Deep Drilling Unlocking Planet’s Secrets
Finding Facts Before Conclusions
The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) is all about science.
An international marine research drilling project, it is dedicated to advancing scientific understanding of the earth -- including but certainly not limited to a further understanding of global warming -- and to do so in a non-partisan, non-political way.
Specifically, its objectives are to explore four principle themes:
- The deep biosphere and the subsea floor ocean.
- Environmental change.
- Earth processes and effects.
- Solid earth cycles and geodynamics.
Nancy Light, director of communications for IODP, puts the work into perspective.
“We are not a political organization and have no agenda other than scientific research,” she says. “Politics do not play into our agenda whatsoever.
“Our scientists look at the data and are currently looking at the creation of climate models that would reflect the historic patterns -- in geologic time -- that may exist.”
The IODP was established in October 2003, and followed the work of Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) and the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP). Funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and 22 international partners (JOIDES), it conducts basic research into the history of the ocean basins and the overall nature of the crust beneath the ocean floor using the scientific drill ship JOIDES Resolution.
Joint Oceanographic Institutions Inc. (JOI), a group of 18 U.S. institutions, is the program manager; Texas A&M University’s, College of Geosciences is the science operator; and Columbia University, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory provides logging services and administers the site survey data bank.
Information obtained by IDOP and its predecessors is disseminated via industry journals -- not conservative or liberal think tanks -- which further underscores the project’s neutrality.
Collecting the data, analyzing the results: Scientists aboard the JOIDES Resolution conduct basic research into the history of the ocean basins and the overall nature of the crust beneath the ocean floor. Specifically, its objectives are to explore four principle themes: The deep biosphere and the subsea floor ocean; environmental change; Earth processes and effects; and solid earth cycles and geodynamics.
Data, Not Politics
According to Steven R. Bohlen of JOI, over 25,000 research papers have been written that use ODP or IODP data, and approximately 35,000-40,000 samples are sent to researchers throughout the world so they can conduct studies and test hypotheses.
“Sadly,” he says, “the National Science Foundation has not put much money into bringing the program to the public. We like to call this (IODP) the best program no one has ever heard about.
“Through scientific drilling, we really have learned how the planet functions,” he continued. “More than any other program in the geosciences, this one has revolutionized how we think about the earth. But the budgets for public outreach have been anemic, and next to nothing when compared with NASA budgets for education and outreach.”
According to Bohlen, the work over the years (from DSDP and ODP, as well as IODP) led to many advances, including the discoveries:
- That the role of methane hydrates is driving rapid warming of Earth.
- That global climate change is even more rapid than at first believed.
- That the Mediterranean Sea was almost completely dry in the last Miocene period.
- That wind blown dust found in ocean cores in central East Africa probably caused early humans to migrate northward.
- That copper and zinc sulfides were deposited on the seafloor near spreading ridges, causing mining companies to change how they explore for the so-called massive sulfide deposits. (The chief scientist for the Canadian Geological Survey estimated the economic impact at about $500 million/year.)
- That no ocean crust exists that is older than 180 million years.
- That the earth has been generally cooling since the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.
“IODP has provided the basic material -- cores that contain the history of Earth -- so hundreds of scientists around the planet have been able to conduct basic research and reach important conclusions about climate and environmental change,” Bohlen said.
“The results of the program have been used in the global warming debate,” he said, and then echoed the sentiments of Nancy Light:
“But overall the program has been free of the political overtones of the debate about anthropogenic climate change.”
Science and the Elephant
Clearly, IODP isn’t just about global warming. As Bohlen points out, the work being done on tsunamis and earthquakes is substantial, as well.
“Ocean Drilling has drilled various sediments that have shed light on large tsunamis, though most of the evidence lies on land,” he said. “Discovery of methane hydrates as a significant component of continental shelf sediments has caused us to realize that not just earthquakes and explosive volcanic eruptions (and meteor impacts in the ocean) can cause tsunamis, but also decomposition of methane hydrate in sediments.
“The program has also drilled a number of holes and established sea-floor observatories that help us understand the formation of great earthquakes (> 8.0 magnitude) in subduction zones. How subduction zones work -- how much ocean sediment is scraped off the down-going ocean crustal plate, how fluids flow (and potentially lubricate fault surfaces), faults are created and move, etc. -- is a significant achievement of the program.”
Still, the elephant in the room (or the ocean, as it were) is global warming.
“I find the observational evidence so compelling,” he said. “Earth is warming, most likely at an unprecedented rate ... And we still do not have a good understanding of how fast the ice will melt. Five years ago we thought the melting would be gradual. We are now seeing nonlinear effects and processes that greatly enhance melting.”
What bothers Bohlen is not that there’s a spirited debate as to the rapidity of climate change or even the extent to which man is responsible, but that there are those who would mock the science altogether.
“Calling the warming a hoax does a disservice to humanity, not to mention the hard work of scientists the world over who have toiled to bring objective observation into the debate.
“Even if we were to stop burning all fossil fuels tomorrow, the Earth would continue to warm for another 50-100 years,” he said. “So we are going to have to learn how to adapt, but this does not mean that we should do nothing.
“We need to continue to refine how Earth warms and how the climate has changed in the past, especially with an eye toward understanding the dynamics of rapid change.
“Policy makers have more than enough science to begin to create policy to address the problem.”