Quake Scuttles Mission to Study Deep-Sea Carbon

Japan's half-billion-dollar deep-sea drilling vessel was also a casualty of the tsunami following the massive 11 March earthquake.

The Chikyu was docked at Hachinohe, 250 kilometers north of Sendai, on 11 March when the rise‑and‑fall of water levels caused it to scrape bottom. That collision snapped off one of the six thrusters that maintain the ship's position while drilling, a feature that makes it so valuable for deep-sea drilling. As a result, a 68-day research expedition to study the deep coal bed biosphere off Shimokita, Japan, has been canceled.

Asahiko Taira, a vice president of the Japan Agency for Marine‑Earth Science and Technology, said that it will take 2 to 3 months to repair the vessel. No word on any rescheduling of the expedition, which was sponsored by the international Integrated Ocean Drilling Program.

At the time of the tsunami, Chikyu scientists were hosting a class of schoolchildren on a field trip. "The tsunami washed into the harbor; there was no way to escape," Taira told Science. All those aboard evacuated safely.

Meanwhile, Taira's agency has more urgent business to attend to.

Immediately after the earthquake, the agency sent another vessel, Kairei, to deploy ocean bottom seismometers in the area of the earthquake to monitor aftershocks and get a better understanding of the fault zone. "There is a lot to be learned," Taira says. But debris swept out to sea by the tsunami is impeding work. "These are very difficult conditions because there are lots of drifting objects."

For our complete coverage of the crisis in Japan, see our Japan Earthquake page.  For Science's answers to reader questions about the crisis, see our Quake Questions page.