Geoscience students to participate in oceanic research expedition

(Katlynn Resides/ The Penn)

For most students, a cruise often brings thoughts of palm trees and lounging about in comfortable chairs on the ship’s deck while watching the boat glide along the ocean waters.

For three IUP students, however, the word ‘cruise’ is about to mean something completely different.

Students Michael Barber (junior, geoscience: energy track), Sierra Davis (senior, geoscience: geology track) and Jules Dill (senior, geoscience: environmental track) will have the unique opportunity to embark on an oceanographic research cruise aboard the R/V Knorr lasting five weeks.

The expedition departs from Woods Hole, Mass., and will head southeast to several coring sites, ending about 600 miles east of the Lesser Antilles, a long arc of small islands in the Caribbean Sea.

Dr. Steve Hovan, of the geoscience department, will be accompanying the students on what will be his 20th research field study in oceanography, his first in the Atlantic Ocean in almost 30 years, according to Hovan and his third time taking IUP students on research expeditions.

“The first time I went out, I couldn’t turn away,” Hovan reminisced. “It was a ‘Now I know!’ moment.”

The expedition is seeking to gain an understanding of how deep ocean water flows from the Arctic to the Atlantic and what those implications will mean for the global climate.

“This expedition will give us a handle on an aspect of climate change that is not yet understood,” Hovan said. “The more we know about global climate change, the better we can deal with future climate change.”

The students will join Boston University, the University of Rhode Island and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute researchers in surveying the seafloor region and identifying and collecting sediment cores from water depths up to 6,000 meters deep.

Barber, Davis and Dill aren’t just along for the ride: They will be active members of the crew, with Barber and Dill assisting in the analysis of the sediment cores in the core lab and Davis assisting in the geophysical surveying of the ocean floor prior to drilling.

If all goes well, this expedition could potentially bring to the surface ocean water and sediment that have remained unchanged since the Last Glacial Maximum – a period of earth’s history in which ice sheets were at their most recent maximum extension.

Meaning, researchers could be looking at ocean water with a chemical signature that has remained unchanged for over 20,000 years, according to Hovan and his students.

After Davis aids in surveying the ocean floor and determining it suitable for coring, long cables off of the ship will lower the coring equipment and bring up 40 meters of ocean floor sediment to be tested in the core lab by Barber and Dill. If the crew finds that the sediment and water are indeed unchanged, a second core will be retrieved.

At that point, the crew has minutes to remove the water from the sediment before the air contaminates the samples, leaving the water useless to researchers.

“It’s a big deal,” Barber said. “I’m excited to see how that part of the research goes.”

If correct, the implications of this discovery could be of extreme benefit to the scientific community, giving Barber, Davis and Dill the opportunity to take part in real, hard science as members of the global scientific community.

The R/V Knorr will be setting sail for the last time with Hovan and his students and will be decommissioned after having a long, decorated history of discovery, including the discovery of the sunken wreckage of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1985.

The research will be separated in 12- hour shifts, with students working from either midnight to noon or noon to midnight in 80-degree, tropical weather.

All three were hand-selected by Hovan in part for their previous knowledge of oceanography, as well as being some of the “best students his department has to offer,” according to Hovan.

Hovan and his students will be departing on a flight Wednesday to Boston, where they will stay until their departure Saturday, Oct. 24. They will be returning Thursday, Dec. 4.

“Thank you, Dr. Hovan,” Davis started. “For giving us this outstanding, unique opportunity. We are so thankful to have worked closely with you and are thankful for this life-changing opportunity to conduct real science.”