flipflops, but I’m assured that back home it’s suitably crisp and white!).

I hope you’re all having a nice festive holiday with your loved ones, with plenty of eggnog, wine and mincepies, (while we toil away pulling 12 hour shifts in the middle of nowhere on a dry ship! CUE VIOLINS).

But seriously we’ve had a blast, and to be honest we’ve got everything we need (well, except the alcohol and our loved ones) to have a really fun Christmas on the high seas…

Little stockings hanging up in the galley replete with gifts:


A big Christmas feast, as if we weren’t already fat enough:

IODP Expedition 353 Indian Monsoon

[The guys roasting some birds over the open coals]


[A sumptuous feast, including loads of sushi and smoked salmon!]

Christmas_food carving

[Vegetables carved into shapes you didn’t know vegetables could take]

And we even had a visit from Santa:
christmas_visit from santa_captain
[Captain Terry clearly enjoying his one-on-one time with Santa]

Even though core was coming up all day, and when we were on shift we had to work, we managed to squeeze in an hour or so of festive activities all together. As well as present-giving from Santa, we also had the JR Christmas Choir (of which yours truly was a member – ha!) regaling the crew with “beautiful” renditions of Rudolph the red-nose reindeer, Merry Christmas, and….Silent Night in no less than 7 different languages –my Korean is really coming along, but my Hindi sucks.


Then various groups, (including some very talented folks on guitar, trumpet and drums!), performed for the crew. Here are some of the Filipino guys with a lovely song – no shortage of guitars here!

christmas_filipino band

So all in all, not too shabby a time was had by all. We miss our loved ones a lot at this time of year, but there’s a lot of camaraderie on board, and the IODP guys really try to make it a fun day for everyone.

But for now, it’s back to the core. No rest for the wicked…

Bonus Xmas cracker joke:

Q. What is Good King Wenceslas’ favourite type of pizza?

A. Deep-pan, crisp and even.


Go with the (core) flow

Howdy folks,

We’ve arrived at our next Site, U1444 in the Bay of Bengal!

Indian Ocean map3

It’s not quite where we were originally planning to be coring, but as Steve said in the last post, nothing ever completely goes to plan at sea and you’ve got to be prepared to be flexible. Looking forward to having more core on deck soon, regardless of the location!

We arrived at 07.30 this morning (while I was still fast asleep), thrusters are down and we’re tripping (lowering) pipe to the seafloor now. We’re in 3000 m of water out here, so the first core on the floor is not anticipated until around 7 pm this evening…

So this seems like a good moment to explain what we call “core flow” to you all. Basically this is the order in which measurements and descriptions are taken from the core as it moves through the core lab – our specialist deck on the JR for handling the precious mud. [We will hear more about the various specialties, like “phys props”, “sedimentology”, “geochem” etc., and the people on board who do these jobs in later “meet the scientist” posts].

CORE FLOW: A beginner’s guide:

  1. After the drill pipe is lowered all the way to the sea floor at the bottom of the ocean, the core is cut from the sediment pile (this is the steel-straw pushing into the mud, if you recall). The mud gets pushed up inside a plastic core liner inside the pipe, which is then pulled all the way back to the surface 3+ km above with a really strong wire. The 9.6 m-long core liner full of precious oozes is then received on the drill floor, before being carried to the “catwalk” where the curator (Chad) and technicians (Chieh, Heather, Colin, Maggie, Aaron etc…) cut the core into more manageable 1.5 m sections. Everything is very carefully labeled using triple-redundancy pens, stickers and laser engraving – the order of the core sections is super-important!


  1. While the cores are still on the catwalk, the “core-catcher” (the sample at the bottom of each 9.6 m core) is sampled and given to the biostratigraphers so they can get to work straight away. They will look at the micro- and nanno- (really tiny!) fossils in the mud, which can tell us how old the oozes are and how deep the seawater was when it was deposited. At the same time our microbiologist John takes some samples and wraps them up tightly in sterile containers (and freezes them) so he can search for cool “deep-biosphere” bugs later. The geochemists also take a few “whole round” samples from the cores, which they will then squeeze in the lab downstairs to sample the “pore waters” that exist within the sediment pile. The leftover bits of mud from this are called “squeeze cakes”, which I rather like. Nom nom nom.

microbiology sampling

  1. The core sections are then given over to the physical properties team (or “phys props”) whose job it is to scan the cores for a variety of parameters like magnetic susceptibility (how magnetic are the minerals in the mud), p-wave (how dense is the mud), gamma ray (how radioactive is the mud (don’t panic, the answer is always “not very at all”- You get more radiation from spending 15 minutes near the Cornish Granites!)).
  1. After scanning, the cores are left to “equilibrate” for a few hours – this means they have time to come up to room temperature (it’s cold down there and warm up here) and do any expanding they are planning on doing (there’s a lot of pressure at the bottom of the sea, and not much up here, so sometimes the cores get bigger while they’re sitting in the lab!). After equilibration, the cores are split in half lengthways using a piano wire – truly high tech stuff. Now we have two halves – the “working half” which people are allowed to take samples from, and the “archive half” which is to be left untouched for future reference. Some extra samples are taken from the working half for geochemistry measurements before it’s put away for the rest of the cruise.


