March 4, 2009 | 1
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 sixth 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 24, 2009)—Our first coring events have gone very well. The chemists were up until the wee hours on Sunday the 22nd, making direct in situ measurements and extracting water from the pore spaces of the sediments for analysis later. We’re improving our sampling routine with each core.
The other cruises I’ve been on have only sampled rocks and hydrothermal chimneys using an ROV (remotely operated vehicle, like the Jason II) or a submersible HOV (human operated vehicle, like Alvin and Pisces II). Also, I have no prior experience with sampling muds. So far, this is very different, but lots of fun, too [see photos on this post for the details].
After coring we got right to work on the geophysics program. This is where we are mapping the topography of the bottom and looking at the structure of what lies underneath: where the sediments are, where the rock is.
Our excitement over to the results, and where to drill next, was short-lived. Suddenly, at about 4 P.M. local time yesterday, chief scientist Heiner Villinger was summoned from an impromptu meeting. Two minutes later he was back with some very bad news: A member of the crew had cut his thumb very badly, after a door slammed shut on it while the ship was rolling. We are going to have to get him to a hospital as soon as possible. We are lucky to have a doctor on board this ship, but he’ll still need an operation on his thumb. Tomorrow morning at 8 A.M. we sail from our drilling site to rendezvous with a helicopter about 200 nautical miles 370 kilometers from Martinique. After the crew member is picked up, we then turn back…for North Pond.
It’s important to note that the crew spend around 75 percent of their time on the water, as Verna Heuer, a scientist from Bremen, pointed out to me this morning. Most accidents and medical emergencies will therefore happen out here. They’re not unusual in oceanography, unfortunately. Our injured crew member appears to be doing okay—as well as can be expected. We will miss him after he flies off tomorrow.
So what does a science party do under such circumstances? When the news first broke about these events, we were in a total state of shock for some time. Once again, a spontaneous gathering resulted. This is a resilient group out here: In the face of some very bad news, the group is both realistic and optimistic. Wiebke Ziebis, my colleague from U.S.C. and roommate here at sea, told me she would cross the Atlantic all over again, just to get more core like we already have.
Heiner has asked for a short extension of the cruise because of the lost time. We have no idea if it will be approved, but every day counts. Our kind captain has…approved 24-hour operations when we get back on station, instead of working in shifts and on overtime. Third, we will travel as quickly as possible. That means not using the Merian‘s stabilizers, devices that minimize the roll of the ship. Yuck-o for the passengers. This boat will really rock now!
We’ll also have to reevaluate our coring plan. We’ve been conservative until now: Inch up slowly to our highest priority sites. Now, we simply go directly to those sites to try to answer the most urgent question: Where do we put the IODP (Integrated Ocean Drilling Program) CORKs (Circulation Obviation Retrofit Kits), the instruments that measure water flow through the crust when we come back on another expedition. I’ll tell you how we do that next time.
Photo of postdoc of Nina Knab working in a hood, and of a split core, courtesy USC/Katrina Edwards
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX