The boat unlocking Earth’s deepest secrets - BBC Earth

After spending two months on this amazing research vessel I thought it was time people knew it existed, how unique it is and the great work going on around the world.

We still know more about the surface of Mars than what’s under our own seabed.

Here we profile a scientific research vessel that has drilled more holes in the ocean floor than any other and whose expeditions continue to make some of the greatest scientific discoveries of our time.

Name: JOIDES Resolution
Nickname: JR
Operator: International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP)
Launched: 1978 (with IODP since 1985)
Type: Ocean-going research drilling vessel
Height: 62m (similar to the leaning tower of Pisa)
Crew: 70 + 60 scientists and technicians

The JOIDES Resolution (JR for short) circumnavigates the globe drilling holes and pulling up rock cores from under the seabed all in the name of scientific research. Rock cores hold important clues to our planet’s past and future and the JR provides the perfect place to investigate some of the biggest questions about Earth.

Not only is the JR an impressive ship, it’s also a floating laboratory that scientists use to analyse each core and tell us about the climate and life that existed when the sediments were deposited back through Earth’s history.

Scientists discuss different climatic events that can be 'read' in the core samples. Through time sediments are deposited on the seafloor building up layers that trained scientists can read like a book.

The JR takes its name from HMS Resolution, the vessel that took Captain James Cook on his second and third voyages to the Pacific in search of new continents. So it seems only fitting that the JOIDES Resolution is also discovering continents, if in a slightly different way. A recent expedition drilled core from the seafloor that revealed the hidden continent of Zealandia.

This is just one more in a long list of scientific discoveries made by drilling core from under the seabed. One of the first major discoveries was to confirm seafloor spreading which played a pivotal role in understanding plate tectonics.

Drilling into the seabed from a boat thousands of meters up on the surface of the ocean requires a boat with dynamic positioning so that it can stay in one place on the surface while the drillers drill down into the seabed below.

Other major findings include; direct evidence of an asteroid impact around the time the dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, salts deposits that show the Mediterranean Sea completely dried out repeatedly 5 million years ago, the discovery of abundant microbial life living deep in the in the Earth's crust, and the boat has just completed a project to install New Zealand’s first sub-seafloor earthquake monitors that will help us understand how, why and when earthquakes happen there.

The JOIDES Resolution in port in Hobart, Australia. The boat only goes into port every 2 months to re-supply and start a new expedition Each expedition lasts two months and has a specific scientific aim.

JR scientific expedition stats:
Number of expeditions: 165
Total distance travelled: 538,752 nautical miles
Core holes drilled: 2500
Length of core recovered: 322,616m
Deepest hole drilled: 2111m
Deepest water depth drilled in: 5980m

A fossilised clam in a piece of rock core brought up from below the seabed. Fossils help the scientists to tell the age of the rocks and what kind of environment they were living in.

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of scientific ocean drilling. In 1968, the Deep Sea Drilling Project was born and - though it has gone through several name changes and morphed from a solely US-funded operation to an international collaboration involving 24 countries including the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD) - it continues to probe unknown parts of our planet.

Since 2013, it has been known as the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP). Dr Kara Bogus, an expedition project manager for IODP explains; “You can learn a lot about the Earth with ocean drilling. The drilling programmes are now the longest running and arguably most successful of the geoscience international collaborations. We have been to every major ocean basin multiple times. The Earth is mostly covered by ocean, but what we are looking at is still only a tiny fraction.”

Each expedition continues 24 hours a day with scientists and crew working 12 hour shift cycles.

Dr Brian Huber from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History has sailed on the JR for three expeditions.

“We’re on a vessel that can go almost anywhere in the world's oceans and can core ocean sediments in almost any water depth, getting all kinds of Earth history records. We may discover some big extinction event or climate change, but I think what's been most important in the last few decades is just providing a very detailed record from around the globe unfolding a really detailed story about the evolution of life, of the oceans and of the continents,” he says.


The river that runs through the dawn of life - BBC Earth

Last summer I spent a month paddling down the Coppermine River in Arctic Canada with a bunch of geologists as crazy as myself. We tackled rapids, bears, muskox and char to get at the rocks and learn about early life. Read the article here:

Every river has a story to tell and this one covers 500 million years...

As a river starts its life trickling down a mountainside, it experiments; trying new directions in search of the easiest path. Water follows the line of least resistance. A river charting its course - just like animals crossing a hillside or even people on their way to work – has a story to tell.

Last July, I joined an inspiring scientific expedition with the Geological Survey of Canada. We descended over 200km of the remote Coppermine River in the Canadian Arctic by canoe searching for evidence of early life.

