Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 13

Submission from the UK-Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Steering Committee



  1.  This submission highlights the importance of continued UK membership of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), an essential marine infrastructural resource for the wider UK ocean and Earth science community. Scientific ocean drilling is the marine equivalent of the "Hubble Telescope" and is one of the most successful major international collaborations in the history of science. IODP is the only mechanism available for accessing the continuous sedimentary records essential for understanding past changes in the Earth's climate and how climate is maintained. The research on the cores recovered by the drilling and experiments and observations in the drill holes are also important for understanding the tectonic processes that shape the surface of the Earth and give rise to the major seismic and volcanic geohazards that threaten billions of the global population.

  2.  To ensure that the UK receives the greatest return from its subscription, and that science questions of greatest relevance to the UK are targeted by the IODP, it is imperative that appropriate enabling resources be available, preferably at levels equivalent to the investments made by comparable economies (eg, Germany, USA). Such funds are necessary for UK scientists to direct campaigns for ocean drilling, undertake the highest quality post-cruise research on the samples recovered, and to train the next generation of physical and biological scientists in environmental fields of increasing societal relevance.


  3.  The oceans regulate climate, cover the formative features of plate tectonics and preserve a high-resolution archive of the last 180 Ma of Earth history including its climatic evolution. Analysis of marine rock and sediment cores recovered by scientific ocean drilling has been central to most of the important advances in understanding of our planet's dynamic and inter-related systems with far reaching implications for the Earth and environmental sciences. UK scientists initiated and lead many of the fields in which ocean drilling provides the main platform for furthering our understanding of the Earth system.

  4.  Key among these are:

    (a)  The verification of Plate Tectonics—the primary Earth cycle that shapes our planet, and controls the location and occurrence of earthquakes, volcanoes, critical metal and hydrocarbon resources, and geohazards.

    (b)  Development of the field of Palaeoceanography, where through the analysis of layers of ocean sediments, we are able to understand and reconstruct past climate, patterns of ocean circulation and chemical, physical and biological responses to changing environmental conditions.

    (c)  Demonstration of orbital forcing of climate caused by subtle but predictable changes in the Earth's spin and rotation around the Sun.

    (d)  The rapidity and severity of past climate change.

    (e)  The variation of past oceanic circulation patterns.

    (f)  The recognition of climate extremes in past Earth history particularly during periods of high atmospheric CO2 that are useful for better understanding future climate scenarios.

    (g)  The significance of "black smokers" and how hydrothermal exchanges between the solid Earth and the oceans provide a major control on global geochemical cycles.

    (h)  The discovery and dynamic nature of gas hydrates and their roles as resources, geohazards and possible agents for rapid climate change.

    (i)  Fluid flow associated with active faults.

    (j)  The formation of the ocean crust at the mid-ocean ridges—a process that has resurfaced more than 60% of our planet over the past 200 million years.

    (k)  Discovery of the deep biosphere, hitherto unknown microbial life forms that live deep within ocean sediments, at the temperature and chemical extremes of the life envelope. These previously unsuspected communities have the potential to answer questions about the origin of life on our planet and are possible sources of new organic compounds of great interest to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

  5.  Drilling and resulting research have shown how sensitive the surficial environment is to solid Earth processes, biogeochemical interactions and a whole series of internal feedbacks. However, we have yet to gain a sufficient knowledge of the underlying physics to identify the driving mechanisms, the dominant feedbacks and the relationships between mass fluxes, chemical states, physical states, and biological communities. As a consequence, the Earth and environmental sciences are now poised to make fundamental advances in understanding critical Earth processes. These include topics of immediate environmental concern to mankind, processes that control the location of vital natural resources, as well as the governing dynamics of our planet.

  6.  Experience has shown that many of the oceanographic records essential to understanding the Earth system can only be recovered by scientific ocean drilling. However, the construction and operating costs for drill ships and other coring platforms are beyond the means of individual nations and this has lead to more than 30 years of successful international scientific collaboration initiated by the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP, 1968-83) and the recently completed Ocean Drilling Program (ODP, 1985-2003). The new Integrated Ocean Drilling Program[14] (IODP, 2003-13) represents a major expansion for scientific ocean drilling both in the scope and sophistication of the technology and in the breadth and structure of the international collaboration involved in running the program. The fundamental purpose of the IODP is to drill into the seabed to collect samples and carry out experiments to further scientific research on the Earth, its evolution and environment. The new technologies available through the IODP now make it possible to recover drill cores from nearly all marine environments from very shallow to deep water, from open ocean to ice-covered polar latitudes, in regions of significant gas hazard or instability and from great depths (up to 7,000 m).


  7.  The major science areas identified by the Initial Science Plan of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program[15] are:

    Environmental Change, Processes and Effects;

    The Deep Biosphere and Sub-seafloor Ocean;

    Solid Earth Cycles and Geodynamics.

  8.  There is growing recognition within the UK of the importance of the problems of rapid climate change and the sensitivity of Earth's climate to a number of interdependent atmospheric, oceanic and solid Earth processes.

