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
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.