Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel A Journey to the Centre of the Earth has stood the test of time as imagination-capturing entertainment. Originally penned in 1864, it has been adapted into films, television and animation, thrill rides, video games and even a music album. In July 2008, the story again hits the big screen in a 3-D summer blockbuster.
The story involves a group of explorers who descend into a volcano, headed for the center of the earth. Along their action-packed journey, they narrowly escape from many natural hazards and prehistoric creatures, before they are finally forced to the surface.
While the entertainment value of Verne’s classic story lives on, science has advanced significantly and greatly expanded our knowledge about the composition of Earth’s interior – and of course proved many of Verne’s ideas wrong. Now, among the real explorers of the deep insides of our planet are scientists with the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP). These scientists set out on expeditions onboard specially designed research drilling vessels and penetrate deep into the sediments and rock below the seafloor.
What is this exploration toward the center of the Earth all about? Get the facts from these FAQs:
Why do we drill in the ocean?
The sediments laid down year after year, recording the history of conditions on Earth into the distant past, are often well preserved on the seafloor because they are not subject to the same forces of erosion (wind, rain, abrasion) as sediments on dry land.
The structure and movement of the layers of rock that make up the planet’s outer skin are of great interest to scientists studying the formation of earthquakes and volcanoes. Under the ocean, the planet’s crust is thin compared to dry land. Even with challenges posed by changing sea conditions and reaching the seafloor through miles of deep water, scientists do not have to drill as deep into rock to reach the areas they need to study.
How far have we gone? How far will we go?
The deepest hole ever drilled by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program was to 4,943 feet below the seafloor in the Pacific Ocean off Costa Rica. IODP’s predecessor, the Ocean Drilling Program (1985-2003), reached 6,924 feet into the seafloor, also in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
One of the ships in the IODP fleet, the Japanese vessel Chikyu, is theoretically capable of drilling up to 20,000 feet below the ocean floor. Such a deep hole would require a great deal of time to drill, but scientists are eager to test this capability and explore parts of the Earth’s crust that have never before been accessed.
What have we learned? What will we learn? Why is it important?
Scientific ocean drilling has yielded many significant and exciting discoveries over decades of expeditions.
- Confirmed the theories of plate tectonics and continental drift
- Provided major portions of the picture of changes to the global environment over the past 100 million years. For example, in 2004 core samples recovered from the seafloor beneath the Arctic Ocean revealed that 55 million years ago the Arctic region had a subtropical climate. Scientists continue to analyze these findings to better understand how ecosystems will respond to future global warming.
- Altered our thinking about the formation of geologic hazards like earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis
- Discovered methane, in the ‘frozen’ form of hydrates, in sediments below the ocean, and confirmed that they exist worldwide
- Discovered a vast and active biosphere of microbes living deep below the seafloor, far deeper than scientists ever predicted.
Can we get to the center of the earth?
No, not using drilling technology and certainly not with any manned exploration vehicles. While other scientists have proposed plans to send small probes into the planet’s core, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program focuses its efforts on studying the relatively thin outer layer of Earth, the crust, and what it can tell us. At its most ambitious, IODP may someday penetrate through the crust and into the mantle below.
If we could, what would we find there?
Earth’s inner core is a ball of mostly solid iron. It is about 1,500 miles in diameter – close to two-thirds the size of the Moon – and at its center the temperature rivals that of the surface of the Sun.
Could drilling cause earthquakes?
Our planet is more than 7,700 miles across. The boreholes created by the drills of the unique research vessels used by IODP, which are roughly 10 inches wide, are barely even pin pricks of the Earth’s skin.
Are you looking for oil or natural gas?
No. IODP is a scientific research program. Expedition planners do extensive environmental and safety investigations to ensure that no oil or gas will be encountered during drilling. However, like all scientific information, there is a broad range of applications – oil and gas exploration is one – for the information recovered by the program.
Who is involved in IODP?
IODP is funded by four entities acting as international partners:
- The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) are Lead Agencies.
- The European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD) is a Contributing Member.
- The People’s Republic of China Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) is an Associate Member.
- Interim Asian Consortium, represented by the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources (KIGAM), is an Associate Member.
More about the deep drilling vessels IODP uses:
For educational resources related to scientific ocean drilling: