Ocean Drilling and the Institute for Geophysics

Maurice "Doc" Ewing, one of the most prominent earth scientists of the past century, came to Texas in 1972 to found the research center that would ultimately become the Institute for Geophysics. Photo circa 1951. Credit: Manny Warman.

The history of the Institute for Geophysics is to a large extent the history of the big three scientific ocean drilling programs. Multinational collaborations focused on scientific ocean drilling began with the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) in 1968. DSDP begat ODP, which in turn begat the current effort, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP).

Maurice “Doc” Ewing, one of the most prominent earth scientists of the past century, came to Texas in 1972 to found the research center that would ultimately become the Institute. Ewing and the man who would succeed him as director, J. Lamar Worzel, were co-chief scientists on the first leg of the DSDP in 1968. Arthur Maxwell, director of the Institute from 1982 to 1994, made his mark as co-chief scientist of Leg 3 of the DSDP, which confirmed the concept of seafloor spreading-an accomplishment called by some the most significant discovery in the history of scientific ocean drilling.

The close ties have continued to the present, with Institute researchers conducting pre-drilling seismic surveys, serving as scientists and co-chiefs on expeditions, touring the country as ODP/IODP distinguished lecturers, and serving in leadership positions with the three programs.

Terry Quinn, director of the Institute, sailed with ODP in 1990 and 1992, and with IODP in 2005. Both trips were focused on understanding how sea level has changed in the past using carbonate islands as dipsticks for past sea level. He has served in various leadership roles with ODP and IODP since 1997. He’s currently a member of the IODP Science Advisory Structure Executive Committee, the program’s highest advisory group.

The Deep Sea Drilling Project began scientific expeditions aboard the Glomar Challenger in 1968.
The Deep Sea Drilling Project began scientific expeditions aboard the Glomar Challenger in 1968.

“You want the best science to be done by the drilling,” he says. “You can either sit on the sidelines and say it’s going on or not, or you can get involved. I was raised if you see something that needs doing, get involved.”

Jamie Austin, director of the IODP in 1994 and currently a senior research scientist at the Institute, played a critical role in the transition from the ODP to IODP. From 1999 to 2001, he was part of a seven member group that drew up the blueprint for the new IODP, including the use of multiple drilling platforms for different environments and scientific goals.

The relationship between the Institute and the scientific ocean drilling programs is symbiotic. Before scientists drill, they have to have the seismic images to decide where to drill.

“The historic strength of the Institute has been in seismic studies of the sea floor,” says Terry Quinn, director of the Institute. “NSF knows that if they want it done right, then we’re involved. We’re one of the handful of places that can do this kind of work.”

Likewise, a significant proportion of the research at the Institute relies on information obtained from ocean drilling. For example, seismic imaging can reveal the shapes of features in the subsurface.

“To understand how shapes evolved over geological time, you have to tell time,” says Austin. “Drilling allows us to tell time by dating sediments and the rocks beneath them.”

There is a synergy between the two tools that, when correlated, make them more than the sum of their parts.

“The drill hole is only 4 inches wide,” says Austin. “Seismic imaging allows you to extrapolate away from a drill site and paint a regional picture.”

Uncertain Future

Now, Institute scientists and their colleagues around the world are faced with an uncertain future. The current IODP program, which began in 2003, is set to expire in 2013.

The JOIDES Resolution

Scientists in the ocean drilling community have produced a report outlining what new science could be achieved with a fourth program and they’re beginning to lobby funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. But there’s no guarantee, especially in the current economic environment, that it will be funded. And that, worries Austin, would hit the Institute doubly hard.

“We do a lot of seismic imaging and one of the big impetuses to do that would go away,” he says. “We’d also lose the drilling. And that will hurt us in trying to understand climate. Because you need to tell time to study past climate and you need sediments to tell geologic time.”

In recent years, scientists have come to recognize that there is a vast world of microbial life beneath the seafloor, perhaps more abundant than life above the seafloor. Writing in the April 13, 2010 edition of the journal EOS, the Institute’s Nick Hayman and Gail Christeson and several co-authors pointed out that a future drilling program could shed light on this largely unknown part of the biosphere by studying how nutrients, heat, water and other materials flow through the crust and upper mantle.

Another publication addressing the future of scientific ocean drilling is a sweeping report that grew out of a gathering of over 500 experts from around the world in Bremen, Germany in September 2009. Sean Gulick, research scientist at the Institute and member of the meeting’s steering committee, helped compile the report which lays out a set of goals and required technology for a future drilling program. The report identifies key areas where drilling can make a big impact: climate change, the lithospheric membrane (Earth’s crust and upper mantle), co-evolution of life and the planet, Earth-human-Earth interactions, extreme events, hominid evolution, and climate-tectonic linkages and feedbacks.

It’s still too early to tell if funding agencies will step up to realize these visions for a future drilling program.

Austin says the Institute has always collaborated with industry, but without its long-term connection with scientific ocean drilling, the organization would be very different than it is today.

“Our link to NSF has been what’s kept us healthy and viable,” he says.

“It would be a real blow,” Quinn agrees. “Part of my job is to get it renewed.”

by Marc Airhart

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