  1. The sedimentologists now get their grubby hands on the archive half of the cores and can begin the exciting job of describing them. What color are they? (hint they are not always creamy-white like in the photo above!). What are they made of? How big are the grains? Can we see any structures or macrofossils? All of this info is carefully written down in the database so we can make beautiful diagrams and plots of the sediment characteristics later on, while we try to figure out what’s going on.
  1. Last to get the cores are the Paleomagnetists (or “paleo-magicians” as we affectionately call them). These guys measure the ancient magnetic field direction and strength preserved in the magnetic minerals in the mud, which can be really useful for telling where we are in time. [This is pretty complicated, so we’ll let one of the magicians explain it themselves in a later post].
  1. After all this, the cores are boxed up and put in the reefer (the big fridge at the very bottom of the ship), where they will stay until they are unloaded again in Singapore at the end of the expedition, ready to be shipped to our IODP Indian Ocean repository in Kochi, Japan. In about 4 months time, we will all meet up again in Kochi and take our personal samples to do further experiments on the mud – one of the perks of sailing is that you get a 1-year head start on everyone else to do some science on the cores from your expedition, before they are opened up to the whole scientific community. Tick tock…

So that’s about it for core flow. T-minus 4 hours to next core on the floor, so I’d better get back to work!

Next update: meet the (super awesome) sedimentologists…

Meet the scientists. Vol 1: The Co-Chiefs

Good afternoon! We have a brief respite from the relentless core-on-the-floor this weekend, as we transit to the next site and clear up a few bureaucratic issues with India, so I thought it would be a nice moment to introduce a new segment to the blog: “meet the scientists”.

The scientists are but one part of the crew who work together to make any IODP expedition successful (see my earlier post for a full breakdown of who’s-who on the JR), but they’re a big part of making sure the scientific objectives of the cruise get met. We toil out here for 60 days straight (!) to make sure the cores are properly described and recorded, so it will be of maximum value to both ourselves and the wider scientific community for years to come. So it seems only fitting that you should get to meet us properly.

First up is one of our illustrious co-chiefs, Steve Clemens, who will explain a little bit about who he is and what his job out here entails.


Hello interviewee. Please tell the good people your name, your nationality, your position, and what institute you’re from.

Steve Clemens, USA, Associate Professor of Research, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island   

Steve cochief_low res

Ok great –  what’s your specialty on the JR and what does it involve?

I’m a Co-Chief Scientist. The two Co-Chiefs [the other is Wolfgang Kuhnt from Germany] are responsible for ensuring that the overall scientific goals of the expedition are met. Drilling operations at sea rarely go as planned, there are always surprises.

Thus far we have had delays related to damage from a lightning strike to the drilling tower (!), bent and broken piston cores, and damage to the cable that moves through the drill pipe. Consequently, we spend time revising the operational plan to ensure that we have sufficient time to drill at all the primary locations we have targeted in the 61 days we have to conduct the expedition. We also spend time reviewing and commenting on reports from the various lab groups including sedimentology, micropaleontology, paleomagnetics, chemistry, stratigraphy and down-hole logging. Ultimately we will synthesize all the results into a coherent report on the scientific outcomes of the expedition.  

Uh huh… sounds pretty tricky. Why exactly is this job important to the expedition?

The Co-chief’s are important to the expedition because we are responsible for coordinating the overall organization and day to day operations of the scientific work. This job actually began years before the expedition, with the organization of a group of scientists to write and defend the proposal to conduct this expedition. The proposal spent three years in competition with many other proposals to use the JR for scientific research.  

3_derrick pointers low res copy

Ok then, so you’re a big cheese on the boat, but what’s your regular area of research at home when you’re not on the JR?

My normal area of research is the focus of this expedition, understanding past changes in the Indian and Asian monsoon systems.  

Well then this is just the expedition for you! What is the scientific question you are most hoping to answer with the new material from Exp. 353?

