The University Record, October 25, 1999

U joins Joint Oceanographic Institutions

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

On two-month cruises aboard the program’s drill ship, the team of scientists, engineers, technicians and crew members from around the world collect and analyze cylindrical core samples of sediment and rock. Photo courtesy the Ocean Drilling Project
For almost 30 years, U-M geological sciences researchers have played key roles in the international Ocean Drilling Program and its predecessor, the Deep Sea Drilling Project. Now the University is moving to a new level of involvement with the program by joining the Joint Oceanographic Institutions (JOI).

JOI, which is made up of 14 member institutions, manages the scientific planning and operations for the Ocean Drilling Program, the largest international geosciences program in the world. On two-month cruises aboard the program’s drill ship, the “JOIDES Resolution,” teams of scientists, engineers, technicians and crew members from around the world collect and analyze cylindrical core samples of sediment and rock. From these samples, scientists have pieced together increasingly detailed insights into Earth’s history.

They’ve learned, for example, how variations in the Earth’s orbit, such as the tilt of its axis, have affected ocean currents, rainfall, climate and ecosystems, which in turn, may have influenced human evolution. The program’s research also has expanded knowledge of plate tectonics, leading to better understanding of what causes large-scale earthquakes and where they may occur.

“This is the longest-running, best international project of any science, any time, any place, and we’ve been asked to help run it,” says David Rea, professor and chair of the Department of Geological Sciences. “We’ve already been directly involved in the planning and operations for 25 or 30 years, but now we are in a position to help make the final decisions about all the science that gets done.”

Until recently, membership in JOI was limited to the original 10 founding institutions. (See sidebar) But in the past two years, JOI expanded to include four additional schools with long histories of involvement in the Ocean Drilling Program and the Deep Sea Drilling Project. The other new members are the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of Florida; and Rutgers University.

Through the years, five U-M professors, two research scientists and a dozen or more students have participated in research cruises. Faculty have gone to sea 19 times, serving as chief scientists on four cruises. Research scientists have joined 12 drilling cruises, and students have gone along on 16 voyages. Of the 250 institutions that have participated in the project since 1985, the U-M ranks ninth in level of participation. “Only the major oceanographic institutions have had more people involved,” Rea says.

In 1992, for example, Rea was chief scientist on a cruise that spanned the north Pacific, from Yokohama, Japan, to Victoria, British Columbia. He and two other researchers, U-M geological sciences Prof. Ted Moore and Mitch Lyle of Boise State University in Idaho, are planning another project for the fall of 2001. By taking samples from a series of sites, they hope to better understand atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns that were operating at the equator during a very warm period in the early Eocene Epoch, some 50 million to 55 million years ago.

“That’s when we know there were palm trees and alligators in Antarctica and the Arctic,” Rea says. But for everything scientists know about what lived during those balmy years, there’s little understanding of the physical processes that kept the climate so warm. The puzzle has particular relevance today, with concerns about the effects of global warming.

“The early Eocene is the closest time in the geologic past when the Earth was as warm as we think it’s likely to get with global warming,” Rea says. “So it behooves us to understand how the atmosphere and ocean work together to drive that climate system. We just flat-out don’t understand it, so the goal of our project is to fill one of the great voids in information.”

U-M scientists have had important advisory roles with the Ocean Drilling Program, serving as members of 16 different advisory panels and as chairs of five of those panels. Michigan scientists also have served on the editorial boards of four Ocean Drilling Program scientific results publications and have written and edited books that synthesized results of specific drilling projects. In addition, U-M researchers have garnered millions of dollars in funding to analyze samples recovered during drilling expeditions, resulting in more than 240 reviewed scientific publications and nine books by U-M authors.

“Because of our long participation in the program, Michigan’s role in ocean drilling research is widely recognized by the international community of earth and ocean scientists,” Rea says. “Our graduate students have benefited, too, by participating in the two-month research cruises. Working 12 hours every day as a contributing member of an international team of scientists is one of the finest learning experiences we provide for our students.

“This new level of involvement will allow Michigan scientists to play a more important role in the governance of the project, and significantly enhance the University’s visibility and stature as it joins the institutions that direct this long-standing international effort of the earth and ocean sciences.”

Original Members of the Joint Oceanographic Institutions

Scripps Institution of Oceanography

(UC San Diego)

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory


University of Hawaii

University of Miami

Oregon State University

University of Rhode Island

Texas A&M

University of Texas

University of Washington

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute