The boat unlocking Earth’s deepest secrets

By Vivien Cumming

We still know more about the surface of Mars than what’s under our own seabed.

Here we profile a scientific research vessel that has drilled more holes in the ocean floor than any other and whose expeditions continue to make some of the greatest scientific discoveries of our time.

Name: JOIDES Resolution

Nickname: JR

Operator: International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP)

Launched: 1978 (with IODP since 1985)

Type: Ocean-going research drilling vessel

Height: 62m (similar to the leaning tower of Pisa)

Crew: 70 + 60 scientists and technicians

The JOIDES Resolution (JR for short) circumnavigates the globe drilling holes and pulling up rock cores from under the seabed all in the name of scientific research. Rock cores hold important clues to our planet’s past and future and the JR provides the perfect place to investigate some of the biggest questions about Earth.

Not only is the JR an impressive ship, it’s also a floating laboratory that scientists use to analyse each core and tell us about the climate and life that existed when the sediments where deposited back through Earth’s history.

men pointing
Scientists discuss different climatic events that can be 'read' in the core samples. Through time sediments are deposited on the sea floor building up layers that trained scientists can read like a book.
Article continues below

More on Science

The JR takes its name from HMS Resolution, the vessel that took Captain James Cook on his second and third voyages to the Pacific in search of new continents. So it seems only fitting that the JOIDES Resolution is also discovering continents, if in a slightly different way. A recent expedition drilled core from the seafloor that revealed the hidden continent of Zealandia.

This is just one more in a long list of scientific discoveries made by drilling core from under the seabed. One of the first major discoveries was to confirm seafloor spreading which played a pivotal role in understanding plate tectonics.

men on a boat
Drilling into the seabed from a boat thousands of metres up on the surface of the ocean requires a boat with dynamic positioning so that it can stay in one place on the surface while the drillers drill down into the seabed below.

Other major findings include; direct evidence of an asteroid impact around the time the dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, salts deposits that show the Mediterranean Sea completely dried out repeatedly 5 million years ago, the discovery of abundant microbial life living deep in the in the Earth's crust, and the boat has just completed a project to install New Zealand’s first sub-seafloor earthquake monitors that will help us understand how, why and when earthquakes happen there.

boat stationary
The JOIDES Resolution in port in Hobart, Australia. The boat only goes into port every 2 months to re-supply and start a new expedition Each expedition lasts two months and has a specific scientific aim.

JR scientific expedition stats:

Number of expeditions: 165

Total distance travelled: 538,752 nautical miles

Core holes drilled: 2500

Length of core recovered: 322,616m

Deepest hole drilled: 2111m

Deepest water depth drilled in: 5980m

A fossilised clam in a piece of rock core brought up from below the seabed. Fossils help the scientists to tell the age of the rocks and what kind of environment they were living in.

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of scientific ocean drilling. In 1968, the Deep Sea Drilling Project was born and - though it has gone through several name changes and morphed from a solely US funded operation to an international collaboration involving 24 countries including the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD) - it continues to probe unknown parts of our planet.

Since 2013, it has been known as the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). Dr Kara Bogus, an expedition project manager for IODP explains; “You can learn a lot about the Earth with ocean drilling. The drilling programmes are now the longest running and arguably most successful of the geoscience international collaborations. We have been to every major ocean basin multiple times. The Earth is mostly covered by ocean, but what we are looking at is still only a tiny fraction.”

Each expedition continues 24 hours a day with scientists and crew working 12 hour shift cycles.

Dr Brian Huber from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has sailed on the JR for three expeditions.

“We’re on a vessel that can go almost anywhere in the world's oceans and can core ocean sediments in almost any water depth, getting all kinds of Earth history records. We may discover some big extinction event or climate change, but I think what's been most important in the last few decades is just providing a very detailed record from around the globe unfolding a really detailed story about the evolution of life, of the oceans and of the continents.” he says.

Dr Vivien Cumming is a writer, photographer and filmmaker specialising in documenting scientific expeditions. You can find more of her work on her website www.viviencumming.com or follow her on instagram and twitter: @drvivcumming

Featured image © Vivien Cumming