  However, our knowledge of the processes and consequences of climate change and the computer modelling essential to predict future climate remain under development. IODP will provide the required spatial coverage of high resolution records of climate proxies capable of resolving the leads and lags and hence causality in patterns of change (eg, in particular levels of CO2 and global temperatures).

  Critical among these will be the nature and relative timing of changing oceanic circulation patterns, changes in sealevel, and the role of bio-geochemistry. Other first-order environmental concerns which require study by deep ocean drilling are the stability of the vast deposits of methane stored as solid gas hydrates in sediments and processes in seismogenic zones of collisional crustal plate boundaries. Over 1 billion people and key elements of the global economy are in close proximity to subduction zones that have been the loci of all known great tsunamogenic earthquakes (eg, Boxing Day, 2004 Sumatran quake and other historic earthquakes greater than 8.5 magnitude on Richter Scale). By drilling and installing monitoring and sensor arrays within these zones we will better understand the mechanisms of stress build-up and release in these systems perhaps leading to the identification of precursor warning signs of large, destructive events.

  9.  Deep sea drilling also provides the direct sampling and in-situ borehole experiments essential to investigate a whole series of fundamental geodynamic, geochemical and biological processes on Earth. Drilling is the only satisfactory way to investigate ocean ridges where determination of flow of melt in the mantle and solid-earth—ocean geochemical exchanges have proved difficult to quantify. The installation of seismometers in ocean boreholes will provide the global coverage essential to exploit computational advances in 3D seismic imaging of the Earth. The ability to site instruments in the oceanic sub-surface will also make an important contribution to planned sea floor observatories for monitoring key environmental parameters. Problems as fundamental and diverse as generation of Earth's magnetic field by the core and mechanisms of lithospheric deformation, require high resolution sedimentary records, only recoverable by deep ocean drilling, to provide the critical time-series information necessary for their solution. The discovery of a huge and previously unknown microbial biomass active in deep sediments has implications that span a whole-range of Earth science topics including evolutionary biology, formation of oil and gas, global geochemical fluxes and climate.


  10.  Participation in IODP allows UK scientists to influence the science planning and benefit directly from more than $1.5 billion investment in drilling platforms and their operation by the USA, Japan and Europe. UK scientific engagement in the IODP is enabled through membership of the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD) comprising 16 European nations plus Canada. ECORD is a partner in IODP alongside the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Science is prioritised in the IODP through the peer-review of proposals to tackle specific science questions. This proposal system is open to all researchers be they from universities, industry or government institutions. IODP then co-ordinates the deployment of a spectrum of drilling platforms for the recovery of sediments, other rock-types and fluids from all marine environments.

  11.  Technological developments since the final cruises of the Ocean Drilling Program (2003) include the construction of a riser drill ship by Japan, and use of mission-specific platforms that provide completely new capabilities for scientific ocean drilling by UK-IODP's European consortium. Of particular benefit to the UK is the use of mission specific platforms that enable sampling of previously inaccessible targets such as shallow water (coral reefs), or polar regions. Improvements in riserless drilling will allow good recovery of fractured hard rocks for the first time. Riser drilling with circulating drilling mud will allow drilling in poorly consolidated and over-pressured rocks, areas of hydrocarbon hazard and deep holes. Also important are developments in borehole technology that allow separation and sampling of different formation fluids, making proper sub-seafloor hydrological investigations possible. The technological developments in deep ocean drilling coincident with oil exploration in ever deeper and more difficult water has lead to growing and beneficial collaboration with industry both nationally and internationally (eg, the UK-IODP Industrial Liaison Panel[16]).

  12.  Participation in previous drilling programmes has given UK scientists influence over drilling strategy far in excess of the UK financial input. At a point where we face urgent problems in the prediction and mitigation of climate change the UK must maintain its involvement in an international programme which will provide information on a whole range of critical Earth Science processes. Assessment and prediction of the environmental impact of our technologies and the coupled problems of finding and exploiting natural resources will be the major challenges faced by society over the 21st century. The results of deep sea drilling provide key information to enhance our ability to tackle these problems. UK involvement is essential if the UK is to continue its influential role in the international environmental debate such as implementation of climate change mitigation (eg, Kyoto Protocol).

  13.  Involvement in IODP will also be critical to the development of emerging research areas. Prime among these is biogeochemistry because we now recognise that biological processes control many of the feedbacks which maintain oceanic and atmospheric chemistry and we use biologically moderated element and isotope ratios in fossils, as well as organic molecules, as the key proxies for the past physical and chemical states of the oceans. The UK has an enviable research record at the forefront of the biological sciences and UK scientists lead in the discovery and investigation of the deep biosphere, in the development of proxies for palaeoceanography, and in the identification of the key phytoplankton that export carbon from the ocean surface. A high proportion of new appointments at UK Earth and Environmental Science departments have research interests which relate to biogeochemistry and participation in IODP will be necessary for this investment in people to realise its full potential.

