Follow Dr. Katrina Edwards, as she explores the microbial life at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean

10-28-2011

It has been a busy and productive week out here in the middle of this big blue ocean. We have completed the casing for Hole 1383C and have been coring for the past couple of days – hence we are all back on “shifts” and moreover, working our tails off to keep up with core. This is because coring has been going remarkably fast – which is great, as we have had core coming on deck about every 3 hours, but also is indicative of a somewhat unstable hole, where pieces parts can fall in and disrupt operations.

So far so good, however, and we have presently about 150 meters of basement drilled. We decided to trip out our bit a little early to make sure that it did not get damaged (like the B Hole bit did!) – the risk of bit damage when getting to the maximum “wear time” on it (~50 hours of coring) is high right now as we have wind and heavy heave out here (~ 3 meter swells). We opted to take the conservative route and replace the drilling bit now, hoping that also this allows some time for the sea state to perhaps calm down while we are pipe tripping.

The core we have been recovering has been fantastic as well – we’ve been drilling through a lot of pillow basalt flows in the basement, some of the flows having interflow sedimentary layers. This occurs when after an eruption at the seafloor, the rock accumulates some sediment before the next eruptive flow occurs. The hot flow paves over and cooks the sediment, creating these interesting sequences. They are a lot like rock and a little bit like sediment – it will be exciting to see what the differences are in any microbial community that inhabits these lithologically distinctive units, but we have to wait to get “back on the beach” (home to the laboratory) to work up these analyses. The one suite of analyses that we can do here on the ship and get useful and immediate results uses that specialized laser ultraviolet spectroscopic tool, the DEBI-pt.

These analyses are at least giving confirmation of one important fact – that there is indeed life down there and therefore the likelihood for getting interesting results back in the lab from these samples is (hopefully) high. Molecular microbial ecology – which is what I do – can feel a bit of a voodoo science some of the time because you have so little visual confirmation of your results while collecting data.

Right now we are crushing rock that comes up, bagging it, and tossing in the deep freezer with the hope that down the line we’ll see fruitful results – but that day is not coming immediately. This is one of the reasons I’m currently so enamored with DEBI-pt for field work, and indeed have decided to have a new one built explicitly for these purposes when we get home: for access to real-time data for this molecular microbial ecologist!

While I’ve been reticent to do this up until now, I’m finally actively engaging in the countdown to the end of this expedition. Only three weeks left of this life at sea at North Pond! After being here for six weeks already, this seems like only the blink of an eye. Which is exciting and anxiety inducing all at the same time. Exciting to think this will soon be ‘mission accomplished’ – and scary because there is still a lot of mission in front of us still to accomplish in this short amount of time. I’m also looking very much forward to heading home to my family and regular life. I am told that five weeks into an expedition is typically when the expedition blues kick in, and perhaps that is what is inducing my countdown as well. So far I’ve not noticed very many blue moods around here however – everyone seems still pretty upbeat – I’m waiting for when I hear groans from the soldiers out here when we hear “core on deck!” – then I’ll know we are truly there!