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22 August, 2004

Aboard the Vidar Viking

Today I awoke with a new sense of excitement as it was my day to spend some time aboard the drill ship, the Vidar Viking. The drilling is proceeding extremely well and they are starting to rotate the non-"scientists" over to the Vidar to assist and observe the drilling process first-hand. There is a limit to the number of people allowed aboard due to safety concerns so we are taking turns going over to take part in a 12 hour shift. My shift was from 1100 - 2300 (11 am to 11 pm). I was dressed in my warmest clothes, including my fleece and outer SPRS jackets, wind pants, gloves, and hard hat borrowed from the British Geological Surveys folks. On my feet I wore my new steel-toed boots; these were purchased specifically so I could go onto the Vidar if the opportunity arose. I was told there would probably be extra boots available on the drill ship, but I wasn't taking any chances that boots wouldn't fit and I would have to stay behind.

I want to capture as much of the activity as possible so in addition to my notebook I bring my video camera, Erik's video camera, my digital camera and my 35mm film camera. I think I'll have enough cameras for the day!!

As soon as we arrive by helicopter we must go up to the bridge so that we can sign into the log book as guests on board. Jan Backman, expedition co-chief, signs in the regular shift members, but hands me the pen to sign myself in. After a quick look-see as to the layout of the ship, it is down to the drill deck.

Once we walk onto the deck we see that a core has just been brought up. This one is amazing, with dramatic color changes and everyone crowds around to see. On the Oden all I had seen of the cores was a very small sample taken from the end of a core, but here is a 4.5 meter long core straight from below the Arctic Ocean floor. Truly, sometimes I am amazed that I am here parcticipating in such important scientific research and discovery. I hope that I can convey some of this excitement to my students when I return to school. To think that what is happening here will change what is known about the Earth's history! Mind-boggling, really!

There is a strict protocol and procedure for dealing with the cores, so I step aside to watch as the core is measured into 1.5 meter segments, sealed, labeled and put aside. Some geological tests will be run on the Vidar, then the cores will be refrigerated and stored to be transported to the University of Bremen, Germany.

After watching a bit of that process, I wandered back out onto the deck to see what was happening next. There is not a moment wasted here; one filled plastic core liner comes up out of the drill pipe and another empty liner is put in the drill pipe and that is lowered down into the hole, now about 200 mbsf (meters below the sea floor). The drillers are very helpful in explaining the process once the pipe is on its way down and they have a half hour or so until it starts back up. I get a tour of the deck, see where the pipes are stored until they are needed, where the lubricating "mud" mixture is made, and where the drill operator works. The "mud" is not really mud, but a mixture made from a cellulose material and water, with a consistency and viscosity very similar to wall-paper paste. This "mud" is pumped down into the space inside of the drill pipe; it lubricates and cools the drill bit as well as forces drill cuttings up the drill hole and deposits them on the sea floor.

I watch the drillers direct the drill string down the pipe and monitor it from the "rooster box", a platform high up on the drill rig. I have no burning desire to be up atop the rig, especially as I watch the drillers scramble up and down the vertical ladder rungs that take them high above the drill floor.

Instead I climb up a much shorter ladder to visit Danny in the drill control box. He graciously gives me a lesson in drill operation and the importance of monitoring and controlling the pressure of the drill pipe. He allows me to stay and watch as he lowers the pipe down to the new depth and starts drilling. As I watch he controls a drill string supporting 50-60 tons of drill weight!

What is even more amazing to me is the way they add a new drill pipe length to the existing one to go deeper into the sediment. There is a mechanism called the "iron roughneck" that clasps and the top of the existing drill pipe and supports all that is still suspended about 1200 meters below the ship! The top pipe is then disconnected and with a series of clamps and lifts, a new pipe length is attached, carefully screwed into place with the correct amount of torque applied, and the drilling continues. As I watch, the whole process proceeds seamlessly.

It is cold standing out on the drill deck so it is welcome relief to go back inside the heated "science labs", the metal containers sitting on the deck. I watch as Matt O'Regan, a Graduate Student in Marine Geology from URI, sends the cores through the MSCL. This is a machine that performs several physical property tests on the core, for instance measuring density, sound velocity and magnetic susceptibility. Because this information is collected every 2cm along the entire length of the core, it gives a high resolution picture of the physical property changes in the sediments that in turn can show climactic changes.

In the next container over, a Professor in Geochemistry from Rice University, Jerry Dickens, collects samples of sediments and pore water (water collected from microscopic spaces between the sediment grains). Later a series of chemical analyses will be run on these samples. The results from these tests will show not only chemical reactions that occurred in the sediments in the past, but also how those reactions translate to what is happening in the waters and sediments today.

The scientific information gathered on the expedition while it is at sea, will be added to by onshore analyses of collected samples. While the micropaleontologists back on the Oden will sample the small amounts of sediments we bring back at the end of our shift, they and other scientists will examine the full collection of cores when they meet in November in Bremen, Germany. What I am taking part in is a small part of extensive scientific analysis.

The helicopter returns at 11 pm bringing the next shift of scientists, led by the other expedition, co-chief, Kate Moran. Wearily I board the helicopter back to the Oden to share my experiences and then head to my cabin.

Helping measure and cut the core.

Matt O'Regan and some of the Vidar Viking drillers.

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