By Jeremy Schwab
When most people think of ocean drilling ships, what probably comes to mind are oil rigs suctioning vast amounts of oil and gas out of the oceanic crust. In fact, nearly every drill ship from the United States is used for the purpose of extracting energy from deep under the sea. Every ship, that is, except for one—the JOIDES Resolution—operated for scientific ocean drilling, whose most recent mission was co-led by CAS Professor of Earth & Environment Richard Murray.
Murray, along with a widely diverse international crew, returned last month from an eight-week voyage from Alaska to the Sea of Japan / East Sea, where his team drilled core samples consisting of sedimentary layers dating back millions of years. Chief Scientists Murray and Professor Ryuji Tada of the University of Tokyo were searching for clues to the underlying dynamics of the East Asian Monsoon System, a vast weather and climate system spanning from India, Indonesia, China, Korea, and throughout all of east Asia.
The monsoon system is responsible for both rains and droughts across Asia, and its severity fluctuates over time depending on the Earth’s changing climate, as well as geological factors such as the changing elevation of the Himalayan Plateau. More than a third of the world’s population depends in some way on the monsoon for water, irrigation, and sustenance.
The expedition was sponsored by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), a consortium of nations that funds and oversees regular scientific drilling expeditions. Dating back to the 1960s, scientific ocean drilling was developed to test the theory of plate tectonics. Today, the IODP serves a diverse array of purposes, including better understanding global climate change (Murray’s specialty), volcanism, earthquake activity, changes in marine life over time, and other critical features of the Earth.
The IODP expedition’s most recent mission—to study the East Asian Monsoon
System—comes at a time of increasingly rapid climate change. While it is named after monsoons (very heavy rains that can last for weeks), the system describes the entire weather system that moves from west to east over East Asia. By taking core samples of the oceanic sediment, researchers can study the changing severity of the weather and climate patterns over millions of years.
“Over the next 100 years, due to climate change it is likely that the monsoon system will change,” says Murray. “Some areas will get drier, and some wetter. By looking at the natural system—how rapidly it changes and under what conditions—we can get a sense of what the likely scale of future changes will be.”
The team’s research findings can help people better understand how much of an impact climate change could have on agriculture, the severity of storms, and other factors. Rice and other crops grown in East Asia help feed the billions of people living in the region. If the monsoon weather patterns become more extreme, this could lead to longer and more severe droughts, as well as longer and more severe wet periods.
The IODP researchers can look at a range of factors to determine climate fluctuations over time. Larger grains of dust blown off of the continent into the Japan Sea / East Sea indicate more powerful winds during the time period reflected in a particular sediment layer. Higher amounts of plankton remains preserved in the sediment during a particular time period reflect more rain in the continent’s interior because higher rainfall causes more nutrients to flow down the Yangtze River and into the sea, feeding the plankton. The researchers can even tell where the Asian jetstream was located during each time period; if it was located primarily over southern China, it will pick up dust that looks different from the dust in northern China.
The core samples the expedition took will give them many years of research material. Cores from all of the IODP’s past expeditions sit in cold storage (four degrees Centigrade) in Germany, Texas, and Japan. And they still provide lots of material for current research. The expedition’s preliminary report should be completed in three or four months.
The recent expedition team included scientists from the United States and Japan (the two main funders) as well as China, Korea, Germany, France, Portugal, Italy, Spain, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, and India. Life on board the 471-foot long drilling ship is intense, marked by 12-plus hour workdays and tight quarters. But it is also highly rewarding. On this expedition in particular, Murray said that his colleagues formed a close bond.
“Sometimes everyone just goes their separate ways at the end of the voyage,”
says Murray. “This group got along extremely well. We all went to dinner after the trip ended—50 of us at dinner. After dinner, nobody left. They just stood on the sidewalk, drinking beer and hanging out with everybody for an hour or two afterward and into the really early hours of the following morning. It was very cool.”
And, after all, doing this kind of exploratory research isn’t just a job; it is a calling, and it attracts like-minded people. Murray was raised in the “New England maritime culture,” as he puts it. He remembers living near the ocean in the Boston area as a kid. “I liked living by the ocean, playing by the ocean. And if that can be your job, too, that’s wicked great.”