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US ocean drilling ship gets a new lease on life

The JOIDES Resolution.

The JOIDES Resolution has drilled in all of the world’s ocean basins.

Arito Sakaguchi

The US National Science Board has approved funding for the next five years for the JOIDES Resolution, the research vessel that is a cornerstone of international scientific ocean drilling.

The Resolution’s future had been in doubt given that its funder, the ocean sciences division of the National Science Foundation (NSF), is facing excruciatingly tight budgets.

As Nature reported in September, the NSF had considered slashing money for the vessel, which could have left it doing science for fewer than the current seven to eight months a year.

In a vote today, the board authorized the NSF to spend as much as US$250 million over the next five years to operate the Resolution. That amount will be supplemented with $87.5 million from other countries. Together the funds could allow the Resolution to conduct four two-month expeditions per year for the next five years.

“This is a great outcome given the budgetary realities,” says Keir Becker, a marine geologist at the University of Miami and chair of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) forum, a coordinating body for the drilling effort.

The IODP is the overarching collaboration framework for scientific ocean drilling. It relies on a combination of the Resolution, the Japanese drillship Chikyu, and vessels hired by a European research consortium to collect deep-sea drill cores. The IODP and its predecessor programmes have gathered invaluable information on paleoclimate, natural hazards, and other geological insights that otherwise would be hidden beneath ocean waters.

David Conover, head of the NSF ocean sciences division, notes that the board decision is an authorization, subject to how much money Congress actually grants the NSF in future years. “We are under a great deal of constraints, but we are trying to get as much drilling in as we can,” he says. “We are trying to get as much bang for the buck for all of our programmes.” A decadal review of US ocean sciences priorities is slated for completion in April 2015; it would likely guide future decisions involving the Resolution and other US oceanographic facilities.

Under the new approval, the Resolution will continue to be operated by Texas A&M University in College Station.

The ship is currently in dry dock in the Philippines, undergoing routine maintenance checks. It was unharmed by the recent Cyclone Haiyan, and will pick up its science schedule again in January, with an expedition to study the tectonics of the South China Sea.



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