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Geology & Geophysics


The Engine that Drives Earth

The Engine that Drives Earth

Poets and philosophers have celebrated the timelessness of the land around us for eons, but the solid Earth is actually a very dynamic body. Great tectonic plates are in constant motion at Earth’s surface.

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Two WHOI Scientists Recognized with Endowed Positions

Two scientists have been recognized by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) for their contributions to ocean sciences research. Drs. Daniel J. Fornari of the Geology and Geophysics Department and Rui Xin Huang of the Physical Oceanography Department have been named recipients of a W. Van Alan Clark Chair for Excellence in Oceanography at the Institution. Each endowed chair brings financial support for a period of five years, allowing the recipient the freedom to pursue a variety of career interests. The awards were announced today during the Institution’s fall meeting of the Board of Trustees and Members of the Corporation and are effective January 1, 2002.

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Seafloor to Surface to Satellite to Shore

Seafloor to Surface to Satellite to Shore

The next great leap in our understanding of the earth-ocean system will require us to put our “eyes” and “ears” in the ocean to observe the dynamic processes going on there as they are happening, in real time.

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The Cauldron Beneath the Seafloor

The Cauldron Beneath the Seafloor

Just over 20 years ago, scientists exploring the mid-ocean ridge system first made the spectacular discovery of black smokers—hydrothermal chimneys made of metal sulfide minerals that vigorously discharge hot, dark, particulate-laden fluids into the ocean.

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ALISS in Wonderland

ALISS in Wonderland

In 1985, Cindy Van Dover, then a graduate student in biology in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program, discovered a novel light-sensing organ on a unique species of shrimp that lives at high-temperature, black smoker chimneys on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. If this photoreceptor were indeed some sort of primitive “eye,” the question instantly arose: At depths of some 3,600 meters, where sunlight cannot penetrate, what are these shrimp looking at? The search for a source of light in deep-sea hydrothermal environments began.

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Hitting the Hotspots

Hitting the Hotspots

The great volcanic mid-ocean ridge system stretches continuously around the globe for 60,000 kilometers, nearly all of it hidden beneath the world’s oceans.

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Exploring The Global Mid-Ocean Ridge

Exploring The Global Mid-Ocean Ridge

There is a natural tendency in scientific investigations for increased specialization. Most important advances are made by narrowing focus and building on the broad foundation of earlier, more general research.

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Ocean Seismic Network Seafloor Observatories

Ocean Seismic Network Seafloor Observatories

Our knowledge of the physical characteristics of Earth’s deep interior is based largely on observations of surface vibrations that occur after large earthquakes. Using the same techniques as CAT (Computer Aided Tomography) scans in medical imaging, seismologists can “image” the interior of our planet. But just as medical imaging requires sensors that surround the patient, seismic imaging requires sensors surrounding the earth.

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Indian Ocean’s Atlantis Bank Yields Deep-Earth Insight

Indian Ocean's Atlantis Bank Yields Deep-Earth Insight

I never imagined I would spend six weeks of my life “wandering around” the seafloor exploring an 11 million year old beach, and it never occurred to me to look for a fossil island. But that’s what I did, and that’s what we found on two research voyages separated by more than a decade.

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A Current Affair

A Current Affair

oal of probing the earth’s inaccessible deep interior. But the technique remains something of a mystery even to many marine scientists. It has been used widely on land, particularly for regional-scale surveys, but only a few full-scale MT surveys have been carried out on the seafloor.

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The Rain of Ocean Particles and Earth’s Carbon Cycle

The Rain of Ocean Particles and Earth's Carbon Cycle

WHOI Phytoplankton photosynthesis has provided Earth’s inhabitants with oxygen since early life began. Without this process the atmosphere would consist of carbon dioxide (CO2) plus a small amount of nitrogen, the atmospheric pressure would be 60 times higher than the air we breathe, and the planet’s air temperatures would hover around 300°C. (Conditions similar to these are found on Earth’s close sibling Venus.

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Marine Snow and Fecal Pellets

Marine Snow and Fecal Pellets

Until about 130 years ago, scholars believed that no life could exist in the deep ocean. The abyss was simply too dark and cold to sustain life. The discovery of many animals living in the abyssal environment by Sir Charles Wyville Thompson during HMS Challenger’s 1872-1876 circumnavigation stunned the late 19th century scientific community far more than we can now imagine.

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Extreme Trapping

Extreme Trapping

One of oceanography’s major challenges is collection of data from extraordinarily difficult environments. For those who use sediments traps, two examples of difficult environments are the deepest oceans and the permanently ice-covered Arctic Basin.

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Ground-Truthing the Paleoclimate Record

Ground-Truthing the Paleoclimate Record

Sediment Trap Observations Aid Paleoceanographers
The geological record contains a wealth of information about Earth’s past environmental conditions. During its long geological history the planet has experienced changes in climate that are much larger than those recorded during human history; these environmental conditions range from periods when large ice sheets covered much of the northern hemisphere, as recently as 20,000 years ago, to past atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases that warmed Earth’s polar regions enough to melt all of the ice caps 50 million years ago. Since human civilization has developed during a fairly short period of unusually mild and stable climate, humans have yet to experience the full range of variability that the planet’s natural systems impose. Thus, the geological record has become an extremely important archive for understanding the range of natural variability in climate, the processes that cause climate change on decadal and longer time scales, and the background variability from which greenhouse warming must be detected

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Catching the Rain: Sediment Trap Technology

Catching the Rain: Sediment Trap Technology

WHOI Senior Engineer Ken Doherty developed the first sediment trap in the late 1970s for what has come to be known as the WHOI PARFLUX (for “particle flux”) group. Working closely with the scientific community, Doherty has continued to improve sediment traps for two decades, and these WHOI-developed instruments are widely used both nationally and internationally in the particle flux research community.

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The Magnetic Thickness of a Recent Submarine Lava Flow

The Magnetic Thickness of a Recent Submarine Lava Flow

Submarine lava flows and their associated narrow feeder conduits known as dikes constitute the basic building blocks of the upper part of the ocean crust. We are only beginning to understand how lava erupts and forms on the seafloor by flooding topographic lows, flowing through channels or tubes, centralizing into volcanoes, or some combination of all of these.

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Sedimentary Record Yields Several Centuries of Data

Sedimentary Record Yields Several Centuries of Data

Natural climate changes like the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period are of interest for a few reasons. First, they occur on decade to century time scales, a gray zone in the spectrum of climate change. Accurate instrumental data do not extend back far enough to document the beginning of these events, and historical data are often of questionable accuracy and are not widespread geographically.

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