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Geologist Embarks on 60-Day Voyage to Study Past Climates

Geologist Suzanne O’Connell spent the anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking navigating iceberg-infested waters in an area between Patagonia and the Antarctic Peninsula known as Iceberg Alley. But she was so occupied with collecting and analyzing sediment from the ocean floor that she barely noticed it was April 15; 107 years to the day that the British ocean liner sank in the Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg.  

“We thought about it since we had icebergs all around us,” O’Connell explains. “You’re busy working, and people are there to protect you.” That protection included deploying satellite imagery and an iceberg observer to detect icebergs.

O’Connell has studied paleoceanography for more than 30 years, and she’s currently a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Wesleyan University.

Sedimentology group picture.
Sedimentology group aboard the ship.
Credit: Lee Stephens.

Recently, she sailed to the Subantarctic Ocean just north of the Antarctic Circle to drill for and study ocean sediment samples on the JOIDES Resolution research vessel with 29 other scientists from the U.S. and around the world. The research vessel, part of the International Ocean Discovery Program that’s funded by the National Science Foundation, drills into the ocean floor to collect and study core samples. Her 60-day expedition, which O’Connell describes as a “summer camp for grown-up scientists,” began March 20 and ended May 20.

The crew had a few close calls; a couple of times icebergs would have crunched the ship and ripped a hole in it if they hadn’t moved, O’Connell recalls.

When icebergs got too close to the ship, the team either had to stop drilling and raise the drill pipe that went about two miles down (which can take 24 hours to do) or if icebergs got even closer, they raised the drill pipe, also known as drill string, and moved the ship.

“Drill string or a core string is like a mating call to an iceberg,” O’Connell quips.

Her primary area of focus right now centers on how much and how rapidly Antarctic ice sheets melted between 2.5 and four million years ago.

“I’m hoping that this data will be useful for climate modelers so they can figure out how fast the ice will melt in the future,” O’Connell says.

Knowing how fast the ice melted and where it melted before human activity accelerated the process is an important step in preparing for the sea level rise happening in tandem with warming temperatures on the planet. To figure out how fast the ice melted millions of years ago, ocean cores come in handy. They are a much better recorder of earth history than say lake cores because they have a longer history and go back millions of years, O’Connell says.

“We think that this period of time, three to 3.5 million years ago, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was over 400 parts per million, which is what it is now — 415 parts per million,” O’Connell says. “We know an awful lot of ice melted then, but it had thousands of years to do it, and now we’ve had hundreds of years.”

What humans have done in a short amount of time is take carbon that was stored in the Earth in oil, gas and coal and burn it into the atmosphere, O’Connell says.

“It’s really important we get a handle on it,” O’Connell says. “People have to prepare much faster for rising sea levels — it’s melting that fast.”

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Suzanne O'Connell atop Yosemite Falls.
Credit: Unknown Hiker.

She’s using the ocean sediment she collected during her expedition to see how much ice material was deposited into the ocean. Additionally, she is using the size and composition of the material that came from land sediment to estimate how much sediment from ice was deposited, then working backwards to see how fast the ice was melting. She’s working on this research at Wesleyan University — she took a sabbatical from the university to go on the expedition.

The scientists from the voyage plan to reconvene in two years to present the results of their individual research. All told, the group recovered 2,738 meters worth of ocean core. Half of it is being stored in Germany and the other half, the working half, is where the team pulls its samples from that they’ll be using for the next few years.

This marked the ninth such trip O’Connell has taken through the International Ocean Discovery Program — her first one was in 1980, 12 years after the program began. In 1987, O’Connell boarded the same ship to drill for ocean sediment in the Weddell Sea.

Her interest in ocean sediments started when she was at SUNY Albany mapping ophiolites (pieces of ocean plate that were thrust onto the edge of continental plates) in Newfoundland, Canada. Plans started for the Glomar Challenger, a now-retired ship that drilled for ocean crust and ocean sediment to set sail. One of the people involved on that mission hired her to work for the Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling (JOIDES) as science coordinator.

Others interested in embarking on these sorts of trips should review ship schedules for various oceanographic institutions and look into educational programs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers, like Teacher at Sea. Also, people interested can see who has gone on one of these trips recently, who is doing work on them and who submitted proposals for expeditions.

“Try to meet up with them and work in their lab or become their graduate student,” O’Connell says. “It’s good, old-fashioned networking.”

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