Drilling platform Myrtle. Drilling platform Myrtle.

A gulf drilling project that’s not about oil

Expedition to examine Chicxulub Crater to learn more about demise of the dinosaurs

A multinational team of scientists is about to embark on a 65-day drilling expedition 30 kilometers off the coast of the Yucatán peninsula, in the hopes of uncovering details about the demise of the dinosaurs and the evolution of life on Earth.

Expedition 364 will examine the Chicxulub Crater, created by an asteroid or comet at least 10 kilometers in diameter 66 million years ago. The center of the crater, which is more than 180 kilometers in diameter, is located near the Yucatán town of Chicxulub, after which it was named.

The cataclysmic collision that occurred at the end of the Cretaceous Period doomed many species, not just the dinosaurs. All the material hurled upwards would have darkened the sky and cooled the planet for months on end.

But even as it took life away, the event also opened up new opportunities for those species that survived, according to a report by BBC News, and the expedition team wants to know if the impact zone itself became a life cradle.

The scientists are interested in key parts of the crater that are currently buried under 600 meters of muddy ocean sediment in the Gulf of Mexico. The team is embarking aboard a “liftboat” called Myrtle, which will also serve as its drilling platform. The drilling will reach a depth of 1.5 kilometers, giving the team a stratified glimpse of the Earth’s geological history.

Ligia Pérez Cruz, a researcher at the Geophysics Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), is the only female Mexican scientist on the 29-member team.

“I’m mainly focused on studying weather systems that existed millions of years ago; nonetheless, I’ll be participating in geochemical activities once on board . . . this is golden for me,” said Pérez.

A member of the staff at the Geophysics Institute for over a decade, Pérez was told by a colleague and project leader about the Chicxulub expedition about five years ago.

“He invited me to collaborate in paleoenvironmental scientific studies of the Chicxulub Crater, although drilling of the seabed had been discussed for 10 years,” she told Milenio.

The scientist clarified that the Myrtle expedition will be the first to study and drill the crater site offshore, as there are currently 14 drill sites on the half of the crater that is on land.

For the people of Chicxulub, said Pérez, there’s some confusion about the expedition as many believe its purpose is oil exploration and extraction. In response, several information campaigns have advised residents that the offshore drilling will give scientists access to more weather records than are currently available.

The campaign also points out that the expedition will have zero negative impact on the environment and local ecosystems and economic activities.

The expedition will also provide information and materials to create a Chicxulub Crater museum, a joint project between UNAM and the state government.

The results of the scientific foray into the past excite Pérez: “This investigation will open the doors and bring local scientists and students closer to the geosciences and the study of craters and paleontology.”

The team has given itself two months to get the job done. “We’ve developed a drilling strategy that gives us multiple chances of getting to 1.5 kilometers, but at any stage you could get stuck for various reasons,” explained a member of the team.

“We’re 30 kilometers offshore, which allows us to re-supply easily. We’ve also timed the project so that we’re pre the hurricane season. Hence starting now and trying to finish before June.”

Besides Pérez, the scientific team has members from the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada, China and several European countries.

Although the Myrtle is equipped to do some initial investigations, the main study will be done after the drilled samples have been shipped to the Bremen Core Repository of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), where Pérez will be joining the analyst teams.

Source: Milenio (sp), BBC News (en)

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