After we’ve toured the drilling floor, I am getting a strange picture of the scale of these operations. There are many big things aboard this ship: big drills, several kilometers of pipe, a derrick, kilometers of cable and a huge winch.
But all of those big things are used to get these long cores, several hundred meters of core sometimes, and these tubes of rock and sediment are split up into smaller sections and analyzed and cut up into smaller bits and tubes. Each core can be cored with a mini-corer, a little hole punch on a hand-held drill, for measuring porosity or other features. And then as the core is sectioned off and split up into many pieces, parts of the core are placed under microscopes to find the tiniest of creatures to help determine the age and ocean conditions under which these things lived and died.
What I find incredible is that for measurements I am somewhat familiar with (oxygen isotope fractionation in seawater) the micropaleontologists pick out little tiny shells of foramanifera and dissolve these shells into a gas and then measure the gases to determine the ratio of oxygen isotopes. So we go from this huge drilling ship down to beyond the elemental analysis of what goes into these cores, and then we build up a picture of the Earth from all these disected pieces of the whole (hole … tee hee) from which we started.
When it is all said and done, the scientists can determine how water flows through the ocean crust, what the temperature of the ocean was hundreds of thousands of years ago, the chemical properties from an ancient ocean, how ocean plates get subducted under other tectonic plates. It’s taking all this big stuff to study small stuff to get back to understanding totally different big stuff.