I hope to better understand why the the Indian and Asian monsoon systems change in different ways over time. It’s a bit odd that they do so, given that they both have very similar sources of moisture.  

Ok that’s enough science talk. What’s the best part about being at sea on the JR for you?

No doubt, the best part is working with a large group of enthusiastic scientists who are willing to work 12 hours a day for 61 days in a row and love doing it. Developing new scientific collaborations that will last years into the future is a huge benefit of sailing on expeditions like this one.  

Now what about the bad stuff…what’s the worst part about being at sea on the JR? What do you miss most from home?

Beside the obvious down side of missing family and friends from home, there is only one difficult aspect to working on the JR and that is that there is almost no down-time; it’s nearly all working and sleeping. Even after a 12 hour shift, there’s work left to do.

Couldn’t agree more Steve, maybe you should give us the day off…? 🙂

Tune in next time for more scientist-meeting. Next up: (the most important people of all) the sedimentologists!

What’s the point of collecting ocean mud? What can it possibly tell you?

An excellent question. Let me elaborate.

One of the most basic ideas in Geology is that the present is the key to the past. If you see the process or phenomenon happening today, then you can assume it also occurred in the past and so better understand what the rocks are trying to tell you. For example, we know that glaciers in the modern world leave big scratch marks in the rocks where the ice has scraped past, so if we see those same scratches in ancient rock formations, we can infer that there was once a glacier there, even if those rocks are now sitting in a desert. Simples.

Another important idea that has been gaining momentum in recent decades is that the past is the key to the future. So if you know something happened in a certain way, with certain effects, in the past then there’s a good chance it might happen again in a similar way in the future. History has a habit of repeating itself, after all.

One of the most important issues we can apply this idea to is modern day climate change.

We know we are adding carbon dioxide (and methane, water vapour, nitrous oxide etc.,) into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels. We know that these gases are greenhouse gasses and will cause Earth to warm. We know if we warm the Earth enough, then one of the effects will be to melt the polar ice caps (and high altitude mountain ice), raising sea level and jeopardizing the lives of millions of people. That’s on top of other more insidious effects such as ocean acidification and decreasing food crop yields.

This is all basic physics, so there’s nothing really to debate here (despite what certain “skeptics” would have you believe). But… there are lots of unknowns about the precise effects of climate change on the sensitive climate and ecological systems, including the future behavior of the monsoons. We suspect the monsoons will change as the planet warms ­– the monsoon rains are ultimately driven by seasonal changes in heating over Asia – but we don’t know in which direction. Will it get rainier or drier? Will the season of maximum rainfall shift? Will the same amount of rain fall in greater or fewer months of the year?

From an agricultural and policy planning point of view, these details are absolutely vital.

So that brings me back to ocean mud; what can it possibly tell us about future monsoons??

You can think of the oceans as gigantic bowls or basins, into which all the rock and mud that has been eroded from the land will eventually collect, washed in by rivers the world over. So you can imagine that over time the mud collects in layers at the bottom of these giant bowls recording the history of all the rock that has been eroded from the land over the millennia. At the bottom is the very oldest mud, with the youngest mud deposited on top at the sea floor. Mixed in with this rock are things that live in the (fish) bowl, from tiny microscopic plankton to the great whales. These too will eventually settle into the depths of the ocean bowl upon death, to be incorporated in the great muddy ticker-tape of time.

Deep sea drilling cartoon copy

(Literally nothing about this image is to scale)

So when we come along with our big drilling ship, and stick a glorified steel straw into this mud, what we pull out will record the history of erosion and deposition from that region far back into the past (indeed, as far back as we are able to drill down).

And that is what we are doing on IODP Exp. 353.

We are collecting hundreds of meters of this mud, the deepest parts of which can take us back in time to when the dinosaurs were still stalking the Earth, some 75 million years ago. We can use it to look at the behavior of the monsoons, and other phenomena, during periods of time when CO2 was equal to or higher than it is today (about 400 parts per million). Once we understand how the monsoons behaved in this ancient warmer world, we will have a better idea of how it might behave in the coming centuries.

Once we are back on shore (and in our nice comfy labs again), we will take this mud and analyse it using various nifty sedimentological (mud-bothering), geochemical (chemical-bothering) and paleontological (biological-bothering) techniques, until the mud gives up it’s oozey secrets and tells us everything we want to know about the ancient Indian monsoon. But that’s a story for another day…

In the meantime, this is how a bunch of scientists try and decide where the K-T boundary is… pointing and guesswork!

Wheres the KT boundary

(p.s. Wolfgang was right!)

Preparing for the worst….

… hoping for the best!

