End of an Era

Guest Contributor – Dr. Lesley Anderson

Barbara “Bobbie” John walked up the gangway with intentional steps, recognizing that this was the very last time she would ever board the JOIDES Resolution. After three previous expeditions on the JR, Bobbie found herself one of 20 international scientists embarking one more time on the drilling vessel. This particular expedition is very special to her, because she was onboard the ship that first discovered the Lost City at Atlantis Massif. In fact, she was the person that first recognized this unique geologic feature on the sea floor.

The JOIDES Resolution. Image Credit: Sarah Treadwell

The year was 2000, and Bobbie was Watch Leader ‘in the van.’ It was the end of the expedition, and the final science objective was to observe the large cliffs along the southern side of Atlantis Massif to get a better understanding of the region. She had no idea what she was about to see. Sitting inside a shipping container chained to the deck, Bobbie stared at the monitors broadcasting the live stream from a series of cameras mounted on a frame suspended by a cable from the ship that towed the camera system up and down the cliff face. To turn the cameras, the ship had to turn. All but one of the cameras was facing forward, and the remaining camera looking off to the side was the one that caught Bobbie’s attention. She leaned in to the monitor as she observed huge white finger-like towers protruding from the sea floor. She asked the ‘pilot’ raising and lowering the camera system to radio the bridge to turn the ship, for the main cameras to face the structures. The three main cameras brought massive white chimneys into view and she instantly knew she was seeing something never observed before. She asked another observer in the van to wake the expedition co-chiefs in their cabins.

Lost City Hydrothermal Field. Image Credit: D. Kelley/ M. Elend/UW/URI-IAO/NOAA/The Lost City Science Team

The Lost City, as it was later named, is a unique geologic feature in the Atlantis Massif because the white chimneys indicate that serpentinization is occurring when warm water interacts with minerals in the rocks, producing hydrocarbons that are essential precursors for life. This rare interaction is interesting to astrobiologists who think that there may be a similar process occurring on Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn. Since its discovery, the JOIDES Resolution has made three additional expeditions (IODP Exp. 304, 305, and 340T) to the area near the Lost City, with this expedition, 399, being the last.

Other scientists onboard Expedition 399 share Bobbie’s nostalgia. After 57 years of scientific ocean drilling operations, the International Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) will be coming to an end in 2024. For the scientists onboard, this will be their very last expedition on the JOIDES Resolution. Many scientists have been working on this ship throughout their career but others are experiencing ocean drilling for the very first time – and possibly their only time. The outlook for a replacement vessel remains unclear, and this is a concern for the scientific community.

The nostalgia is even evident from those following the expedition at home. Many technicians and scientists who sailed on the JOIDES Resolution have shared comments over social media as they watch the drill pipe being tripped and listen to “core on deck” through videos posted online. “Nice to see this clip brought back memories, thank you,” was one post from a former scientist. Others have signed up for ship to shore calls with their students, school groups, and nursing homes around the world to “see the ship one last time.”

Dr. Barbara “Bobbie” E. John – Structural Geologist, University of Wyoming. Image Credit: Sarah Treadwell

While this does mark the end of an era, and there is still so much of our ocean floor to be explored, the science party is very excited about the discoveries to be made on Expedition 399 that will add to the legacy of the JOIDES Resolution and her incredible scientific adventures.

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