Product has been added to the basket

Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme

Submission to NERC Call for Evidence: Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme

Submitted 23 September 2010

  1. The Geological Society is the national learned and professional body for Earth sciences, with 10,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government, with a wide range of perspectives and views on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-specialist audiences. A wide range of Fellows have been active in the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme (IODP), or have benefitted from its outputs. NERC has no doubt consulted some of these individuals. The Geological Society wishes now to add its comments on the broad economic, social and intellectual implications of the outstanding fundamental observational science that lies at the heart of the drilling programme.
  2. A defining feature of Earth science in the last quarter of the twentieth century was that high resolution stratigraphic studies combined with analysis of the effects of the Earth’s orbital changes on deep ocean sedimentation made it possible to make geological observations on a time scale of thousands of years, rather than millions of years as was previously the case. This fundamental breakthrough would not have been achieved without the cores from the international programme of deep sea drilling.
  3. The implications of ocean drilling for the development of the Earth sciences have been enormous for much more than understanding past climate change, as noted below. Initially, deep ocean drilling played an essential role in validating the revolutionary concepts of seafloor spreading and plate tectonics. That role continues with increasingly fine resolution.
  4. The social and political significance of science emerging from deep ocean drilling is only now becoming apparent, and its economic impact is underappreciated.
  5. There is a substantial and growing geological evidence base relating to past climates, atmospheric carbon levels, and their relationship. This body of evidence is not widely appreciated outside the Earth science community, and is largely independent of the better known climate modelling and atmospheric science base – but it is increasingly a vital component of the science behind climate change and possible human impacts. Its past and future development depends critically on the research outputs of the IODP. Splicing together records from a number of deep sea drilling holes has enabled production of a composite global oxygen isotope record derived from benthic foraminifera, which demonstrates the lock-step evolution of global ocean temperatures and ice volume since the formation of today’s ocean basin floors began some 100-150 million years ago. Novel geochemical analyses of deep ocean drill cores confirm that the post-Cretaceous cooling of the Earth from a global warm peak 50 million years ago to the Ice Age of the past 2.6 million years was accompanied by a significant decline in the greenhouse gas CO2. The palaeotemperature data provide vital underpinning for much of the current analysis of the Earth’s climate history, which future projections of climate change must take into consideration. Further drilling is needed to elucidate regional climate history, especially in places that are difficult to access, like the Arctic and Antarctic where the speed and extent of past and present climate change are greatest.
  6. Within the oil and mining industries there has long been interest in the deep ocean drilling programme. Deep ocean samples of black mudstones have guided mapping of petroleum source rocks, stratigraphical reference points have been provided by deep ocean research holes, and understanding of ocean sedimentation and basin evolution has been greatly advanced by analysis of deep ocean drill cores, all to the advantage of those seeking essential supplies of energy and minerals. The value of this work to the UK economy cannot easily be estimated – but it is very significant and rarely recognised, not least because oil industry research involving deep ocean drill data is rarely published.
  7. The interest of the oil industry in the results of deep ocean drilling has recently been quickened by the detailed understanding of a sudden warming event 55 million years ago, arising from analysis of deep-sea cores at the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary. These results indicate the strong link between increased carbon emission and rising average global temperature, and have been of central importance in challenging scepticism concerning human-induced climate change – particularly within the oil industry itself, which has such a fundamental role to play in its mitigation.
  8. It was only through the deep ocean drilling that biologists realised that there was a deep biosphere in which bacteria were active up to 800m or more below the seabed. This discovery has radically changed biologists’ views of the functioning of the deep ocean ecosystem, and geochemists’ understanding of the nature of the processes of early diagenesis, in which bacteria can now be seen to play an extremely important role. The results are significant for petroleum industry models for the diagenetic changes leading to the formation of oil and gas source rocks. Furthermore, the challenge to fundamental assumptions about hostile environments in which life is to be found not only demonstrates how such interdisciplinary work can stimulate new developments in basic biological research, but may also open up novel strategic research applications, for instance in pharmaceuticals.
  9. Deep ocean drilling has been the only mechanism through which the subsurface character of the newly discovered deep sea hydrothermal vents on mid ocean ridges and in back-arc basins could be evaluated. These vents are now known in many cases to emanate above massive sulphide ore deposits. Drilling has provided unique insights about the formation of such ore deposits, which are being applied by the minerals industry through new exploration models in the search for ancient ore bodies.
  10. IODP has expanded to become a multi-ship programme involving both ‘classical’ deep ocean drilling, without a ‘riser’ - from the Joides Resolution - and drilling with a ‘riser’ - from the Japanese drill ship Chikyu - which allows deep penetration on continental margins that were formerly off limits to deep ocean scientific drilling because of the possibility of blow-outs from gas deposits. The advent of ‘riser’ drilling has enabled drilling through faults, and using those results and the associated sedimentary record to understand the history of slumping, sliding and earthquake activity on active continental margins. Such analysis is essential in the quest for advanced prediction of earthquake activity and associated tsunamis. The freedom to be less risk-averse in the choice of drilling sites should also further increase its value to the hydrocarbons industry.
  11. Using icebreakers it has now proved possible for drilling to take place in the deep Arctic Ocean basin, which is an essential first step to understanding how Arctic climate has changed over the past 30 million years, and the history of northern hemisphere glaciation centred on the North Pole. Continued deep ocean Arctic drilling will expand this record, as well as providing information of considerable value to the petroleum industry intent on opening an ‘ice-free’ Arctic to exploration.
  12. Significant secondary benefits derive from the site survey programme underpinning the selection of IODP drilling sites, using geophysical and ocean floor sampling methods. The data gathered through this work complement those arising from the drilling programme itself, helping to build the breadth and depth of the geological evidence base informing our understanding of past events and processes, and of future natural hazard risks and economic opportunities.
  13. The past achievements of the IODP are widely recognised. These achievements continue to pay enormous dividends, but NERC will quite rightly wish to focus on current and likely future outputs when considering whether continued involvement in IODP is worthwhile. In addition to the quality and promise of current UK IODP research projects, we urge NERC to consider the valuable training which the programme affords young UK sea-going participants – for example, in how to conduct team-based leading edge research around a common objective in an international framework – and the scope it offers for international cooperation and capacity building; IODP is highly unusual in effectively addressing fundamental Earth science questions on a planetary scale. In the various senses outlined above, the IODP is, within its field, unique. Quite apart from long-term economic benefits which may accrue from unknown future research outputs, the training delivered by the programme will be beneficial not only to academics but also to future Earth scientists in industry. For all these reasons, we would question whether the UK can afford not to be involved in one of the largest Earth science experiments on the planet. If the UK seeks to retain its high standing in fundamental Earth science, in the application of that knowledge, and in the understanding of its social and political significance, support for the programme of deep ocean drilling should continue.