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Wednesday, October 4, 2023


Cougars take a crack at Godzilla

Imagine being immersed in Japanese culture, surrounded by 360 degrees of vast, open sea and suffering from the occasional woes of seasickness.

This isn’t the type of college experience that many of students have molded in the back of their minds. For an adventurous band of UH geology students, however, this is just part of the learning experience that goes with deep-sea exploration.

Geoscience professor Jonathan Snow and his crew of six UH geoscience students are currently halfway through a four-week international expedition to the Philippine Sea to explore volcanic rocks from Godzilla Mullion – a 10-million-year-old tear in the Earth’s crust the size of the Houston-Metropolitan area.

At more than 100 kilometers wide, Godzilla Mullion remains the king of mantle windows and reaches all the way down to the Earth’s mantle.

Delving into the contents of the mantle, a birthplace for volcanoes, will help Snow and his students to understand the chemical evolution of the Earth, the movement of the tectonic plates and ultimately the ability of the Earth to sustain itself.

By taking part in such expeditions professors like Snow are able to get their hands dirty while indulging in a realm of science they’re truly passionate about.

"Personally, for me, it’s very rewarding to get out. It’s an adventure," Snow said. "The rocks don’t come to you; as a geologist, you have to go to them."

Funded in part by the National Science Foundation and UH, Snow and his team are working closely with Japanese crews from the University of Tokyo and the Japan Hydrographic Office to retrieve volcanic rock samples that will help them uncover more about the morphology of Godzilla Mullion and in turn provide a better understanding of the deeper layers of the earth.

"Truthfully there’s work to be done," Snow said. "You’ve got a pile of rocks on board and they all have to be given little numbers and you have to weigh them and catalog them and somebody has to decide what kind of rock it is before you can even think about doing further analysis."

The crew will utilize a rock dredge to salvage Godzilla Mullion’s volcanic rocks. The dredge – a large steel scoop attached to a 5-mile long cable – takes about five hours to reach the ocean floor, scrape up the rocks and bring them back to the surface. However deliberate the process may be, the dredge – capable of returning anywhere between 200 to 400 pounds of rocks per scoop – nevertheless remains a tried-and-true method of recovering these fresh samples of mantle rocks.

"Even in this age of manned submersibles and robots, both tethered and self-guided, the good old rock dredge is still our primary tool for studying the composition of the oceanic basement," Snow said.

UH team members will study the compositions of ocean floor rocks and their mineral contents. The large volume of rocks recovered from the ocean floor is expected to help solve a long-standing conundrum in the geoscience community.

"We’re expecting to find mantle rocks – the very deepest material that we know of from the earth," Snow said. "I’m really interested in finding how it is these (tears) form and also learning about the underlying mantle from the rocks that we get."

Once recovered, the rocks will be analyzed in the laser ablation trace element laboratory at UH.

The scientists will also use an ultra sensitive deep-tow magnetometer to measure the intensity of the earth’s magnetic field at the mid-ocean ridge.

"There are different intensities in different places, and that can give you detailed information about the exact rate of spreading if you measure it carefully," Snow said.

The Godzilla Mullion cruise is divided into two two-week legs, the first of which, KH07-2-Leg 2, took place Aug. 21 to Aug. 29 and the second, KH07-2-Leg 4, sets sail today on R/V Hakuho Maru, a 400-foot Japanese research vessel.

For geology graduate student Heather Burgland, a member of the first leg of the cruise, being submersed in the Japanese culture and hands-on atmosphere proved to be a rewarding experience.

"I’m really glad I got the opportunity to do it. I’d never been outside the country before in my life and it was quite an experience," Burgland said. "People say it’s like jumping in the deep end, but for us it’s like jumping in the ocean, literally."

Geology senior Carla Cleveland was also part of the first leg along with a group of renowned Japanese scientists including chief scientist Yasuhiko Ohara, Teruaki Ishii, Chiori Tamura and Hiroshi Sato.

UH team leader Sergio Sarmiento, a geology graduate student and Cy-Fair geology professor, looks to extend his unique learning experience to the classroom.

"In essence (the expedition) makes me realize how important international collaboration is among scientists," Sarmiento said. "This was an opportunity for me to be in the field and keep up with the latest technologies and share the information with my students."

Geology junior Jamie Yowell, geology senior Kelly Zuniaga, post baccalaureate Mareah Flynn, and Snow will begin the second leg of the cruise today.

"I feel like it was almost serendipitous that I was able to go on this trip because I love geology and I love the ocean," Flynn said. "Being able to do this is awesome. I’m looking forward to (the cruise) and going to Japan and Guan for a few days is just icing on the cake."

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