Awesome sediments recovered from the Indian margin… now we’re off to the Andamans!

Howdy folks,

Time for an update on what we’ve been up to lately, as I’ve been too busy working for blog maintenance! Where to begin…?

During the first 12 days of 2015 we have achieved an awful lot, having successfully completed two of our most important target sites on the Indian margin. Boo yeah!

We have begun and completed coring at the first of the “BB” Sites, Site U1445, which was our deepest (oldest) target in this region. We drilled down over 600 m into the sediment, which combined with a water depth of 2400 m meant an impressive 3 km of pipe hanging off the bottom of the boat. Again, take a moment to wonder at the technological marvel of that.

At Site U1445 we double-cored to depth and got some fantastic sediment going all the way back to the late Miocene (~6 Ma), which will allow us to reconstruct monsoon and ocean dynamics over this critical interval of Earth’s history, in a region never before scientifically drilled by IODP. So in that sense, everything we find here is new to science and will add tremendously to our understanding of the planet’s most potent climate phenomenon.

Indian Ocean map3_jan 13

We then moved a little ways north and into shallower water (only 1400 m) to drill the second of our BB sites, U1446. This site was targeted to be our high-resolution Pleistocene section and boy it did not disappoint. Double cored with fantastic APC recovery it yielded a super high-resolution account of the last million years or so of sedimentation in the Mahanadi Basin. Woof!

I’m sure a whole heap of great science is going to come out of these cores and I am so excited to get back to the lab to start working on them. (Almost as excited as at the prospect of sleeping in my own bed and drinking a cold beer. Not in that order).

With so many different scientific specialties on board, from sedimentology to micropaleontology to physical properties and geochemistry, the potential for collaborations is endless. I’m sure the scientists on board, along with our shore-based collaborators and students, are going to be working together on this material for years to come.

While I’m here, by way of an explanation you may have noticed that I am (and indeed the people behind the official JR Twitter and Facebook accounts are) always a little vague when it comes to describing exactly what we’ve recovered out here during the expedition. Those engaged in outreach have to strike a delicate balance between letting everyone know all the cool stuff we’ve found and not giving too much away…

Why is this? Well, one of the rewards for the scientists for spending two months out here working 12-hour shifts is the head-start we get in getting the post-cruise science started and published. We have 12 months from the time we take our samples (probably July 2015) before anyone else is allowed to work on these cores, after which they, and all the data we’ve collected during the expedition, become fair game for the whole scientific community to request and analyse. So we want to make sure we don’t put too much sensitive information out into cyberspace that might jeopardise our plans. It’s only fair after all.

Having said that, I am just dying to tell everyone how awesome this stuff is! So here for your viewing pleasure is some mud from U1446. You might not know why exactly it is so awesome, but trust me, it is 🙂

U1446 core photos_blog

This mud makes us happy – like really, really happy…

Happy scientists_small

Right now we’re on our 3-day transit, chasing the sunrise east towards the Andaman Islands, where we’ll start drilling our final site. Yes, there’s even more awesome mud to come! So watch this space.


Still to come:

-What do geochemists and paleomagnetists do on board?

-What do we find in the Andaman Islands?

-Where do the crew eat and work out on the JR?

-Who won the inaugural JR International Ping Pong Tournament 2015???

Meet the…. stratigraphic correlators

Afternoon (shore-based) shipmates!

As we are currently drilling Hole C at Site U1445, I thought this would be a good moment to introduce you to the stratigraphic correlators, and why it is that we feel the need to drill more than one hole in the exact same spot in the ocean!

Liviu is our day-shift correlator, who is hard at work as we speak making sure all the cores are correctly offset and that we’re not missing anything. I’ll let him expain in his own words what it is that he does…

Go ahead and introduce yourself – to start off, what do we call you?

Giosan… Liviu Giosan… 🙂

Hello Luviu. And where do you hail from?

I am a Romanian working in the USA at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod near Boston. Woods Hole, home of famed research submarine Alvin, is the largest independent institute for ocean exploration in the world and has sent many able marine scientists to sail on JR over time.

