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Scientists to drill beneath oceans

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« on: March 21, 2008, 08:37:52 pm »

Scientists to drill beneath oceans

By Robert S. Boyd

Inquirer Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON - In a research program getting under way
this summer, shipboard scientists will punch thousands of
holes in the ocean bottom and take samples from greater
depths than ever before. They will be investigating the
biology, chemistry and physics of "inner space," the vast
world hidden beneath the seas.

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, led by American and
Japanese scientists, begins in June with a 10-month
expedition to plumb the crust beneath the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

The layers of rock below the seafloor are an archive of global change, tens of millions of years old, that scientists say can
help them understand what's happening to our world today.

Researchers are especially interested in hordes of microbes thriving in a complex "plumbing system" of life-supporting fluids
coursing through cracks in the rocks thousands of feet below the ocean bottom. Some organisms may have medical or
commercial value.

"There's a whole ecology living down there," said Theodore Moore Jr., an oceanographer at the University of Michigan. "It's
very likely some species will be of direct benefit to humans."

Some scientists believe life on Earth may have begun in these gloomy caverns far from sun and air about four billion years
ago. If life exists on other planets or moons, they say it may be found in similar dark environments, sheltered from lethal
cosmic rays and meteor bombardments.

The new international drilling project, involving researchers from 20 countries, is a stepped-up successor to a smaller,
American-led Ocean Drilling Program that ended last fall. Over 18 years, from 1985 to 2003, the U.S. research ship JOIDES
Resolution bored about 2,000 holes at 650 different sites around the world, making many significant scientific observations.

For instance, an expedition a year ago in the tropical Atlantic turned up evidence, buried in seafloor sediment, of repeated
episodes of rapid global warming that led to massive plant and animal extinction in the distant past.

"Without exploring the basics of how these systems work, we can't have confidence in our ability to predict their behavior
on shorter time scales, like human lifespans," said Margaret Delaney, an ocean scientist at the University of California,
Santa Cruz.

As part of the new program, researchers also will investigate how events at the ocean bottom can touch off dangerous
earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

"The dynamics of the Earth's interior processes... have a major financial and safety impact," Delaney said in an e-mail.

On its latest voyage, scientists aboard the Resolution successfully matched the chemistry and geology of portions of the
seafloor off Newfoundland to similar formations off the coasts of Spain and Portugal. The match confirmed that North
America and Europe once belonged to a single continent that split apart about 145 million years ago, opening the way for the
formation of the Atlantic Ocean.

Previous drilling operations have:

Confirmed the theory of plate tectonics, which describes the breakup and movement of the continents.

Discovered the mid-ocean ridge, a 40,000-mile underwater mountain chain encircling the globe like the laces on a baseball.

Studied the great ocean currents that control temperatures on land.

Located traces of enormous sheets of ancient lava as much as 20 miles thick that spewed from undersea volcanoes. One such
deposit covered almost four million square miles on the bottom of the Atlantic, stretching from eastern Canada to Spain and
Africa's Ivory Coast.

Despite these achievements, most of the ocean floor and interior remain virtually unknown, project scientists acknowledge.

The new program will have two research vessels at its disposal.

A Japanese drill ship, the Chikyu, now under construction, will begin operations in 2006. The U.S. National Science
Foundation is seeking $100 million for a more capable vessel to replace the 26-year-old Resolution, which will be retired in
Galveston, Texas, next year.

Before it puts away its drill bits, the Resolution will make one more cruise under the auspices of the international program.
The voyage will start June 24 in the Northeast Pacific, studying the biology and geology of the seafloor off the coast of
Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

Next fall and winter, the Resolution will move to the North Atlantic near the Azores, Greenland and Iceland. It will also try
to drill a hole in the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean.

"This will be the first time we've ever done that," Moore said. "We don't have any idea what we're going to find."

The U.S. National Science Foundation, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and the
European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling are sponsoring the research. Countries in Europe and Asia are expected to
share operating costs of $160 million a year when both ships are at work.
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