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.

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