  14.  IODP topics of immediate importance to UK science include:

    (a)  ocean climate dynamics;

    (b)  ocean biogeochemistry and the carbon cycle;

    (c)  Arctic ocean: control on climate and ocean circulation;

    (d)  the deep biosphere;

    (e)  gas hydrates: stability, dynamics and potential consequences;

    (f)  magnetic field and the geodynamo;

    (g)  oceanic seismic arrays and oceanic sub-surface observatories; and

    (h)  ocean Ridge processes: mantle melt flow, crustal construction and hydrothermal fluxes.

  15.  IODP drilling will make fundamental contributions to other important areas of Earth sciences research that both involve UK scientists and impact UK science through the complex interdependence of Earth systems. Most significant will be research on the seismogenic zone at subduction zones, but drilling will also put important constraints on the processes of extensional and compressional continental deformation, on large igneous provinces and their potentially catastrophic environmental impacts, asteroid impact sites such as the Chicxulub crater at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary, and oceanic mass wasting events on ocean islands or the continental shelves that can be responsible for major tsunamis.

  16.  The IODP, when it reaches full capabilities in 2007, will be able to carry out drilling to depths of six or seven kilometres below the seabed in nearly all of the ocean basins and in most geological environments. To do this it will mount three types of expeditions:

    (a)  Non-riser drilling by the refurbished US drill ship, the JOIDES Resolution,[17] scheduled to resume drilling in late 2007.

    (b)  Riser drilling using the new Japanese ship, the Chikyu,[18] scheduled to begin operations in late 2007.

    (c)  Mission-specific platform expeditions mounted to access otherwise inaccessible locations by ECORD.[19]

  17.  The NERC UK-IODP Directed Science programme makes these essential IODP facilities available to the UK community through its subscription to ECORD (~US$5.9M/yr). The UK played a major role in the establishment of the ECORD consortium of 16 European countries and Canada. Science support is currently provided through an enabling programme (£3.5 million for 2004-08) that funds UK scientists' involvement in drilling expeditions, their participation in the IODP and ECORD science peer review committees, liaison with industry and the attendance and organisation of IODP-related conferences and workshops. New to this enabling support programme is the ability to fund marine site surveys. Such surveys are mandatory for the development of a successful drilling proposal, as detailed knowledge of the sub-seafloor targets, usually from remote geophysical observations such as multi-channel seismic reflection surveying, are critical to the safety and success of the drilling expeditions. UK scientists are engaged within IODP through the development of drilling proposals as well as through research on the drill cores recovered, at an intensity that far exceeds (~4 times) the UK's financial contribution to the international programme. The regular submission of successful drilling proposals by UK scientists allows them to guide the IODP to undertake projects of the greatest relevance to UK environmental science priorities and to deliver on key government research areas including ocean climate dynamics, rapid climate change, extreme, climates, biogeochemistry and the carbon cycle, gas hydrates, and geohazards.


  18.  Drilling expeditions in the first phase of the IODP (2003 to 2006) are providing information for research into (1) mechanisms of rapid climate change, particularly in the North Atlantic and the Arctic, (2) a very high resolution record of sealevel and climate change since the last glacial period, (3) movement of fluids through sediments, the associated sub-seafloor biosphere and gas hydrates, and (4) the mechanisms of lithosphere formation and the drivers of ocean-hydrosphere geochemical fluxes. Spectacular drilling successes of the initial phase of IODP include:

    (a)  the mission-specific expedition to the Arctic, which made the first deep research drilling in the Arctic basin and has revealed the magnitude of Arctic climate change and sea ice evolution over the last 50 Ma;

    (b)  the first deep hole in intact oceanic crust to reach lower crustal gabbros which will provide information on the inter-related magmatic and hydrothermal processes that govern solid earth-ocean geochemical exchanges; and

    (c)  the first complete coral record of the last deglacial sealevel rise from a site far from ice sheets and tectonic disturbance.

  19.  The success and importance of the on-going UK-IODP Directed Science Program to the UK environmental research community can be judged by:

    (a)  the number of high profile papers published as a result of the programme (eg, 24 papers in the highly competitive scientific journals Nature and Science from 2004 to 2006);

    (b)  the involvement in IODP of all the research active university geoscience departments as well as the major NERC institutes and collaborative centres;

    (c)  the large number of UK scientists involved in formulating and implementing new drilling proposals;

    (d)  the active effective involvement of UK scientists in the science advisory structures of IODP and ECORD;

    (e)  the uptake of grants and research support in the UK programme;

    (f)  the success of IODP initiated and sponsored conferences in publicising both opportunities in the programme and the results of recent ocean drilling; and

    (g)  the role of IODP expeditions in the training of the next generation of UK environmental scientists through shipboard participation and cutting edge PhD topics.

  20.  The IODP makes a significant contribution to the UK science strategy including providing national and international scientific leadership and supporting a world class environmental science community. It makes essential contributions to the priority areas of climate change, biogeochemical fluxes, resources, geohazards and research training. Membership of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program is an essential component of the UK's marine infrastructure.

  To enable UK scientists to maintain and further develop their leadership of scientific ocean drilling, the subscription to IODP should be complimented by a science support package of similar scope to the investments presently made by our major international oceanographic partners (eg, Germany, USA).

January 2007

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