Friday, June 03, 2011

Into the deep

My daughter Mo was recently quoted in the journal Nature saying: " (Just about) everything we know about (Earth's) climate older than a million years we know from the ocean drilling program." She should know. Since 1985 the premier scientific drilling vessel has been the JOIDES (Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling) Resolution. In 1986, Mo sailed with ship as a graduate student in paleoclimatology. In 1995, she was scientific co-chief on one leg of the Resolution's endless peregrinations though the world's seas. For the past two years, she has chaired of the 24-nation Integrated Ocean Drilling Program's main science evaluation committee. Now, I get the opportunity to join her on a brief five-day hop of this extraordinary vessel as it makes a transit from the Pacific to Atlantic Oceans. As I mentioned before, the ship is just coming off an attempt to drill closer to the Earth's mantle than ever before.

We joined the ship this morning (the 3rd) in Panama, by launch, as it waited in queue for its turn through the canal, a transit that will fulfill my lifelong wish to see this stupendous work of engineering. Looks like we will not make the transit til tomorrow morning.

For hundreds of millions of years, sediments have built up on the ocean floor, mostly the skeletons of microscopic organisms that live in the sea. The chemistry, evolution and distributions of these creatures are acutely sensitive to climate, in ways I will subsequently describe. Drilling into the sediments and bringing up a "core" (a long column of compacted sediment, photo coming) is like having access to a history book of the geologic past. An ocean core is as important to a geologist, and especially to a paleoclimatologist, as the discovery of a pharaoh's tomb would be to an Egyptian archeologist.

More in coming days.