Why scientists rallied to save a museum of mud

Researchers at Oregon State University hope the collection helps scientists understand more about earth’s past and future.

 

OSU Marine and Geology Repository co-directors Anthony Koppers, left, and Joe Stoner look at a pair of sediment samples.
Andy Cripe/Mid-Valley Media

Inside a large storage room at Oregon State University, Valerie Stanley opened the door to a massive refrigerated area, releasing a blast of cold air. Shelves 20 feet high towered overhead, loaded with tubes and boxes. Stanley paused for a moment, chose a plastic tube with an orange lid and held it out so I could look through the clear siding. It was filled a cylinder, more than a foot long, of light-brown mud: layers of sediment collected from the ocean floor. Inside the cracked dirt of the sediment core were microscopic bits of shells, rocks and fossils, all clues to how the ocean looked millennia ago. 

Many of these cores, now housed at OSU in Corvallis, Oregon, were dredged up from the bottom of the Antarctic Ocean by researchers at Florida State University in Tallahassee. They form a set called the Antarctic Core Collection, which FSU oversaw for more than 50 years. Four years ago, however, faced with numerous staff retirements and limited lab space, administrators decided the cores needed to be relocated.  

But handing off this muddy baton was no small feat. Stanley, one of the Antarctic core curators at OSU, helped spearhead the effort to ship the cores almost 3,000 miles across country. It was a monumental undertaking, but worth it, said Joseph Stoner, co-director of the repository at OSU. Preserving the collection means saving a record that can help researchers uncover stories about the planet’s past, and its potential future.

The Antarctic Core Collection is the world’s largest stockpile of seafloor sediment from the Southern Ocean. Established in 1963, it includes material from 7,370 Antarctic sites. Scientists would lower a piston corer, a long tube with a heavy weight on top, from the side of the ship into the icy Antarctic water. After dropping deep into the ocean, the weighted tube would be released, allowing it to free-fall into the soft clay of the seafloor. A valve at the end of the tube would then close, and scientists would haul the sediment-filled container back to the surface. The resulting samples contain a detailed timeline of Earth’s history, with each layer of sediment revealing new information about nearby glaciers and sea temperatures. The longer the core, the more history it has to offer.

But by 2016, Florida State University could no longer host the collection, and the National Science Foundation, the facility’s funder, began seeking a new home. Oregon State University, with its eager students and researchers — plus a newly built repository with storage rooms, walk-in freezers and laboratory space — was a good fit. In 2017, the agency awarded OSU just over $800,000 to relocate the collection.

Last August, Stanley and three co-workers spent several weeks moving almost 17,000 containers of sediment from FSU’s lab into 13 refrigerated semi-trucks. For 10 hours each day, they navigated cylinders through the lab’s narrow hallways until every shelf was empty. Once the cores arrived in Oregon, the team spent another two days unloading them. “This whole room was full of boxes,” Stanley said, her breath visible as she gestured around the refrigerated room, over twice the size of a professional basketball court. When OSU’s previous collections are factored in, the university now houses around 22 miles’ worth of sediment.

“The science people are doing here is really relevant to local problems.”

Today, researchers are using more advanced technologies to reanalyze the old cores. Modern CT scans, for example, allow scientists to take high-resolution, 3-D images of the pebbles in each of the core’s layers. This helps them map when icebergs broke off Antarctica’s ice sheet: More pebbles means an iceberg calved and transported that debris. By examining iceberg movements 3 to 4 million years ago, when temperatures were warmer than today, scientists can study how iceberg calving impacted sea-level rise then, offering insight into what may happen along the coasts now, as the climate warms. “The science people are doing here is really relevant to local problems,” said Maureen Walczak, an assistant professor in oceanography at OSU and advisor for students working with the sediment cores.

While researchers across the country can request sediment core samples from the repository to study, one of OSU’s long-term goals is to digitize all the information — photos, physical properties, where the cores were collected — and make it available on a public database. That way, curious people worldwide can access parts of the earth they may otherwise never see.

Some of those samples were on display in late January, when OSU held an open house to mark the grand opening of the new collection. About 275 people, many with “OSU Alum” printed on their nametags, filled a laboratory. Some squinted into microscopes to inspect rock and sediment particles smeared onto glass slides, while others hovered around tables, looking at half-cylinders of cores. (The cylinders’ other halves were preserved indefinitely in the collection’s archive.) “We aren’t just an island,” said Stanley. “We’re passing these sediments down for future researchers.”

Helen Santoro is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....