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Deep sea exploration: looking for limits to life

Deep sea exploration: looking for limits to life and following the trail of “wandering hotspots” off the coast of New Zealand

On 17 December 2010, a team of scientists will set sail from Auckland on the “Louisville Seamount Trail” expedition. Over the next two months, the research vessel JOIDES Resolution (the JR) will drill as much as 350 meters below the seafloor, recovering geological samples of four extinct volcanoes that form part of an underwater volcanic chain known as the Louisville Seamount Trail. Similar to Hawaii, these volcanoes (lying off the northeast coast of New Zealand) are believed to have formed above a “hotspot” in the deep earth, which fuelled eruptions on the seafloor. The goal of the expedition is to learn more about hotspots and how they may have wandered over the past 80 million years within the deep interior of our planet.

At the beginning of the same week, the “South Pacific Gyre” expedition comes to a close in Auckland. For more than 60 days, this expedition has demanded an extraordinary level of teamwork from scientists aboard the JR as they ventured into a largely unexplored region of the ocean so vast that it covers more than 10% of Earth’s surface. By studying subsurface life in the South Pacific Gyre – an ecosystem challenged by exceptionally low access to organic matter – these scientists hope to greatly increase our understanding of the diversity of life, as well as the limits to life here on Earth and on other planets

On Wednesday 15 December, expedition leaders will give a public talk at the Auckland Museum on the exciting goals of these two expeditions. Visitors to the museum can follow the progress of the Louisville expedition through an interactive exhibit based in the Oceans Gallery from December to February.

The JOIDES Resolution will call into Auckland twice over the summer, first in December to exchange scientific teams and then at the conclusion of the Louisville Seamount expedition in February. The media, invited guests, local scientists, and students will have opportunities to tour the ship and meet the scientists participating in the expeditions.

Forty years of ocean exploration by scientific ocean drilling have laid the foundation for much of what we know about the dynamic history of our planet and its oceans over the past 150 million years. The JOIDES Resolution is an essential research vessel of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), an international research programme dedicated to advancing scientific understanding of the Earth through drilling, coring, and monitoring the subseafloor.

New Zealand participates in IODP through the Australian and New Zealand IODP Consortium (ANZIC). New Zealand and Australia play an integral part in IODP, with four scientists from GNS Science, Otago University, and Victoria University participating in expeditions off the Canterbury coast and near Antarctica last summer and a total of 19 ANZIC scientists participating in expeditions over the last three years. Also, researchers from GNS Science, NIWA, and Victoria University have recently been given the green light from IODP to develop an ambitious programme of seafloor drilling to learn more about the causes of submarine earthquakes offshore eastern New Zealand.

Activities surrounding the port visit by the JOIDES Resolution are hosted by the Auckland Museum Institute, the University of Auckland, and GNS Science, with the support of IODP and the U.S.-based Consortium for Ocean Leadership.

The JR is managed by the US Implementing Organization of IODP (USIO), and funded by the US National Science Foundation. Together, Texas A&M University, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and the Consortium for Ocean Leadership comprise the USIO.


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