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April 1, 2011

Blogging and drilling, Stanford researcher shares the joys of seagoing earthquake research

Onboard the oceangoing research ship the JOIDES Resolution, Jennifer Saltzman is busily blogging, broadcasting and helping with the research as the expedition drills into an earthquake zone off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The researchers are seeking to better understand how subduction zones trigger earthquakes, such as the one that recently savaged Japan.

By Louis Bergeron

Jennifer Saltzman in the geochemistry lab onboard the JOIDES Resolution, packaging sediment samples to go to the labs of the scientists onboard (Courtesy Jennifer Saltzman)

Floating about 10 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, in the balmy, temperate waters of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, the research vessel JOIDES Resolution sits calmly on smooth seas. From a distance, it looks like a picture of utter relaxation – precisely the state of being that lures hordes of cruise ships and tourists to Costa Rica each year. But from where Jennifer Saltzman sits, stands, works, eats, broadcasts, blogs, processes samples in the geochemistry lab and – reportedly – sometimes even sleeps, it is a hive of nonstop round-the-clock activity onboard the ship.

Saltzman, the director of outreach education for Stanford's School of Earth Sciences, is off at sea on a five-week research voyage. She's working with a crew of scientists who are drilling into the ocean floor and pulling up core samples of the sediment. They are seeking to gain insight into what triggers large earthquakes in subduction zones – places where one great tectonic plate of the Earth's crust is being shoved underneath another – such as the recent magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of Japan.

Saltzman was chosen from a nationwide pool of applicants to be the education officer for the cruise and jumped at the chance not only to blog about the experience and do live broadcasts to students and teachers from onboard ship, but also to participate in the research.

"On campus, I don't get to get my hands dirty. Here I'm getting to help with the science," she said in an email interview.

"This is the part of science where we are collecting the data, the evidence, which will be used to understand the past history."

Two weeks into the voyage, Saltzman's blog posts – which include photographs and some video – have painted a vivid picture of shipboard activities.

Drilling into the sediment on the seafloor "is like pushing a giant straw through layers of cake or jello," she wrote.

"Mud, oh lovely mud," she rhapsodized in a post describing the first core sample being brought up from the seafloor. "To see a core fresh from underground is very exciting. Everyone was out on deck, watching the first core arrive."

When she's not blogging or broadcasting, Saltzman – like everyone else on board – works a 12-hour shift. Hers runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the geochemistry lab, where she slices up the samples of sediment brought up by the shipboard drill rig in long metal tubes.

The core samples are sorted for analysis. Some are vacuum packed and frozen, some are wrapped in plastic wrap and double-bagged, others are placed into small glass vials. Speed is important.

"We need the samples processed quickly or else some of the properties change when at room temperature, in air and at sea-level pressure," she wrote in her blog. "The samples that we are collecting are precious. Every grain of sand and drop of water trapped in the rocks helps tell the geologic story."

Saltzman has been doing live broadcasts from the ship into the sixth grade classrooms of some of the teachers who have done professional development work with her at Stanford over the past five years. She's also broadcast to the high school students who were in the Earth Sciences internship program last summer and will be doing a broadcast to a Stanford introductory geology class.

Her biggest goal with her blog and broadcasts, she said, is to convey that this sort of research is how we can understand the history of the Earth.

"Science is alive," she said. "We are making new discoveries to better understand the processes."

Saltzman has a doctorate in oceanography and his been on research voyages in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Maine, so she's not a stranger to shipboard living. She even dove to a depth of 565 feet in a four-person submersible on one of the voyages. "It was amazing to see the light change as I came back up," she wrote in the email interview.

As for her experiences on this voyage, she said of the findings so far, "I'm most excited about the volcanic ash layers" found in between the layers of mud. "They are connected to subduction, which is what this cruise is all about. Telling the geologic history of the region."

In addition to earthquakes, subduction zones also give rise to volcanoes, which emit ash during their eruptions. The ash contains information about the nature and timing of the eruptions.

After the ship returns to port and the expedition ends, Saltzman will take a few days after the cruise to see the sights of Costa Rica, including, of course, the geologic high points.

"I want to see one of the volcanoes that may have produced the ash layers we are seeing in the sediments," she said.

Then it will be back to campus to continue putting her new experiences and knowledge to work in her ongoing education outreach.

The JOIDES Resolution is operated by the International Ocean Drilling Program, dedicated to exploring the geological history and evolution of the Earth. It is named for the HMS Resolution, commanded by Capt. James Cook over 200 years ago, which explored the Pacific Ocean and the Antarctic region.




Louis Bergeron, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944,


Jennifer Saltzman, School of Earth Sciences:

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