Ocean drilling has revolutionized Earth science – geologists now want to explore new depths


JOIDES Resolution drill ship docking in Hong Kong waters

the JOIDES Resolution is spearheading the global fleet of ocean drilling research vessels. Credit: David Wong / Getty

This month, off the coast of Ecuador, scientists are looking for hot and bitter microbes living in two long, lean holes drilled deep in the ocean.

This cruise aboard the legendary research vessel JOIDES Resolution, is the last in five years of history of scientific drilling at sea. The practice of holes in the seabed has revolutionized the Earth sciences, helping researchers to confirm the theory of plate tectonics, to discover microbes at bottom of the oceanic crust and explore the hidden risks of earthquakes and tsunamis. But for the field to stay alive for years, scientists must now convince international funding agencies that discoveries are waiting to be made.

The international agreement governing oceanic scientific drilling expires in 2023. Researchers from the 26 countries participating in this framework, known as the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), will meet in Osaka, Japan on September 11, to discuss how they could replace it. Scientists will draw up a new list of scientific goals for the next phase of ocean drilling, from 2023 to 2050 – if they can convince the funding agencies to pay for it.

IODP member countries collectively spend about $ 150 million a year to send researchers to participate in drilling expeditions. "The stakes are really important if we want to continue scientific drilling beyond 2023," says Anthony Koppers, marine geologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

At the Osaka meeting, scientists will debate the desirability of accepting an ambitious draft research plan based on discussions at regional meetings held in IODP member countries. during the past year. "We have to dream, really go ahead," said Dick Kroon, a geoscientist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who will chair the Osaka conference.

Think big

The plan calls for ships to drill regularly spaced holes in the world's oceans, in an unprecedented effort to rebuild the climate of the past – and to enable researchers to better understand how the Earth is working in future climate change. Among the other objectives, it is necessary to consider the evolution of life in the oceanic crust.

The idea excites Anais Pages, a marine scientist from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, in Bentley, Australia. According to her, setting ambitious interdisciplinary goals "will be crucial for the achievement of major scientific discoveries".

What is unclear is which of the 26 IODP member countries will adhere to these scientific goals. Once researchers have approved a final plan, government funding agencies will have to decide how much they are willing to invest in the future of ocean drilling.

Among these, the US National Science Foundation, which provides most of the $ 65 million allocated annually by the JOIDES resolution. The ship began extracting geological cores in 1985 and is spearheading the IODP fleet. He travels around the world, with a team of rotating international scientists exploring topics ranging from the history of the Indian monsoon to the risk of earthquakes in Indonesia.

The ship has the necessary funds to continue sailing until the end of September 2024, but it is old and obsolete and could be retired thereafter. The Norwegian shipping company Siems Offshore has offered to build a replacement vessel for free – in exchange for a 10-year commitment from Siems.

Wanted: some good ships

Brad Clement, director of scientific services for the US part of the IODP, said that because the ship would be faster than the JOIDES Resolutionscientists could spend more time each year drilling and exploring the seabed. The NSF would pay about 12% more per year to operate this vessel than for the JOIDES Resolutionsaid Clement, who is based at Texas A & M University in College Station.

Japan should continue to send scientists on its drill ship, the Chikyu, which has been operational since 2007. Chikyu can penetrate much deeper into the seabed than the JOIDES Resolution can, but it operates almost exclusively in Japanese waters, limiting its value to scientists around the world.

A group of European countries, the European Ocean Drilling Consortium, should also continue to occasionally hire industry vessels for one-off scientific drilling projects. But the consortium struggled to find the funds for all the cruises it would like to do and had to postpone expeditions such as the one exploring the Arctic seabeds.

And China could have a new drill ship ready to sail from here to the early 2020s. Its geological study is to build a ship meant to be dedicated to finding gas hydrates near the Chinese coasts, but this ship could also be sent on an international search expedition. Representatives from China's ocean drilling community are expected to discuss this possibility at the meeting in Osaka.

Whatever happens, Rosalind Coggon, a marine geologist at the National Oceanography Center at the University of Southampton, UK, says there is plenty of room for new discoveries in the coming decades. "I really hope that in 25 years we have discovered something that we totally ignored," she says.

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