Sailing the seismic waves

April 25, 2011, 12:04 a.m.

Ten miles off the coast of Costa Rica, Stanford researcher Jennifer Saltzman stands on the ship deck of the JOIDES Resolution watching a gigantic steel drill dig a 23-foot-wide hole in the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The drill will reach depths of up to 6,924 feet, or about 1.3 miles, below the ocean floor.

Sailing the seismic waves
Jennifer Saltzman conducts research aboard the JOIDES Resolution, pictured above, where she worked for five weeks as the ship’s education officer. (Courtesy of Jennifer Saltzman)

Its mission? To extract deep samples of earth that could provide crucial insight into how subduction zones — places where one tectonic plate of the Earth’s crust is shoved beneath another — produces large earthquakes, such as the recent magnitude-9 earthquake that ravaged the coast of Japan. This type of research is the “smoking gun” in uncovering the environmental and climate changes that have shaped the planet’s transformation throughout history, from continental drift to the extinction of the dinosaurs, Saltzman said.

Deep-sea drilling has played an integral part in shaping scientific understanding of geologic phenomena, such as major earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. Aboard the JOIDES Resolution, researchers are drilling to depths previously unheard of, where sediments could unlock the secrets that may one day allow scientists to foresee tectonic disasters before they take place.

The ship, which is affectionately called the JR, is the only American ship in the world devoted solely to scientific drilling. Its full acronym, JOIDES, stands for Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling. “Resolution” honors the HMS Resolution, a ship commanded more than 200 years ago by Captain James Cook, who explored the Pacific and Antarctic Oceans. Today, the JR roams waters across the globe, from New Zealand to Tahiti to Central America to the Bering Sea.

Assisting in this endeavor are over 100 individuals representing 10 nations on four continents: engineers, technicians, oilers, chemists, researchers, curators, computer science and imaging specialists, a captain, laundryman and professional chefs. They work and live together aboard the JR, where operations continue 24 hours a day in the lab stack — an innovative research space comprised of seven vertical floors of laboratories.

Saltzman, director of outreach education at the School of Earth Sciences and a lecturer in geological and environmental sciences, was part of this team, working a 12-hour shift each day like every member of the crew for the five-week research voyage. She rose with the sunrise at 6 a.m. and worked until just before sunset at 6 p.m.

She was hired from a nationwide pool of applicants as the ship’s education officer. Her duties included sharing the JR’s progress with students through blogs and live online broadcasts as well as conducting research along with the rest of the crew, spending days processing sediment samples in the geochemistry lab.

Saltzman jumped at the opportunity to participate in the five-week research voyage when she was offered the position early this year.

Along with looking at the sediment samples, she also got to share her experience with student audiences around the country through her blog posts on the JOIDES Resolution website. Her entries paint a colorful portrait of life aboard the JR and help explain the research in ways that younger audiences can understand. In one post, for example, Saltzman described drilling into the sediment on the seafloor as similar to “pushing a giant straw through layers of cake or Jello!”

Saltzman also found a way to interact with her land-bound viewers through live online broadcasts over Skype. She spoke to many classrooms in California and shared her experiences as part of the research team. A few weeks ago, Saltzman talked to a sixth-grade earth science class in Santa Clara, Calif. She took them on a photo tour of the JR and told them about some of the research methods the scientists use — some of which, like tasting the core samples to test for differences in texture, are strange and counterintuitive.

Her broadcasts even made their way back to the Stanford campus. Kelly Marren ‘13, one of Saltzman’s advisees, tuned in from her laptop in her dorm room.

“[I was] wowed by the highly scientific process of studying these core samples, centimeter by centimeter,” she said. “I can’t believe all this is taking place on a ship! I was very impressed by the dual existence of ship life and research.”

For Saltzman, teaching from aboard the ship was an exciting aspect of her job. She used her blog and broadcasts to create a link between the purely scientific aims of the research aboard the JR and the avid minds of earth science students on the Farm.

“I love teaching,” she said. “I love sharing what I know about the world and helping people understand.”

Though Saltzman’s five-week voyage ended when the JR returned to port on April 13, the ship’s research will continue when it embarks on its next voyage, which is planned to explore waters offshore of Panama.

“We are FAR from understanding everything about how the Earth system works, let alone how to design all the tools and experiments to get us there,” Saltzman wrote in her blog. “That is the exciting thing about science. There is still so much to learn and do. There is so much still to discover.”

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