At sea for science

The Joides Resolution is a large boat—more than 450 feet long and almost 70 feet wide. That's small compared to a lot of cruise ships, but big enough to house and feed and provide work space for 126 people. It's a floating city, with a movie theater, helipad, hospital, cafeteria, laboratories, and a giant drilling rig. But even a big boat can start to feel small when you have nowhere else to go, and no land in sight, for two whole months.

Some science can't be done on shore, and the Joides Resolution is one of the tools researchers use to learn more about the world beneath the waves. The ship travels the globe, serving as a mobile research station for scientists who want to study the bottom of the sea.

Between June 2 and August 1, 2012, a team of researchers, technicians, and support staff took the Joides Resolution north, to the cold waters off Newfoundland. Their goal: Collect samples of mud, clay, and muck from the ocean floor. Using a deep-sea drilling system, they lowered thousands of feet of pipe through the water, and forced it into the sea floor below. When the pipes were pulled back up on deck, they contained core samples—cylindrical logs that allowed the scientists to see layer after layer of sediment. By looking at what those cores are made of, the chemistry they contain, and the physical fossils buried deep inside them, researchers can begin to reconstruct what Earth's climate must have been like tens of millions of years ago.

On July 11th, while the Joides Resolution was still at sea, I got to interview several of the scientists on board. Paleontologist Richard Norris, geochemist Jessica Whiteside, and sedimentologist Chris Junium (along with communications officer Caitlin Scully) talked to me about their research, what they hoped to learn, and what it was like to live in a laboratory far from home.

These are the tubes that are driven vertically into the sea floor by the Joides Resolution's drilling rig. They'll come back up full of sediment from the bottom of the ocean.

You can listen to my full interview with the scientists via Soundcloud—or download it as a podcast. It's almost an hour long, but you'll learn a lot about how the scientists (and the rest of the crew) work, how they live, and what they study. I think it's interesting to hear this story straight from the people who are experiencing it, especially when you're talking about an experience that simultaneously brings together with an incredibly diverse group of people, while also thoroughly cutting them off from the rest of humanity.

In a lot of ways, the Joides Resolution is like the research stations in Antarctica. Truly an international effort—"more international than the International Space Station," as Richard Norris put it—it's also interdisciplinary. Scientists literally cannot do this kind of work on their own. In order for a science team of 30-some people to function, they have to work alongside 20 technicians and more than 70 crew members, including cooks, electricians, and welders. It creates a different sort of community and a different sort of environment than what you'd find in a lab on land. At the same time, as Chris Junium describes, everyone on that boat is very far away from their friends and their family for a very long time.

This is the Moon Pool, which the researchers talk about in the interview. It's a hole that goes all the way through the ship, creating a pool of sea water on the deck of the Joides Resolution. Besides serving as a launching port for underwater research vessels, the Moon Pool is also necessary for the drilling operations. The drilling pipes are so heavy that they can't be lowered over the side of the ship. If you did that, the whole thing would list. Instead, the drill goes down through the Moon Pool, down through the center of the ship, itself, keeping the weight balanced and the boat afloat.

We've also got a series of videos that will allow you to see some of the stuff the scientists talk about in the interview (and give you a way to hit the highlights without listening to an hour-long podcast).

In the first film, you'll meet some of the people who spent two months on board the Joides Resolution this summer, and get an inside look at what their lives were like.

The second film shows you how the crew of the Joides Resolution went about collecting those all-important samples of sea-floor sediment. It's not as simple as you might think. The Joides Resolution does its drilling in deep water. It can't anchor. Instead, the boat has to be carefully positioned so it doesn't twist and torque the drilling pipes as it moves on the surface of the water.

Finally, what do the scientists do with those sea-floor samples once they've got them? This last video follows the core samples from the ocean to the lab. You'll see how researchers keep track of hundreds and hundreds of tubes of muck, and find out how they make sense of what they're seeing. You'll also get to meet the Green Monster—a thick and frustratingly persistent layer of mud much younger than the sediments the researchers were hoping to find.

Learn more about Joides Resolution Expedition 342

See more photos from the trip

Watch more videos made on board the Joides Resolution

Special thanks to Caitlin Scully!