16 February 2015 10:31

A Lancaster University environmental scientist is taking part in a massive international research effort drilling for environmental clues buried deep beneath the Indian Ocean.

In a ship festooned in razor wire to deter pirates, Dr Yani Najman set sail from Singapore this month with the 30-strong team of researchers and over 100 crew, to drill for Himalayan sediment, 3,500m below the surface of the Ocean.

This Himalayan sediment has been washed down from the highest mountains on earth and deposited over millions of years in the Bay of Bengal in a fan shaped pattern at the bottom of the Ocean, called the Bengal Fan. It contains important clues about climate patterns going back millions of years. Dr Najman particularly hopes it will yield information about the very earliest history of the Himalayas.

Over the next two months, the ship’s drill crew will stabilise the vessel before the drill and collection pipe are fed down and samples are then collected and brought to the surface every few hours. The team will drill sediment cores on a transect – six different sites in a line, across the middle of the Bengal Fan. Ultimately, they also hope to take one very deep core, drilling to the base of the Bengal Fan. 

Writing from the seagoing research vessel ‘The JOIDES Resolution’ this week, Yani Najman said the initial drilling had been going well despite some early technical challenges.

“There was excitement when the very first sample was cored, until we discovered the returning pipe contained 100% water and 0% sediment. Later progress was better, but still we encountered more difficulties than expected, due to the composition of the sediment which keeps escaping from the core liner. This is slowing us down somewhat.

“Today we left our first site and sailed to the second. Overall the plan is to core 5 shallow wells to look at, amongst other things, the record of monsoon intensity through time. We need to core a number of holes in order to build up a complete record of the sedimentation through time, because each hole by itself only has an incomplete record because deposition is not continuous at each site through time.  When we put these sediment samples back together they will form a complete slice of the ocean bed– providing us with a slice of time.

“Then, we will core one deep hole to try to drill to the base of the Bengal fan, hopefully to a depth of 1500m below the sea bed, and perhaps to sediments as old at 40 million years, but no-one knows the age of these sediments yet, or when the fan began. This is the part I'm most interested in, to get the earliest record of early Himalayan erosion ever recorded.  But it is also the most risky objective, as it's one of the most ambitiously deep holes that has been attempted by this ship in this type of unobliging sediment.”

Working 12-hour shifts, the team of micropalaeontologists, sedimentologists, palaeomagnetists, physical properties scientists, and geochemists are working round the clock to extract as much data as possible before heading for shore.

To follow their adventure go to http://joidesresolution.org/node/3760 or watch an introduction to their project here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJ_9Vnc0y8c