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OSU to expand sediment core collection to one of largest in the world

3/13/2017 — By Mark Floyd — Sources: Joe Stoner and Anthony Koppers

Corvallis, Oregon — One of the nation's most important repositories of oceanic sediment cores, located at Oregon State University, will more than double in size later this year when the university assumes stewardship of a collection of sediment cores taken from the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

OSU has received a pair of grants from the National Science Foundation to assume the curatorial stewardship of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean National Collection of Rock and Sediment Cores, housed at Florida State University since the mid-1960s. Oregon State will house the expanded collection in a sophisticated new facility located just off-campus.

NSF manages the U.S. Antarctic Program, whose logistical support and awards to researchers allowed many of the cores to be obtained.

The OSU Marine and Geology Repository will be available to scientists around the world to study the sediment cores, which provide evidence of the Earth's climate over the past millions of years, oceanic conditions, the history of the magnetic field, plate tectonics, seismic and volcanic events, ice ages and interglacial periods, and even the origin of life.

sediment core repository Sediment core repository

"These cores are time capsules, allowing scientists today to compare the conditions on the Earth we live in with the way it was eons ago," said Thom Wilch, Earth Sciences program manager at NSF. "This collection of cores and samples is an incredible resources that has yielded many important scientific findings about the past. Preservation and curation by OSU ensures that the cores are available for future research by the national and international scientific communities."

Oregon State has operated a sediment core lab since the 1970s, but its origins were rather modest, according to Joseph Stoner, a geologist in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-director of the OSU Marine and Geology Repository. Lacking a storage facility, the first cores were kept in a cooler at a Chinese restaurant in Corvallis.

From those humble beginnings, the repository has grown into a treasure trove for scientists, storing thousands of cores — mostly from the Pacific Ocean, with a few from the Arctic, Bering Sea, and many terrestrial lakes. The collection also includes dry terrestrial cores and dredged rocks from submarine volcanoes and the ocean floor.

"The expanded collection will include some 35 kilometers, or about 22 miles, of sediment cores, more than doubling the size of our current repository at Oregon State," Stoner said. "OSU already shares on average 5,000 subsamples of the cores with scientists each year — a number that will more than double with the expansion."

When completed over the next two years, the expanded repository will give Oregon State the premier collection of sediment cores from the Pacific and Southern oceans. It is difficult to put a dollar value on the cores, OSU researchers say, though their worth can be calculated in a different way.

"If we had to replace the cores in our current OSU repository, it would cost roughly a half billion dollars just in ship time to go collect them," Stoner said. "That doesn't include the cost of the people involved. To replace the Antarctic collection would easily cost more than $1 billion, since the Southern Ocean is so remote, travel is difficult, and you can only work two or three months out of the year."

The real worth, though, is the cores' scientific value, noted Anthony Koppers, co-director of the OSU repository and also a faculty member in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. The OSU collection includes cores that have sediments as old as 50 million years, and from as deep as a kilometer below the Earth's surface.

The new Antarctic collection has the most complete set of cores from the Southern Ocean in the world and those cores provide an important look into the Earth's climate history over the last few million years. The Southern Ocean collection also includes numerous cores gathered under the NSF-funded international Antarctic DRILLing Project (ANDRILL) program and provides clues to the history of the Antarctic Ice Sheet over the past 17 million years.

"This will bring a lot of researchers from around the world to Oregon State," Koppers said. "The Antarctic research community is very active, very enthusiastic, and very diverse. With our new facility, we will have the capacity to work with researchers in numerous disciplines studying a variety of scientific questions."

Oregon State will spend the next several months preparing the new facility, which will be unlike almost every other repository in the world. It will have a refrigerated industrial storage space of 18,000 square feet, the researchers note, providing plenty of room for the collection to grow over the next five decades.

The size of the facility likely will lead to other collections moving to Oregon State, Koppers predicted.

"Most core repositories are starving for space," he said. "We anticipate hearing from them as word about the transfer and our new facility gets out."

The new repository facility will occupy much of the former Nypro Building in Corvallis. In addition to the enormous refrigerated storage area, which has 28-foot-high ceilings for both cold and dry storage, it will include:

Florida State University made the decision in 2015 not to compete for renewal as its Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science program was moving in a different academic direction. Koppers and Stoner submitted a bid for Oregon State to acquire the collection and were awarded two grants from NSF to transfer the Antarctic collection and to provide stewardship for it.