Geotimes

From the Editor

Drilling is the long arm of the earth scientist. Like field vehicles, aircraft, submersibles and spacecrafts, drilling puts us where it would otherwise be hard or impossible to go — in order to observe and collect materials for improved understanding of natural processes.

The capabilities of current drilling are marvels in themselves. The scientific significance of reaching a point in space, however, will be born of what a scientist expected to find, the ability to sense the place when the drill bit gets there, and the impact the new knowledge will have on current understanding. In this issue, we visit some of the more exciting worldwide scientific drilling approaches as a preview of where to expect scientific breakthroughs over the next several years.

In the first feature, “Looking Into a Volcano: Drilling Unzen,” Setsuya Nakada and John Eichelberger describe the ongoing program to drill through the core of Unzen Volcano near Nagasaki, Japan. Directional drilling has reached about 2,500 feet. The vertical feeder core of the volcano is expected in another 3,000 feet with temperatures in the range of 600 degrees Celsius. A major scientific goal of the mission is to understand the conditions that determine whether a volcanic eruption will be a loud bang or a quiet ooze. Unzen has experienced both types of events in its history, and the prediction and mitigation of future eruptions could have great social value.

In our next feature, contributing writer Sara Pratt takes a “fresh angle” on oil extraction, focusing on the special technology that allows drillers to control the direction of a borehole, from vertical to horizontal and beyond, and around the points of the compass. Pioneered and used largely by oil companies to enhance recovery and minimize environmental disruption and exploration and production costs, it has become a key player in oil and natural gas drilling on Alaska’s North Slope. The technology also has applications in mineral resources, engineering and drilling volcanoes, as we saw in the previous feature article.

From oil we turn to Earth’s large lakes, which contain remarkable sedimentary records that may exceed thousands of feet in thickness and reach back hundreds of thousands of years. These sediments provide insight into topics such as climate, landscape modification, biological evolution and mine-waste contamination. As discussed in the third feature by Schnurrenberger and Hiatt, exploration of these seemingly more accessible scientific resources has trailed ocean-floor exploration because of technology barriers. Oil companies led the development of ocean drilling methods, whereas lake exploration has lacked a mobile, rapidly and inexpensively deployed drilling platform. That is changing with the Global Lake Drilling (GLAD) program, a consortium of government agencies and academic institutions, which has already drilled lakes in Utah, California, Bolivia and Iceland.

And finally, in “A New Era of Ocean Drilling Sets Sail,” Kasey White describes the new global ocean drilling effort. Last year marked the end of the 20-year Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) and the beginning of its successor, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP). ODP drilled 700,000 feet of core from 1,700 holes — advancing our understanding of climate change, earthquakes, natural resources and microbiology. The collaborative, proposal-driven, internationally reviewed science and expedition plans for both ODP and IODP are models of getting a big bang from big science. IODP will benefit from multiple vessels with different drilling capabilities to match different ocean conditions.

Once again we thank our contributing authors for thought-provoking slants on earth science and technology. It is an ongoing amazement to me just how many bright scientists receive extraordinary support not only from competent colleagues with untold skill sets, but also from fellow citizens who want to know about Earth and are willing to support its exploration.

Believe your compass and your inclinometer,

Samuel S. Adams
Geotimes Editor-in-Chief

P.S. On another note, David Applegate, who has been editor of Geotimes for more than four years, has moved on to become the Senior Science Advisor for Earthquakes and Geologic Hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va. David has been instrumental in the substantial evolution of this magazine during his tenure, and everyone at Geotimes and AGI thanks him for his dedicated service. We look forward to building on David’s legacy and wish him the best in his future endeavors.


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