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Drill, baby, drill: Our first core samples

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s Note: University of Southern California geobiologist Katrina Edwards is taking part in a three-week drilling project at the Atlantic’s North Pond—a sediment-filled valley on the ocean floor—designed to locate and study what she calls the “intraterrestrials”: the myriad microbial life-forms living inside Earth’s crust. This is her fifth blog post. To track her research ship’s current position, click here. To see all her posts, see "60 Seconds in North Pond."

SOMEWHERE IN THE NORTH POND (February 21, 2009)—We’ve made it to the North Pond, and the work has already begun. Our first drill core is up and in the cold room! As I write, biogeochemists are making measurements for oxygen profiles, and drawing off fluid samples—like taking blood samples from you and I except there is no vein, it is done in bulk for different "horizons" (depth intervals). This will continue all night.

Despite my Sarah Palin–esque headline, we’re not really drilling, certainly not "drill, baby, drill[ing]!" What we are doing is technically "coring," because we are dealing with muds. …and I will have very little to do with the deck operations except for running mud back and forth from the deck to the cold room. We are doing multicoring (a bunch of shallow cores taken all at the same time) and long coring (using a single barrel). We have hashed and rehashed our plans—I hope we are ready to do this, and do it right.

I just can’t believe we are finally at North Pond! This project started in 2005. It began modestly enough with a simple little proposal to the IODP (Integrated Ocean Drilling Program). Okay, I lie again, it wasn’t that simple—and now look what we have—a very messy, layered, complex program that feels like it is going to go on for the rest of my life.

Tomorrow morning, it’s show time for the microbiologists. We will take small samples of different layers for analyses to do in the lab: "Back on the beach," as they say in oceanography (even if you happen to have your lab in central Wyoming). I have to get up early, so I’m keeping this short. But the sense of exhilaration is in the air—we are here! In the very middle of the great blue Atlantic! We got one good sample! I’m a glass-half-full kind of gal, and am just thrilled to death that we’ve come this far and are making progress. Yes, I’m a geek to the core (so to speak), and I know it and am too geeky to even be embarrassed anymore.

Not to neglect our colleagues and co-conspirators on the project: the geophysics team. Tomorrow they get to work. Actually, they have already been working; they have generated some new maps of terrain that we have covered and shown us new features about this area compared to what data we had before. This is invaluable to the project.

Did you know that we have better maps of the surfaces of other planets than we have of the bottom of the ocean? ‘Tis true—and sad. We have so much to learn here on planet Earth.

Hopefully it won’t take that long—the best part about this is that I feel that if we actually do what we set out to do, and do it right, we are going to answer really basic questions about the function, form and consequence of deep-sea biospheric life—the intraterrestrials, organisms that a few decades ago we did not know were part of our planet. Now we know they are there, but need to figure out what the meaning of these tiny beasts is for some big and fundamental questions. Like, what would happen to the carbon cycle if there were no deep biosphere? Did you know that the intraterrestrial deep marine biosphere hosts one tenth to one third of all life on Earth, not even considering intraterrestrials that may be in the crust below the sediments?

In other news: my German lessons continue. A sampling of a few important words/phases I’ve picked up: kartoffel (potato), danke (thanks), bitte (you’re welcome), Ich lerne Deutsch (I’m learning German), prost (cheers), moin (morning), allses kar (all is clear), gang (corridor), treppen (stairs). It is a modest start. Here’s one of my favorites: mahlzeit—which means "mealtime." But it is said as a polite greeting at mealtimes here on the ship—like one would say "bon appétit" or the like.

While I’ve been out here for the North Pond experiment, I am hearing reports about the senior daughter in my household and her progress on science fair projects. Two of them! In case one does not work out. She is thinking like a scientist—always have to have a backup plan!

Photos of the team lowering a gravity core (top) and raising a core (bottom) courtesy Katrina Edwards/USC





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  1. 1. hotblack 1:20 pm 03/4/2009

    I like you.

    Link to this

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