One of the world’s largest scientific research ships is in New Zealand waters for six expeditions to probe some of the 21st century’s biggest science questions. The 143 metre-long JOIDES Resolution, operated by the 23-nation International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), will undertake these expeditions in 2017/18 involving teams of scientists from all over the world.
The ship is a huge, floating laboratory, and the crew on it are truly international – each member country of the IODP can send researchers to make up the scientific crew of 30. As well as scientists, there are up to 60 ship staff – cooks, technicians, engineers, drillers, medics and a captain. JOIDES stands for Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling, and Resolution comes from Captain Cook’s famous flagship of the same name that he piloted around Aotearoa over 200 years ago.
Each 2-month voyage will have a different science focus – the forces that generate earthquakes, our past climate and its relationship to tectonics, the history of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and probing the inside workings of a submarine volcano northeast of the Bay of Plenty.
Expedition 371 in the Tasman Sea has retrieved sediment cores from beneath the seafloor to investigate the relationship between tectonics and global climatic changes around 50 million years ago. This was a time of high atmospheric CO2 levels when temperatures were 10°C warmer than the present day.
Scientists believe sediment cores from beneath the Tasman Sea hold clues to massive changes in tectonic forces that formed the Pacific Ring of Fire and shaped our mostly submerged continent of Zealandia. The researchers are also interested in finding out if these tectonic changes influenced the flow of ocean currents, which may help to explain the pronounced warming of seas around New Zealand at this time.
Expeditions 372 and 375 target slow-slip earthquakes off the coast of Gisborne, providing a deeper understanding of the Hikurangi plate boundary – New Zealand’s largest fault. Drilling cores 500 m below the seafloor and installing deep-ocean observatories into the boreholes will give scientists much-needed information on the structure and behaviour of the plate boundary and what risk it poses to local communities through large earthquakes and tsunamis. The causes of huge submarine landslides in this area will also be investigated.
Expedition 374 will see JOIDES Resolution sail to the rough and remote Ross Sea fringing Antarctica to drill into the seafloor off the Ross Ice Shelf. The expedition aims to improve our understanding of the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet through multiple cycles of warming and cooling over the past 20 million years. This information will eventually contribute to climate change models.
Expedition 376 will investigate seafloor hydrothermal systems at the Brothers Volcano, northeast of Bay of Plenty. This remarkable volcano is belching highly acidic fluids at over 300°C into the overlying ocean. Amazingly, there is life in this environment, so scientists on board will study the microbes that live there to provide insights into the extreme conditions under which life can be sustained on the seafloor.
Expedition 378 will be the last in New Zealand waters, late in 2018. It will take the ship south of Stewart Island to study the South Pacific’s climate history. Drilling will reveal information about the Eocene era, 56–34 million years ago, when the world experienced extreme global warming. Learning how the southern Pacific was affected by this warming, which was also associated with high levels of greenhouse gases, will help to improve predictions of the impacts of future global warming.
Learn more about JOIDES Resolution and its research
Overall, the voyages represent an international investment in science of around $120 million and will bring around 200 scientists to Aotearoa to undertake research that will continue well beyond the expeditions. The entire project is believed to be the largest-ever project-specific international investment in New Zealand science in a single year.
It is a great example of collaboration between New Zealand’s many universities and Crown research institutes. New Zealand participates in the IODP through a consortium of research organisations and universities in Australia and New Zealand, including NIWA, GNS Science, University of Auckland, Victoria University of Wellington and University of Otago. The Australia and New Zealand IODP Consortium (ANZIC) is supporting participation of New Zealand scientists and outreach/education officers on all the expeditions.
Nature of science
Because the areas being studied are in the deep ocean, drilling cores down beneath the seafloor is one of the only tools scientists have to analyse what rock types and layers are there. The core samples collected by the ship’s equipment are carefully brought up to the surface, labelled and analysed by a team of international scientists.
Watch this YouTube clip about JOIDES Resolution and its research.
Learn more about the international science vessel JOIDES Resolution.
Find out about New Zealand’s part in the IODP.
Get more information on the IODP.
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This article has been written by staff at GNS Science working as part of the ANZIC IODP Consortium.