Friday, June 10, 2011

Going home

The JOIDES Resolution is the finest oceanographic research vessel in the world. It replaces the famous Glomar Challenger, in the history books for helping to revolutionize geology -- a true revolution, from a static Earth to one where continents drift and oceans are born over hundreds of millions of years of geologic time, the theory of plate tectonics. If the US were England, the Glomar Challenger might be anchored in the Thames with other historic vessels. As it is, it was broken up for scrap.

The JR is a more serious vessel, with state-of-the-art drilling equipment and laboratories. I asked, "After so many holes, is the science getting stale." The crew just laughed. Every hole, it seems brings new surprises, new questions, new refinements of Earth history. Theories are confirmed, theories are modified, theories are discarded.

Over the last week, I have been detailing just one of the many threads the JR follows -- that of understanding how and why the Earth's past climate has changed, which helps us understand and plan for possible futures. Human-induced climate change has of course become a political football, with commentators taking one side of the issue or the other primarily based on their political persuasion. I detected none of that on the JR. No one seemed to care about anything except the refinement of the facts. Let the chips fall as they may.

For us non-scientists, the stakes are huge. Even a modest rise in Earth temperature can have catastrophic impact on human civilization, which occupies merely the last slip of geologic time, too thin to be discernable at the left edge of those O18 and CO2 graphs. Is the information the JR retrieves from the seafloor useful in assessing our role as a geologic factor? That is for each of us to decide, hopefully on the basis of the best evidence we can gather. It should be clear by now that from what I have learned here, my feeling is an emphatic yes. Supporting this ship is chump change compared to, for example, the cost of protecting our coastal cities from rising seas.

But Washington doesn't necessarily see it that way, especially when no-tax, no-government, and anti-science are in the ascendancy. During the coming year, the JR will be tied up in port half of the time, and the program is threatened. Who needs to know about the millions of years when the Earth is 6,000 years old and the Rapture is at hand? Meanwhile, Japan has put her own research vessel to sea, and China and India are making major investments in oceanographic science. America's long ascendancy in telling the planet's story may be waning. Basic science drives technology. Technology is the engine of a vigorous economy. Curiosity about the world we live in is the badge of a confident, forward-looking, can-do people.

More pics on Mo's blog.