I am a Palaeoceanographer

As a palaeoceanographer most of the samples I work on have been collected during ocean drilling expeditions by the International Ocean Discovery Program (or DSDP/ODP, IODP’s predecessors). This vital program brings together scientists from all around the world to work together to tackle the big remaining unanswered science questions about our oceans and Earth’s history. Without programs like IODP and international scientific collaborations we would never be able to tackle questions about the ocean and climate systems of the past.

‘What is a palaeoceanographer?’ – now that is a question I get asked all the time.

As a palaeoceanographer I use marine sediment cores to reconstruct what the oceans and climate system were like in the past. So, I guess I am a time traveller (of sorts!), a chemist, detective, biologist, historian, physicist, oceanographer and a geologist. I am a palaeoceanographer. I get to lose myself in the past, a time when the Earth and oceans were very different to today. A time when the oceans and climate of Earth experienced key tipping points that have ultimately enabled us to evolve and survive on Earth. Pretty cool job right!?

The next question I get asked is always, ‘Why do we need to study that?’ and I will leave it to Einstein to explain why….

“The future is unknown, but a somewhat predictable unknown. To look to the future, we must first look back upon the past. That is where the seeds of the future were planted.” – Albert Einstein

The secrets to how the climate system has developed lie within the sediments deposited on the ocean floor. By studying the past, we can better predict the future.

For the last run of this MOOC I was nearly 5000 miles away from the National Oceanography Centre Southampton, in much warmer Texas exploring the Pacific Ocean around 37 million years ago (told you I was a time traveller of sorts!). Texas A&M University is home to the Gulf Coast Core Repository (GCR), one of the three main IODP/ODP/DSDP core repositories in the world.

These represent almost museums of Earth history in some ways, with GCR storing over 100 km of marine sediment cores from the Pacific Ocean, Southern Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. An incredible team of curators, technicians and staff scientists work at these repositories and I was fortunate enough to spend two months learning from and working with these amazing people at GCR on marine sediment cores from the Pacific Ocean and Southern Ocean.

An example of a very carbonate-rich Eocene marine sediment core

The cores at GCR are kept in one of four reefers, maintained at 4.40C so you want to make sure you are wearing a nice warm coat when you are on the hunt for cores!

One of the four GCR reefers used for storing marine sediment cores

During my time at GCR I was lucky enough to be able to pull out many cores from their collection to look at and I also took lots of samples which I am currently working on
at NOCS.

The core sampling lab at GCR

The main focus of my visit was to collect high resolution x-ray fluorescence (XRF) records using the Avaatech XRF Core Scanner and so many hours during my visit were spent alone with this machine and marine sediment cores.

Avaatech XRF Core Scanner at the IODP Gulf Coast Repository

Apart from saying a huge thank you to everyone at GCR, that’s enough from me til next time, I am off to the lab to travel back 33 million years for the afternoon. Earth has a continental-scale East Antarctic ice sheet now and officially has an ‘icehouse’ climate regime. The ocean currents are starting to behave in a slightly more similar way to the present day too. Hopefully my foraminifera are in the mood for story telling today and will help me piece together a little more of the what the Earth and oceans were like 33 million years ago…..

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