Scientific drilling vessel JOIDES Resolution approaches early retirement

The JOIDES Resolution has been a stalwart in the earth and ocean science community since 1984. Her retirement is now set for 2024, four years earlier than...

The JOIDES Resolution has been a stalwart in the earth and ocean science community since 1984. Her retirement is now set for 2024, four years earlier than initially expected.

When the oil exploration drillship Sedco/ BP 471 was converted to a scientific drilling vessel in 1984, a new era in the study of our geological and climatic past was born. Since her first scientific expedition in the Gulf of Mexico in 1985, under the Ocean Drilling Programme (now the International Ocean Discovery Programme (IODP)), the JOIDES Resolution, or JR as she is often called, has taken scientists on hundreds of expeditions in areas such as the Antarctic Ocean, the waters around Costa Rica, the Mariana Arc, and the South China Sea.

“The JOIDES Resolution has a rich and important history of ocean discovery. Research conducted aboard the JOIDES Resolution made significant contributions to our collective understanding of marine geology and the dynamics of Earth’s crust,” says Dr Rick Spinrad, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator and Chartered Marine Scientist at the IMarEST. The core samples taken by the JR, which are collected from the sea floor up to 8.2km below the vessel, have helped answer myriad questions, including those about the Earth’s climate millions of years ago, how volcanoes form, and microbial life which thrives on the deep sea floor.

Although owned by Siem Offshore, the JR is operated by the JOIDES Resolution Science Operator (JRSO) at Texas A&M University. Funding for the JR comes from the IODP partner countries. The USA, via the National Science Foundation, has been the biggest contributor to the programme.

A costly affair

Over the years, the JR has undergone maintenance and retrofitting to keep her fit for purpose, with her retirement set for 2028. However, in March this year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced it was not renewing the cooperative agreement with Texas A&M University for the operations and maintenance of the JR. As a result, the JR will be retired in the 2024 fiscal year.

“It costs a total of $72m per year to operate the JR. Since 2014 and through 2024, NSF provides $48m per year to Texas A&M University as the science operator,” the NSF wrote in an announcement. “International contributions to IODP and to JR operations have significantly decreased even as costs have continued to increase.”

“The US had been incredibly generous over the years to fund the programme to get it to where it is,” says Professor Robert McKay, geologist and Director of the Antarctic Research Centre and Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. McKay has done two research expeditions on the JR – as a researcher on Expedition 318 to Wilkes Land in 2010 and then as co-chief scientist on Expedition 374 to the Ross Sea in 2018. McKay was creating another research proposal to go back to the Ross Sea when the announcement about the JR came through.

On board the IODP vessel JOIDES Resolution
On the ship bridge roof of the JOIDES Resolution (Credit: Dale Griffin, USGS)

The start of a new era

Although disappointed, McKay, also part of the IODP’s JR Facility Board, is quite pragmatic. “The JR was a workhorse, but it was ageing… I try to put myself in [the NSF’s] shoes. I run a research institute, and I know sometimes you have to rip the band-aid off,” says McKay. “Let’s get on and not worry about the distraction of doing another three years of diminishing returns with an ageing vessel.”

During the 2018 expedition, McKay says that issues with the vessel meant they couldn’t do all the science they had planned. Fortunately, “the part of that expedition [which we could do] was extremely successful. When we were drilling, it was beyond our expectations,” McKay says.

The end of the JR does not mean the end of the ocean drilling programme. While the JR did fill “a niche for deep ocean drilling that was affordable for the scientific community,” McKay says, there are other vessels capable of doing at least some of the work. “You can drill in continental shelves, which are the shallow part of the ocean.”

Then there are the cores taken on past expeditions. “We still have all that legacy material, so even with a slowdown in the programme, we still have these opportunities to do science,” says McKay, who has published papers using legacy cores.

“The end of the cooperative agreement supporting operations of the JR does not mean the end of the US scientific ocean drilling enterprise,” says James McManus, Division Director for the Division of Ocean Sciences at the NSF. “With evolving technologies, we have the opportunity to think more broadly about how to address those scientific questions that can only be explored through scientific ocean drilling.”

Exactly what that future will look like is very much up for discussion. Some, like McKay, hope it will include a replacement vessel for the JR, “but there has to be an assessment that [a new vessel] is a priority for the whole community,” says McKay.

McManus says the “NSF is taking this time to work with the community to envision what the future of scientific ocean drilling might look like.” This includes a request to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine “to conduct the 2025-2035 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences for the National Science Foundation, with an interim report that will specifically address high-priority research questions requiring scientific ocean drilling,” says McManus. “We also anticipate workshops engaging researchers, including early career scientists, to explore future scientific ocean drilling objectives, new approaches in methodology and platforms, and international engagement.”

“We have had this wonderful international collaboration for so long,” says McKay. “The resources we have available to us are always going to be variable. As scientists, we need to keep showing that we’re adding value, that we do important science. The more constructively we engage with funders and international partners, the better case we will have for a vibrant programme going forward.”

The Operational Oceanography Special Interest Group (SIG) provides systematic and sustained observations, predictions and analyses for many ocean user applications, including the blue economy, science, governance and public good. Find out more by visiting the group’s page.

Sam Andrews 2 20200224 173419
Dr Sam Andrews is a marine ecologist and science writer.