June 28, 2004
This illustration shows the circulation of water through the
seafloor as described by Andrew Fisher and his coworkers based on
their results from ODP Leg 168. Blue arrows represent cold water
flowing into the seafloor through a large seamount. As the water
circulates through the seafloor, it is warmed by heat from the interior
of the Earth. Warm water is then discharged through the smaller
Illustration by Nicolle Rager
UCSC scientist leads expedition to establish seafloor observatories
for studying water flow in the upper oceanic crust
By Tim Stephens
An international team of scientists will investigate how water flows
through rock formations beneath the seafloor during an eight-week expedition
this summer to the eastern flank of the Juan de Fuca Ridge off the coast
of British Columbia.
This map shows the location of the field area for IODP Expedition
301 in the Northeast Pacific. The dashed red line shows the location
of the ODP Leg 168 transect where drilling was conducted in 1996.
Stars represent IODP Expedition 301 drilling sites. FR = First
Ridge, SR = Second Ridge, DR = Deep Ridge. Detail of the area
around Second Ridge is shown in the photo below.
Credit: Andrew Fish
It will be the first expedition of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program
(IODP), an ambitious new international collaboration set up to succeed
the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP), which supported 20 years of international
expeditions to study the ocean floor and obtain evidence of Earth's
history from seafloor sediments.
Andrew Fisher, professor of Earth sciences at UCSC, is co-chief scientist
of this first IODP expedition, along with Tetsuro Urabe of the University
The amount of water that circulates through the upper oceanic crust
is equivalent to the combined flows of all the rivers that pour off
of the continents, Fisher said.
Driven by slight differences in temperature and pressure within the
seafloor, this "hydrothermal flow" is enough to recirculate
all of the water in the oceans through the seafloor every few hundred
thousand years, he said.
"This process affects the chemistry of the ocean, changes the
properties of the crust itself, and influences the microbial communities
that live below the seafloor," Fisher said. "We know it's
important, but we really don't understand much about how it works."
This map of the field area around Second Ridge shows the locations
of seamounts and drilling sites. Results from ODP Leg 168 showed
that cold water is flowing into the seafloor through the large seamount
known as Grizzly Bare, circulating through the seafloor, and coming
out from Baby Bare, a smaller seamount 52 kilometers to the north.
Credit: Andrew Fisher
The researchers will be drilling holes deep into the seafloor and capping
the holes with elaborate structures called "CORKs" that will
enable scientists to monitor processes beneath the seafloor and conduct
experiments. These advanced seafloor observatories allow measurements
of temperature, pressure, fluid chemistry, and microbiology to be obtained
from different depths in the borehole. The CORKs, which stand about
two stories high on the ocean floor, cap boreholes that extend hundreds
of meters through the seafloor sediments and into the "basement
rocks," the basalt of the upper oceanic crust. One function of
the CORKs is to allow conditions within the boreholes to equilibrate.
"When you drill the hole, you change the temperature and the pressure
and you contaminate things, and the only way to get back to equilibrium
is to seal it up and let it sit for awhile," Fisher explained.
"The CORKs basically plug the hole. They also have lots of valves
and connections where we can hook up to them with a submarine or an
ROV [remotely operated vehicle] and take measurements from different
intervals in the borehole."
The researchers plan to put in four observatories this summer. The
observatories will enable them to conduct a kind of standard hydrogeologic
testing commonly done on land, known as a "cross-hole test."
"In a cross-hole test, you pump in one hole and monitor in several
other holes. No one's ever done this in the seafloor. The environment
is different, but in principle it's the same thing anyone would do to
test an aquifer," Fisher said.
The expedition will depart from Astoria, Oregon, on June 28, 2004,
on the research vessel JOIDES Resolution, a well-equipped drilling platform
used for years in the ODP.
The scientists will be returning to an area about 120 miles (200 kilometers)
west of Vancouver Island that Fisher and his collaborators previously
studied eight years ago on ODP Leg 168. In a paper published last year
in Nature, the researchers reported their discovery of fluid
flow between a pair of seamounts in this area that are separated by
more than 30 miles (52 kilometers).
"One of the big surprises from Leg 168 was that the flow rates
were very high, and yet the driving forces are just a couple of pounds
per square inch, not even the equivalent of one atmosphere of pressure,"
Fisher said. "The ocean crust is very permeable, with wide open
cracks and fractures, so the driving forces are very small."
The Juan de Fuca Ridge, west of the drill site, is a place where new
oceanic crust is being built as two oceanic plates spread apart and
fresh lava pours out of the seafloor. To the east, the Juan de Fuca
Plate dives beneath the edge of the North American Plate.
This new expedition is an opportunity to ask some basic questions about
the plumbing system in the seafloor, Fisher said.
"The upper oceanic crust is the largest aquifer on Earth--it covers
two-thirds of the planet. But it's a complicated system, and we don't
know how well connected it is," he said. "Can you pump in
one place and see a response a kilometer away? If you pump at one depth,
can you see a response 500 meters below? Those are very basic questions
if you want to build a model of the system. A lot of people have published
papers with models of the seafloor and no data--I've done it myself.
This is an opportunity to get the kind of information we need to understand
New drillships equipped with different drilling technologies are being
developed for the IODP, and Fisher's group plans to return to the site
in a few years with one of these new vessels to conduct additional experiments.
"We'll drill another hole in between these observatories and then
do some experiments where we pump into the formation and monitor the
response all around it. We'll also do long-term experiments where we
inject chemical tracers," he said.
All the water circulating through the ocean crust has implications
on land where the oceanic plates are subducted beneath the continental
plates. The explosiveness of volcanoes such as Mount St. Helens, for
example, is due to water that ends up mixed with molten rock when oceanic
plates are subducted deep into the Earth. Water in subduction zones
may also affect the behavior of earthquake faults.
The investigation will also address questions that are of general interest
to hydrogeologists who study complicated rock systems on land as well
as on the seafloor, Fisher said.
The IODP is an international scientific research endeavor funded by
the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the Ministry of Education,
Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan, and the European Consortium
for Ocean Research Drilling to conduct basic research into the history
of the ocean basins and the overall nature of the crust beneath the
seafloor. IODP will use new resources to support technologically advanced
ocean drilling research, which will enable investigation of Earth's
regions and processes that were previously inaccessible and poorly understood.
The Joint Oceanographic Institutions (JOI), a consortium of 20 academic
institutions, leads U.S. participation in the IODP through the U.S.
Science Support Program (see http://joiscience.org).
Through an alliance with Texas A&M University and Lamont-Doherty
Earth Observatory of Columbia University, JOI leads the operations of
a riserless vessel in IODP that is funded by NSF. Japan and the European
Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling will also operate platforms in
the program. Japan will contribute Chikyu, a $500 million riser vessel
that will begin service in 2006, and Europe will operate mission-specific
platforms to ice-covered and shallow-water regions.
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