So yesterday morning us day-shifters were rudely awakened at the ungodly hour of 10.30 am for our weekly lifeboat drill. Even though the JR is a very safe and stable ship, it’s still possible that we might run into trouble if we get hit by a very severe storm or a big fire breaks out, so we need to be prepared to abandon ship should the captain give the word.

So the general drill is this:

1. The general alarm sounds throughout the ship, followed by an announcement by the captain that either “this is a drill” (good) or “no really, this isn’t a drill, abandon ship!” (not so good). So far we’ve only heard the first one. Phew.

2. Grab your life jacket, you hardhat, and your safety glasses (I’m not sure why we need the latter, but sure, why not), and make sure you have sturdy shoes on – e.g. not my habitual shlompy flipflops. Full outfit beautifully modeled by Katie here:

Katie lifeboat

3. Make your way to your muster stations, which are located next to your lifeboats on the Bridge (top) deck. There are four lifeboats on the JR, two on each side, and each can hold 70 people at a push (but man would that be a squeeze!) –so more than enough to handle the 140-strong crew we have on board.

Here is a view of Lifeboat 3 on the starboard (right) side of the ship:


4. If it’s just a drill, you can probably get your name ticked off and go and eat some ice cream for breakfast or something (we have an ice cream machine on board… fatness is constant threat…), but if it’s for real you’re gonna have to get in the boat!

Here’s Steve and Kau looking very happy about being in a lifeboat despite the cramped conditions and perilous nature of the situation (photo by Marci Robinson):

Boys in the lifeboat

There are a whole bunch of complex instructions about how to release the lifeboats from the ship, and how to start the engine etc., which I tried very hard to pay attention to, but suspect if it actually came down to it I’d probably just panic and pull all the switches and levers at once, no doubt plunging us all into a premature watery grave. So, I plan on leaving it to the professionals if at all possible.

I think the best part is that the captain, the doctor and the photographer are all assigned to my lifeboat, so if anyone is gonna get rescued, it’s us! And we’ll have some nice photos of our time to-boot.

Next post: what are we actually doing with all this mud we’re drilling from under the sea…?

Core on the floor!

Greetings from the JR!

This is gonna be a bumper post, as a lot has happened in the last couple of days. Hold on to your hats…

So, it’s 1.30 am and I just got off my 12 noon-12 midnight shift. Today was a mixture of exhausting and awesome as…. we finally got core! And what a beauty she is

first core

😀 😀 😀

So, to start from the beginning:

We are currently 285 nautical miles from the nearest land – the northern tip of Aceh, Indonesia – at our first coring site, called “U1443”.

Indian Ocean map2

We are above the so called “90E Ridge”, which, as you might guess, sits at a longitude of about 90E. A well named ridge, I think you’ll agree. It is currently sitting some 2900 m below us, under a lot of seawater, so it requires a whole heck of pipe for us to reach even the seafloor, let along deep into the sediment pile as we’re aiming to do.

Here are some of the roughnecks moving the pipe into position a few days ago (L) and a view from below the derrick (R):

drilling pipe 1                                   derrick1

The pipe is lifted up by the derrick and then lowered down through the “moonpool” (more about that another time) and into the ocean. Piece by piece the pipe is lowered down until it hits the seafloor and we can start drilling.

Now, the kind of rocks we’re trying to get a hold of, actually aren’t rocks at all.. they’re mud. Or “ooze” as we like to call them in the trade. Now if you try and drill ooze using a hardcore rotary drill you’re just going to end up with a whole lot of slurry and not the nicely preserved core we’re looking for. So we use a hydraulic piston called an “APC”, which fires a pipe into the ooze with a huge amount of force. Imagine pushing a straw into some mud (but like, really really fast) and all the mud going up inside the straw in a nice tube shape. It’s just like that.

Here’s our Operations Superintendent (head-honcho-of-drilling) Kevin explaining the different bits to us (the APC is the shiny one on the left):

kevin on catwalk with bits

So cut a long, and really rather technologically-wonderful, story short, at about 6pm yesterday (after about 12 hours of hitches with the equipment induced by a freak lightening strike last week!) we finally succeeded in getting our first core on the deck.

Here’s the techs bringing the first core of Expedition 353 up onto the catwalk… and some scientists struggling to capture the full range of emotions they are feeling right now.

Core on the floor1              Confusion

And so ensued 24+ hours of unrelenting work!

Once the cores start to be recovered they come up fast and furious, and the real work (for the scientists anyway) begins… but I’ll leave that for the next post.

In the meantime, I leave you with Team-Sedimentology and our geeky excitement over the first core on deck.

first core team sedimentology