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What do the Olympics and research with the drillship Chikyu have in common?September 7, 2012

The short answer is – world records!

Many of us, including me, were among the many spectators worldwide who enjoyed the 2012 summer Olympics – a one-of-a-kind sports event featuring world-class athletes exhibiting superhuman abilities and, often, breaking world records and making new ones. Watching the competitions, I was often surprised that athletes continue to improve their speed and skills in running, swimming, jumping and so on, and beat world records by a few millimeters or hundredth of seconds.

Just a few days after the Olympics closing ceremony, I traveled to Japan to participate in IODP Expedition 337 and study microbes chewing on layers of coal buried deep underneath the seabed in the Pacific Ocean. The vessel we are sailing on is the largest ever built for research – the majestic vessel Chikyu. I have sailed two times on a similar drilling vessel – the JOIDES Resolution, and I very much enjoyed the experience. But the Chikyu is in an entirely different weight class, not just in terms of size, comfort, and laboratory space, but also in its ability to cross research frontiers and, ultimately, to break world records.

And this is exactly what we just witnessed - the world record of drilling the deepest hole in the history of scientific ocean drilling. Last night we surpassed the record depth of 2,111 meters underneath the seafloor, a record made by the drilling vessel JOIDES Resolution in 1993 off Ecuador.

Core on deck – the world-record core is delivered to the cutting area where we scientists are waiting (photo: Luc Riolon).

It was a great moment at around 3 in the morning on September 6 when we received the record core that nearly touched the 2120-meter mark from the rig floor. We were all overjoyed, and very proud, to be viewing samples so valuable and unique for science, taken from a depth in the earth never before reached by scientific ocean drilling. If champagne were allowed onboard the Chikyu, we certainly would have opened a bottle.

Fumio Inagaki, co-chief scientist of Expedition 337, gives the thumbs-up to the first core brought up from the scientific world-record drill (photo: Luc Riolon).

The best Olympic athletes regularly increase their performance in small increments, but it appeared effortless for the Chikyu to penetrate the deepest barriers ever drilled before. This research vessel is poised to dramatically push the boundaries of Earth Sciences, and we will definitely see it breaking many more records in the years to come. These records won’t just be mere extensions of drilling depth; it is this ship’s capacity paired with the imagination of the vibrant international scientific ocean drilling community that will break records in our understanding of this planet.

We may witness another world record in the near future: the Expedition 337 team still has the chance to find the deepest life ever encountered below the seafloor. But our world record in drilling depth may just be short-lived: the target drill depth of the next Chikyu expedition during the next few months at the Nankai Trough is 3.6 km.

The coring depth is recorded in meters below the seafloor (photo: Luc Riolon).

Fumio Inagaki and Kai-Uwe Hinrichs pointing to the core interval that marks the world record (photo: Luc Riolon)

Very happy! (Co-chief scientists Fumio and Kai; photo: Luc Riolon)

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