Exploring the geology surrounding the river (Credit: Vivien Cumming)

Rocks sculpted by the Coppermine River took us on a journey through 500 hundred million years of Earth’s history, starting over 1.5 billion years ago when the earliest multicellular life was beginning to emerge. By studying and sampling the rocks along the riverbanks, and hiking into the wilderness using drones to map the area, we hoped to expand our understanding of early life on Earth.

The Coppermine River winds its way through the high Arctic landscape, cutting the easiest path through a remote part of the world until it reaches the Arctic Ocean and the Inuit settlement of Kugluktuk where we ended our journey.

The Coppermine River rapids are not for the faint hearted, geologists navigate them by canoe, fully loaded with gear (Credit: Vivien Cumming)

We used human muscle and the power of water to undertake scientific research. Always limited by where the river took us, we began to understand the lives of early explorers restricted by the winds and currents in their efforts to cross seas or explore vast landscapes.

From the top of a mountain, escarpment after escarpment could be seen exposing cliffs of ancient sedimentary rock, once deposited at the bottom of an ocean and now making up the landscape of vast areas of northern Canada, each layer a time capsule of marine conditions over a billion years ago.

Rocks contain layers that contain evidence of ancient microbial life (Credit: Vivien Cumming)

We were on the lookout for some of the world’s oldest fossils, microscopic fossils of early eukaryotes (an organism whose cells have a nucleus containing DNA and other organelles enclosed within membranes). Corentin Loron, one of the geologists on the trip, is hunting for fossil species that are new to science; “what’s exciting is finding out how and when life diversified, what the world looked liked a billion years ago, what was living back then.”

As we descended the river we came across evidence of a huge volcanic eruption known as the Mackenzie volcanic event, over 150 lavas flows piled on top of each other. Similar to the Columbia River flood basalts, evidence from the ancient eruptions here can be found over 2000 km away in southern Canada.

Eruptions of this scale release huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere and have a massive impact on the Earth’s climate and life systems causing huge extinction events like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. We could certainly see the huge impact it had on the stunning landscape around us, with layers and layers of dark black rock dominating the skyline.

New and ancient - along the banks of the river ancient ripples can be seen in the rocks with new ripples from the current river channel over the top of the older ones from rivers gone by (Credit: Vivien Cumming)

About halfway down the 200 km section of the Coppermine River the landscape drastically changed. Green mountains made up of endless layers of dark lava, with a gentle, wide river flowing between them, gave way to steeper-walled canyons of red sandstone overlying the lavas.

The sandstones are fluvial deposits, laid down by another river, more than a billion years ago. There is something awesome about traveling along a river cutting its way through rocks that are remnants of ancient rivers gone by.

A muskox watches as we paddle past. The area is rich in wildlife; the highlights were grizzly bears, bald and golden eagles and herds of muskoxen and caribou (Credit: Vivien Cumming)

Structures and minerals in the rocks reveal clues to how they were deposited. You can even tell the direction an ancient river flowed, all from looking at structures formed by the currents and imprinted in the rock. Ripples and mud cracks are preserved to tell the story of the path of an ancient fossilized river.

As the river continued to wind its way through spectacular canyons and gorges and we got closer to our endpoint, we reached some lightly coloured sandstone rocks and darker rocks known as shales that were deposited in a marine environment suggesting that sea level must have risen after the fluvial rocks were deposited.

Every evening we were greeted with beautiful sunsets overlooking the river (Credit: Vivien Cumming)

The shales contained small black flakes, evidence of organic material suggesting that there are microfossils preserved after the volcanic event. Some forms of life must have been able to live through the huge volcanic event, giving us clues to how life was then able to diversify on Earth.

Paddling into the town of Kugluktuk we were left with a story in our minds, not only about paddling down a remote wild river with bears, muskoxen and caribou for company, but also through scenery made up of rocks that told the story of the struggles of early life and environments on our planet.


New VIDEO - The unique challenges of living at sea for 63 days - BBC Future


At the end of 2017, I spent two months on a scientific expedition into the Southern Ocean to look at Cretaceous climate and tectonics with the International Ocean Discovery Program and ECORD. It was an incredible experience with many stories still to tell. Here I produced a video with filming and editing work by Cristiane Delfina for BBC Future about what life is like onboard a world at sea. Watch the video at the link below. You can check out where the boat is now and what scientific secrets it is uncovering here.   


BLUE PLANET II - Alone in the middle of the ocean, islands are havens of life - BBC Earth


An article for the BBC's Blue Planet II season about islands and their importance for the biodiversity of this planet. I've visited a lot of islands around the world and I am always amazed at how each one is totally different even to those right next door. They are all unique and haven's for life both underwater and on land. The future is uncertain for Earth's incredible island worlds...