Ah so you’re from the “other Falmouth” in the USA. I bet it’s not as good as the original one in Cornwall 😉

Liviu at work

[Liviu working hard at the correlator’s station]

So what is your specialty on the JR and what does it involve?

I am a geoscientist widely interested in many aspects of Earth’s history. I sail here as a stratigraphic correlator – and together with my colleague Gianluca Marino, we make sure that the mud recovered by drilling is as complete as possible. What does this mean?

Let’s imagine an old book that has only two copies left and each copy has pages missing. The pages not available in one copy may be available in the other. The cylinders of mud that we extract at the bottom of the ocean have layers upon layers, pages in Earth’s history book. We can read that book through studies in our labs around the world. The deeper we drill the earlier we reach in time.

Drilling today is one amazing technology, but it is not perfect. We may lose mud layers, when we drill first, but a second try or a third one may not miss the same mud. Our job as correlators is to make sure that we can piece together this mud book from multiple drilled holes.


Coring offset figure

[Cartoon to show multiple-hole drilling. Black = full recovery, white = the bit we missed. The virtual splice created by the correlators combines both cores to make a complete record with no gaps! Just what we paleoceanographers need for our ongoing work]


 Great explanation! But why exactly is this job so important to the expedition and to ocean drilling in general?

Completeness insures that all scientists involved in this great effort called scientific drilling are able to perform their studies when they return in the lab. Drilling in the ocean is hard and expensive; it is not possible to go back in the same spot to drill again for decades or maybe ever. Correlation in real time insures that we get the best mud that money can buy …

Ah, value for money – always a compelling argument in these tough times. So can you tell us what your normal area of research is at home when you’re not on the JR?

I am interested in how people. Climate and landscapes interact and enrich or limit each other… For example: did climate cause the fall of the Indus civilization 4000 years ago? Did humans build river deltas by adopting agriculture in the Neolithic? Did the monsoon impact human migration out of Africa? Can we do anything to preserve lowland coasts for our grandchildren as sea level rises?

Oooh interesting stuff. And what is the scientific question you are most hoping to answer with the new material from Exp. 353?

 That’s a good question … Did not figure that out yet!

You have plenty of time and we’re getting great mud, so don’t worry! All of our research plans are evolving as we bring up more material during the cruise.

IODP Expedition 353 Indian Monsoon

[Liviu and Gianluca enjoying the sunshine on deck]


So what is the best part about being at sea on the JR?

I like the intense science done under pressure. After all – at the end of each cruise we have a book already written about the region we drilled. In what scientific program can you find such excitement and efficiency?

That’s very true. Sometimes we produce our best work with no rest and lots of motivation…! What is the worst part about being at sea on the JR? What do you miss most from home?

I miss my wife practicing piano – she is a classical pianist – when I work on my papers – it soothes me … And my high school son talking about engines and how we should not give up on inventing a perpetuum mobile 🙂

Great, well thanks Liviu. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Well, never pass the opportunity to sail in a science drilling cruise if you are ever presented with one!

 Excellent advice! See you next time for more deep-sea discoveries…

Finding a moment to enjoy our beautiful planet

Afternoon all.

We are still getting fantastic Plio-Pleistocene cores from Site U1445 on the Indian margin, which as well of meaning some very exciting post-cruise research, also means lots of work for the sedimentologists this week!

So for the last 5 days I have exclusively been hunched over the microscope staring at smear slides, for 12 hours at a time:

chained to the microscope

[Silty clay, clayey silt…?…. choices, choices…]

I can now estimate clay abundance with a ~5% error within 10 seconds of looking at a slide. I am not sure if I am proud of this fact or not.

Anyway, all this core-on-the-floor severely limits my available blogging time (a girl needs to sleep), so in the interim please enjoy some pretty photos of the amazing sunsets we get out here. One of the many perks…

3_pink sunset low res     Sunsets rock low res

Curved sunbeam      Sunset on the JR_small

And let’s not forget the luminous moon. It was our second full moon of the expedition yesterday – a nice way to mark time out here. Only 3 weeks left!

moonrise at sunset       Moooooon

It’s important to take a 10 minute break from the lab from time to time….

Sunset admirer       A break from the lab to enjoy the sunset

… but now it’s time to get back to work!.

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…?

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.