Probing Questions & In-Depth Answers: Austria Participates for the First Time in the "Integrated Ocean Drilling Program"

For the first time, a scientist from Austria will be actively involved in an expedition of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP). This multi-national research programme is helping to achieve a new understanding of physical and biological processes of the Earth by intensively exploring the sea-floor. Austria’s annual contribution to this programme is financed by the Austrian Science Fund FWF together with the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The first-time participation of an Austrian in a drilling expedition of the research vessel JOIDES Resolution represents a highlight of this contribution to the IODP.

Globigerina – a group of planktic foraminifera and messenger of past climatic conditions © Use of this photo for editorial purposes is free of charge, subject to attribution: Patrick Grunert

The depth of the sea is still largely unexplored. And the true scientific adventure really begins when fresh ground is to be broken – into the depths of the oceanic crust. This is exactly the goal of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), launched in 2003.

The international research programme intends to explore the structure and history of the Earth by examining sediments of the sea-floor. Several custom-built vessels equipped with advanced drilling facilities and experts from various countries will be employed as part of IODP in order to extract drill cores from the Earth’s crust on the open sea. Alongside the two leading agencies, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and the US National Science Foundation NSF, IODP is significantly co-financed by a consortium of European nations. The Austrian membership contribution of 100.000 US dollars is paid in equal shares by the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) and the Austrian Science Fund FWF. This contribution gives scientists of the member states the right to apply for a place in an expedition on one of the vessels. With the participation of Dr. Patrick Grunert, paleobiologist at the ÖAW and at the Institute for Earth Sciences of the University of Graz, this is the first time that Austria is represented onboard.

Scientific Breakthrough For eight weeks, the micropalaentologist will perform scientific offshore drilling activities together with a 30-member team of researchers in the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula. And the team is on the scent of a real "breakthrough" – that which separated the Iberian Peninsula from the African continent. Around 5.2 million years ago, the Strait of Gibraltar formed, connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. Dr. Grunert explains: "The outflow of warm and highly saline water from the Mediterranean Sea drastically changed the oceanic current patterns of the Atlantic. As part of our expedition, we will examine if this has had an influence on climatic changes." In fact, many scientists see a parallel between the climate of the Pliocene – from 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago – and the currently predicted global warming: high CO2 concentrations and temperatures also went hand-in-hand during the middle Pliocene (4.5–3 millions of years ago). However, it has not yet been clarified what triggered that climatic change and the later global cooling – at the transition to today’s climatic conditions. Thermometer at Great Depth To identify the connections between oceanic currents and climatic changes in the Pliocene, Dr. Grunert uses "thermometers" at great depths – drill cores that will be extracted by JOIDES from a depth of up to 2.600 metres. Dr. Grunert explains: "I am interested in the foraminifers contained therein. These are single-cell organisms that have conquered numerous marine habitats and are able to form preservable fossil shells. Their distribution pattern, as well as the geochemical composition of their carbonate shells, delivers information about past environmental conditions."

The micropaleontologist, who is currently boarding the JOIDES, will conduct the first examinations in specially set up high-tech labs. Based on this, samples can be specifically selected after completion of the expedition, which are suitable for further analyses. "By participating in this IODP expedition, I have the opportunity to obtain unique sample material from the drilling to conduct subsequent examinations in Austria", says Dr. Grunert. The scientist is thereby offered extraordinary research conditions, which would not have been possible without the financial contribution made by the FWF to the IODP. The FWF is thus helping top Austrian scientists to be involved at the cutting edge of research – now and in the future.

Scientific contact
Dr. Patrick Grunert
Institute for Earth Sciences
Universität Graz
Heinrichstraße 26
A-8010 Graz, Austria
T +43 / (0)316 / 380 - 8735
patrick.grunert(at)uni-graz.at

Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt
Haus der Forschung
Sensengasse 1
1090 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 505 67 40 - 8111

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Vienna, 16th November, 2011