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   A Memorial University of Newfoundland Publication

September 18 , 2003

Floating lab probing continental drift

The JOIDES Resolution.
The JOIDES Resolution.

By Deborah Inkpen
Dr. Rick Hiscott, Earth Sciences, was the envy of all his shipmates when he “jumped ship” and headed straight home upon arriving in St. John’s port. Dr. Hiscott was the only Canadian scientist on board the JOIDES Resolution, a sophisticated ocean-going research drill ship and floating laboratory used by the international Ocean Drilling Program (ODP).

Dr. Hiscott, chair of the Canada ODP Council, has been aboard the Resolution for two months working 12-hour shifts daily, so arriving back in St. John’s was a welcome stop. The ship’s port call in St. John's from Sept. 6-9 came after the final ODP expedition, known as Leg 210. On this expedition, scientists attempted to drill and recover a continuous set of rock samples from a hole 2,200 meters below the seafloor and 6,750 meters below sea level in the central Newfoundland Basin – the deepest ever drilled during the 20-year program.

The ship and its crew of 45 scientists and technicians from around the world spent their summer east of the Grand Banks studying the structure and evolution of what geologists call a non-volcanic rifted margin. Dr. Hiscott’s research consisted of looking at rock samples to determine the way in which the Iberian Peninsula and Newfoundland split apart and separated about 125 million years ago. The vessel maintained a fixed position about 300 kilometres southeast of the Hibernia site, and used specialized drilling equipment to retrieve about 800 meters of rock cores including the deepest sediments and rocks related to the break-up of Europe and North America that created the Atlantic Ocean.

Outfitted with modern laboratory, drilling, and navigation equipment, the ship is 143 meters long and 21 meters wide and its derrick rises 61.5 meters above the water line. The drilling system can handle 9,150 meters of drill pipe, long enough for drilling in 99.9 per cent of the world's oceans. It drills cores – long cylinders of sediment and rock – in water depths up to 8.2 kilometres.

A computer-controlled system regulates 12 powerful thrusters in addition to the main propulsion system. Using an acoustic beacon set near the drill site on the sea floor, this system keeps the ship stabilized over the drill hole despite wind and waves. Pieces of drill pipe are threaded together and lowered from the steel derrick through the moon pool, a seven-meter-wide hole in the bottom of the ship. A heave compensator in the derrick acts as a giant shock absorber, so that the up and down movements of the ship are not transferred to the drill pipe. Thus cores can be cut and lifted smoothly.

“By analyzing cores of sediment and rock throughout the 20-year Ocean Drilling Program, scientists have made a remarkable series of discoveries and answered many important scientific questions concerning climate change, geologic hazards, distribution of microbes below the sea floor, and origin of natural resources,” said Dr. Hiscott. “However, ODP has now terminated operations, and will be succeeded by an expanded program with two drill ships, called the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP). Canadian scientists have so far been unsuccessful in their attempts to secure funding to join IODP. Memorial and a number of other Canadian research institutions are actively engaged in chasing new funding so Canadians can participate in future scientific drilling expeditions.”

Scientific leadership on Leg 210 was provided by co-chief scientists Jean-Claude Sibuet, Institut français de recerche pour l’exploitation de la mer (IFREMER), and Brian Tucholke, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, assisted by ODP staff scientist Adam Klaus of Texas A&M University. Dr. Tucholke delivered an Oil and Gas Development Partnership (OGDP) lecture on the expedition on Sept. 8 at the university.

ODP has been a highly successful international partnership of scientists and research institutions organized to study the evolution and structure of the Earth. It is funded through Oct. 1, 2003, principally by the U.S. National Science Foundation, with substantial contributions from 21 other countries, including Canada.




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Next issue: October 2, 2003

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