January 9, 2010

So Long, Civilization


Today, after five days of final preparations and heightening anticipation, Expedition 318 set sail for the great White Continent.

The entire science party was out on the top decks of our ship (photo below), excited to be underway, gazing back at the green hills of New Zealand as the ship maneuvered through the straits of the harbor and into the South Pacific.

There are 34 scientists on the expedition, and we Americans comprise about a quarter of the team. The rest of our colleagues come from everywhere–Japan, China, India, Great Britain, Germany, Norway, Spain, and one New Zealander whose travels only began today. We have paleontologists, sedimentologists, microbiologists, organic geochemists. And we have a videographer from the Netherlands who looks like Sean Penn. (See his very cool trailer for the expedition.) My colleagues will be popping in on the blog over the next two months, but check out the Expedition 318 Photo Gallery if you’d like a quick introduction. (Tell me if Dan Brinkhuis doesn’t look like Sean Penn.)

Though it is a couple of thousand miles across the sea from Antarctica, New Zealand has a connection to the frozen continent that goes back millions of years, to a time when Antarctica was covered not by ice but by lush forests. New Zealand today is the only remaining part of an enormous continental block that once extended all the way to an area of Antarctica that includes McMurdo Station, the American research outpost. McMurdo was where I flew for my three prior Antarctic expeditions, but this time I am leaving New Zealand aboard much slower transport than the military planes that shuttle scientists to the research station. And this time, the transport is the research station.

Our research vessel is officially named the JOIDES Resolution: JOIDES for Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling and Resolution. And Resolution in honor of the HMS Resolution, a British ship that explored the Pacific and Antarctic regions 200 years ago under the command of Captain James Cook. Around the ship and among Deep Earth Sampling types around the world, she’s simply the JR—definitely not to be confused with an abbreviation for junior. The ship is 469 feet long and is distinguished by the drilling derrick that towers over us at the center of the ship. It will be our workplace, our home, pretty much our entire world, for the next two months.


Some fast facts: The JR first went to sea in 1978 as an oil exploration vessel. It was converted for scientific research in 1978 and is now jointly run by a group of American research institutions (including the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, with which I’m associated) and funded by the National Science Foundation. The JR sails all over the world—it has no home port—and has drilled down as far as 1.3 miles into the earth.

Getting to Antarctica by military transport plane had one major advantage, of course, but in some ways I think I prefer the slower journey on the high seas. I’ll be able to get a sense of the immense distances between Antarctica and all the other land masses of the world. And indeed, as the green hills disappeared into the haze of the ocean, they were replaced after a day by the high seas of the Southern Ocean. With them came the first hint of the strong winds, known as the “roaring forties,” that create the largest oceanic current on our planet, the Antarctic circum-polar current (ACC).

Sailing on the east side of New Zealand’s South Island this first day protected us from the high waves. But it is only the first of eight days. And it won’t be long before there will be no land anywhere nearby to protect us.

The JR website (with lots of up-to-date stuff from the ship)
About IODP and Expedition 318
Expedition 318 Daily Science ReportsJR JR