In Indonesia, the day tens of millions of people go home - BBC Travel


Latest article for BBC Travel about celebrating Eid in a village in Indonesia. Last summer I was doing fieldwork in the jungle in a remote part of Northern Buton, an island in Indonesia and we were invited by the locals to celebrate Eid with them - the festival that breaks the fast at the end of Ramadam. It was an awesome and humbling experience that I will ever forget - read about it here. 


The new 'gold' of the Yukon - BBC Travel


It's been 3 years since I was in the Yukon doing fieldwork, but it was such an amazing experience exploring the wilderness of the Yukon by helicopter and on foot that I had to write about it for BBC Travel. The trip was part of my research when I was a geologist at Harvard University and we were looking for rocks that nobody has ever seen before on mountains that don't even have names as so few people have ever been there. The rocks record a time when the entire planet was covered in ice - known as the Snowball Earth and we wanted to find out how and why that happened and whether life survived. 


We may have cracked the mystery of Stonehenge - BBC Travel


After visiting the Preseli Hills in Wales I became fascinated by the mystery of Stonehenge's rocks. Half of them come from these hills in Wales over 260 km away. You can see it when you are there, they look exactly like the rocks that make up parts of Stonehenge, but it baffles the mind as to how they got to the site at Stonehenge. I started to read more about this prehistoric mystery and talking to scientists and I learnt about how much we do and don't know about this monument so I wrote about it for BBC Travel. I am still amazed at Stonehenge and what it may represent, I think there is still a lot that we don't know about this place but scientists are working hard to understand what prehistoric man was up to all those years ago.


Interview about Réunion Island with FIREPOT expedition food

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I was interviewed recently by Firepot Food about my recent trip to the wonderful volcanic island of Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Firepot are a great company making delicious dehydrated  expedition meals straight from their farm kitchen in Dorset with local ingredients and no additives. I highly recommend their meals for your expeditions if you want your stomach to feel normal after weeks of eating food from a bag!

FIREPOT in the Field: Réunion

Olivia Lee talks to geologist, climber and photojournalist, Vivien Cumming

Réunion is a French island just off the coast of Madagascar, so small it could fit inside the county of Dorset. The subtropical rainforest is home to some of the most diverse wildlife in the world. Mountains drop away into the ocean, clouds cling to sharp peaks and volcanoes bubble with lava and steam. Dr Vivien Cumming from Exeter has just spent three weeks exploring this dense wilderness, eating FIREPOT when she went remote. 

Why Reunion? 
I’m a geologist by training, so Réunion fascinates me. It grew out of the ocean some three million years ago and life just took hold, evolving into the diverse island we see today. It’s a melting pot of different cultures, races and religions — but there’s no conflict. It’s curious how such an inclusive society grew out of such isolation. 

Neighbouring Madagascar is regularly cited as a place that has undergone extensive ecological rape over the last century. How is Réunion faring? 
So much is still so wild. There is some deforestation for farmland, but this has lessened since 40 per cent of the island made the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010. Parts are like a real-life Jurassic Park — few people, few settlements, just rainforest for miles and miles. 

What was your greatest accomplishment on this expedition? 
Réunion was about climbing for me — getting up high and seeing the rainforest from a different perspective — so reaching the highest point on the island was a big achievement. It was a gruelling, almost vertical ascent up to 3,690m, but I’d do it again. We could see the whole island stretched out before us, with its dense forest, jagged peaks, and the Indian Ocean beyond.

And your biggest frustration? 
My initial plan was to go to Réunion in February, but everyone had warned me against it because of the wet weather. Instead I went in March, only to be greeted by a cyclone, and a volcano that had stopped erupting three days before my arrival. I wish I’d seen it blow. 

If you could go back to one place on the island, where would it be?
Without question, the rim of Piton de la Fournaise. There’s nothing like staring into the crater of one of the most active volcanoes in the world.


How climate change is changing Iceland's volcanoes - BBC Earth video

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In October I went to Iceland to investigate the impact of melting ice on Iceland’s volcanoes and produced a BBC Earth video about why we might see more volcanoes erupting as a result of climate change.

 Thanks to Huw James and Joby Newson of Anturus for the camera work, Dan John and Adam Proctor of the BBC for the edit, the rest of the Anturus team and anyone else involved in the edit and big thanks to volcanologist Halldor Geirsson of the University of Iceland for telling us all about the science.


50 reasons to love the world - BBC Travel


My photo of the milky way over the desert in Namibia was featured recently as number 1 in BBC Travel's '50 reasons to love the world'. My reason - 'Because lying under a tree in the Namibian desert mesmerised by the Milky Way above me, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky we are to be able to call a planet that gives us such an incredible variety of life our home.'

Share your reasons with the #LoveTheWorld