Scripps chosen as new home of ocean drilling program hub in part because of its pioneering role in the field

Scripps-JoidesThe history of ocean drilling at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, dates back more than a half century and now the arrival of a new hub for research drilling at the Scripps campus promises to continue that legacy.

In October, the Science Support Office of the newly named International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP): Exploring the Earth under the Sea relocated to the Scripps campus after existing as a Washington, D.C.-based entity operated by a private government contractor. The office will maintain the international program’s website for 27 member countries and manage the submission and review of proposals from the international community to use the specialized vessel JOIDES Resolution and other drilling platforms for seafloor exploration. It will also manage a vast data bank of subsurface information, largely seismic images of thick deposits of seafloor sediments, to help plan drilling expeditions and ensure operational safety.

The award to Scripps from the National Science Foundation is for $4.7 million over five years, complementing NSF’s recent announcement of its plans to operate the JOIDES Resolution through 2019.

IODP “wanted this work to be done at a research institution,” said Support Office Executive Director Holly Given. “It gives the community confidence to know that university people are handling their proposals and developing e-tools to help them plan their expeditions.”

Data collected from ocean drilling has given researchers across several disciplines vital information about plate tectonics and is a primary source of the historical record used to reconstruct paleoclimate over tens of millions of years. This branch of science can trace a large part of its origin to the Scripps campus, where researchers refined ocean drilling methods beginning in the 1950s.

Renowned Scripps geologist Gustaf Arrhenius had been recruited to join Scripps by former Scripps Director Roger Revelle in 1953 after Arrhenius had taken part in the world’s first large-scale endeavor to recover ocean-bottom sediment cores. Arrhenius’ work during the Swedish Deep-Sea Expedition of 1947-48 had been the basis of his thesis as a student at the University of Stockholm. Arrhenius came to Scripps to participate in the 1953 Capricorn expedition, retrieving cores of seafloor sediment from the Pacific Ocean. Later, that expertise helped spark Project Mohole, an effort to drill through the thin ocean crust and directly sample Earth’s mantle.  As part of Project Mohole, Scripps technologists invented a technique that used sound waves sent from seafloor beacons to continuously adjust the ship’s position over a drilling target, holding it steady in high seas and strong currents.  Today this same method – called dynamic positioning – also uses GPS signals to keep the JOIDES Resolution on target.  

 “Geology is the interpretation of clues about Earth’s history, like past climate and ocean chemistry, or about specific planetary events like erosion, ore deposit creation, and earthquakes. Oceans cover 70 percent of Earth’s surface, so we need to get at that part of the planet to form the complete picture,” said Given, who noted that to this day, many of the researchers in the field trace their professional lineage back to Scripps as students of the first generation of ocean drilling experts or as students of those students.

The National Science Foundation awarded operation of an original Deep Sea Drilling Project to Scripps in 1968, from which evolved the current international program with ship operations based at Texas A&M University. The name of the program later changed to the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. Since the early days of scientific ocean drilling, over 3,000 holes have been drilled into the seafloor, and the priceless samples are stored in global core repositories for use by scientists worldwide. The current IODP maintains research hubs in the United States, Japan, and Europe with several countries in Asia, South America and Oceania participating to varying degrees. 

Richard Norris, a Scripps geologist and principal investigator of the support office, said the symbolic homecoming of the drilling program is happening at a time when science’s ability to precisely determine the dates of ancient events “has advanced massively” and in which a new wave of geological inquiries is emerging in large measure because of ocean drilling.

“The science of ocean drilling is still very fresh,” said Norris. “My sense in talking to colleagues around the world is that there’s so much excitement about putting together the pieces about how the earth evolved.”

The relocation of the office “is showing that Scripps is engaged with a big international program that we had a profound role in starting,” said Norris. “This is idea-driven science that brings together scientists from around the world to explore the ocean with amazing technology. By hosting the support office, Scripps gets to be right at the center of the excitement.”

— Robert Monroe

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