By Erica Mather 02/06/2016

The world’s largest geoscience programme has confirmed after years of planning that a series of unprecedented investigations of the seafloor will take place off New Zealand’s coast between 2017 and 2018.

Hundreds of scientists from 26 countries including New Zealand form the International Ocean Discovery Programme (IODP) who announced this week that JOIDES Resolution , a research ship with specialised ocean drilling equipment will undertake five back-to-back research voyages around New Zealand and Antarctica starting in August next year.

The US-based research ship will drill beneath the seafloor at multiple sites to extract cores that will provide a range of information including earthquake and tsunami risk. The team plan to investigate four locations off New Zealand’s coast, and one in the Ross Sea.

All projects encompass themes of global significance and contribute to the advancement in understanding of earth sciences, according to Dr Neal Wai Poi, Acting Chief Executive of GNS Science.

Dr Beth Fox, a lecturer of Earth Sciences at the University of Waikato is enthusiastic about the projects:

“These projects are looking to answer questions such as how our active tectonic and volcanic systems work and how Antarctica responds to changes in global climate. With earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and climate change all presenting significant hazards to New Zealand, these questions are relevant to every New Zealander.”

IODP-expeditions2017-2018The projects represent NZ$80 million in investment and involve:

  • Investigation of tectonic plate subduction in the Tasman Sea, northwest of the North Island. This project aims to understand the origins of this process 50 million years ago and its influence on regional and global climate.
  • Sampling the sub-seafloor layer 30km off the coast of Gisborne to analyse a large seafloor landslide about the size of Auckland. The project aims to find out whether slow changes in the landslide are linked to the detection of frozen methane in the sediment.
  • Analysis of ‘geological archives’ from beneath the seafloor off the Ross Ice Shelf. After multiple cycles of warming and cooling over the past 20 million years, scientists aim to learn more about the behaviour and stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
  • Creating sub-seafloor ‘borehole observatories’ about 50km off the coast of Gisborne, along the Hikurangi subduction zone to gain a better understanding of slow-motion earthquakes. Scientists aim to develop the capability to give early warnings of damaging earthquakes and tsunamis.
  • Investigation of the active Brothers Volcano about 400km northeast of the Bay of Plenty. Scientists hope to examine the transport of fluid and metals in the Earth’s crust as well as the conditions inside submarine volcanos that are required for microbial life.

Director of the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University Wellington, Professor Timothy Naish, comments on the incredible opportunities that this research will bring to New Zealand:

“Having the world’s biggest and longest-running geoscientific research programme operating around New Zealand for an entire year will produce a seismic shift in our understanding of environmental change and natural hazards and resources. This level of one-off international investment ($80M) in New Zealand geoscientific research is unprecedented and will likely never happen again.”

It is vital that New Zealand researchers are able to participate in these expeditions, which could be the pinnacle of their careers.  Professor Naish notes:

“The challenge for our government will be to adequately support our researchers to participate, such that New Zealand reaps the full benefit of this opportunity.”

This international collaboration provides scientists across disciplines with a unique way to gain access to New Zealand’s marine territory in order to analyse geological processes. The research programme brings other invaluable benefits to New Zealand including opportunities for the training of next generation scientists and engineers as well as openings for the communication of science between scientists, teachers, students and the public.

New Zealand’s involvement in the IODP comprises GNS Science, Victoria University of Wellington, NIWA, and Otago University, together with a number of Australian universities and government organisations.

Featured image: IODP Scientific Ocean Drilling ship JOIDES Resolution.  Credit IODP.

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