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Ship drills for scientific deep-sea riches

A high-tech Japanese research ship aims to  uncover the secrets of climate change, find microbes that help explain the origin of life, and clarify the causes of earthquakes.
The CHIKYU, a Japanese scientific research ship, is moored at Yokohama port. The 210-meter ship houses the world's biggest deep-sea drill, sports a high-tech floating laboratory, and boasts a $500 million price tag.Katsumi Kasahara / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The CHIKYU is studded with superlatives. Completed last year, the ship houses the world’s biggest deep-sea drill, sports a high-tech floating laboratory and boasts a $500 million price tag.

The Japanese boat has an ambitious agenda to match: uncover the secrets of climate change, find microbes that help explain the origin of life, and clarify the causes of earthquakes.

The 230-yard (210-meter) ship underwent its first major test run in November, drilling deep into the ocean floor off northern Japan for specimens that scientists say can yield historical information on everything from volcano cycles to global warming.

“The contributions from this are actually immense,” said Daniel Curewitz, a structural geologist who supervises the ship’s lab, as he pointed to long tubes of deep-sea sediment. “Each one of these cores is a tape recorder.”

Mammoth drill
The key to the project is the CHIKYU’s mammoth drill, which operators say is capable of boring 7,000 meters — nearly 4½ miles — into the ocean floor. That would be far deeper than the 2,111-meter — or 1.3-mile — hole achieved by the United States’ drilling vessel, the 20-year-old Joides Resolution.

“Beyond 2,000 meters, we will be opening a new frontier in earth sciences,” declared Asahiko Taira, a U.S.-educated geologist and director general of the Center for Deep Earth Exploration, under the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.

The drill can achieve greater depths with the innovation of the so-called “riser pipe,” which envelops the drill above the ocean floor and sucks debris out of the hole, making it possible to bore deeper into the earth.

CHIKYU — the Japanese word for “Earth” — is also equipped with a dynamic positioning system that can keep the ship fixed in an area with a 30-yard (27.5-meter) diameter, avoiding a drift that would bend the drill as it drives into the seabed.

Scientific riches
Curewitz said samples taken from Earth’s mantle — a place man has yet to reach — could yield a wealth of scientific information.

Cores can be analyzed at the floating laboratory, but the Japan agency has also established a core sample research institute in Kochi, southwestern Japan, for more in-depth examination.

The possible areas of advance form a long and varied list: climate change over the centuries, atmospheric composition, mantle core and plate dynamics, marine ecosystems and extremophiles, or animals that can exist under conditions of extreme temperature or pressure.

The discovery of organisms living under the extreme heat and pressures of the earth’s mantle, for instance, could give scientists clues about how life began and evolved in the early years of Earth’s existence.

“We can get an idea for where these sediments came from, what kind of animals were living on the bottom and in the ocean at the time,” said Curewitz. “All of those things give us different ideas for ... how the climate changed over time.”

Studying earthquakes
After another year of tests, in 2007 the CHIKYU, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, will join the country’s long-cherished Japanese quest to better understand — and perhaps even predict — killer quakes.

Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone nations on earth, sitting atop four tectonic plates. A temblor took more than 6,400 lives in the city of Kobe in 1995, and studies show some 11,000 people could die if a major quake hits Tokyo.

To meet that danger, Japan has a well-developed network of quake detection and alert. Word of a quake flashes across TV screens within a minute after it strikes. But despite decades of research and all the latest technology, the ability to forecast an earthquake has been elusive.

The CHIKYU’s first assignment will be in the Nankai Trough, a Pacific Ocean zone between two major tectonic plates that has produced powerful, destructive earthquakes off southwest Japan over the past 1,500 years.

There, geologists hope to drill deep into the ocean floor to the boundary between the oceanic and continental plates for the first time into what’s known as a seismogenic zone — the flash point for quakes.

Scientists will pull up core specimens to tell them crucial details, such as what kind of rock is on the plate boundary zone. Hard rock plate edges, for instance, can lock against one another and then snap under pressure, while soft rock edges can slowly slide and are less likely to trigger a quake.

30 seconds of warning
Researchers also plan to install monitors in the series of holes drilled by CHIKYU and connect them to a cable along the ocean floor that runs to a land station, setting up a mechanism for quick detection of undersea plate movements.

Even then, the ability to predict quakes will be limited: Taira said researchers are hoping for a 30-second advance warning of a quake — barely enough time to turn off the stove and dive under the kitchen table before disaster strikes.

Still, Taira has hopes for the future.

“We may be able to have a real-time warning that would save lives,” he said.