How studying the sea floor might help us understand future climates
OSU Research Matters is a bi-weekly look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.
Did you know a single celled organism, called foraminifera, can be studied to better understand past climates and environments?
In this episode, Meghan Robinson speaks with Dr. Ashley Burkett, an Assistant Professor of Geology at Oklahoma State University. Her research takes her to the ocean floor to collect foraminifera samples. She uses this information to understand how future climates might respond to trends.
BURKETT: They kind of look like an amoeba. So, most people have seen an amoeba in like an intro level or high school level bio class. And it's that like really gelatinous cell that can move around and make all these different shapes. But they tend to have a shell, and sometimes they make this shell by pulling out materials from the water and growing it just like a seashell made out of the same stuff that's called calcium carbonate. But other times they'll take a bunch of sand -- or whatever they can find -- and glue them together and make this like [unintelligible] shell, which is really also pretty fun.
ROBINSON: Forams date back 540 million years to the earliest fossil records. Their lengthy existence allows scientists to study how they react to changing environments and what that environment may have looked like.
BURKETT: And so, if we can constrain what's going on in the present, it helps us make better estimates of what's happening in the past. And in those past environments, often we're using those to help us understand what might happen in the future. So, it's all connected. In geology, we have the saying, it's called the Principle of Uniformitarianism, which just means the present is the key to the past. So if we can understand how processes are happening today, we can use that to apply to our understanding of what happened in the past. But I like to also flip it around and do it the other way. Like, if we can understand, ‘hey, in this certain environment, the ocean got so hot, so fast that a huge extinction event or dying off of a lot of organisms happened.’ Like, if that happened again today, how might that influence what's going on in our modern systems.
ROBINSON: How do you collect these sediments for your research?
BURKETT: It depends on what your goal is, right? If you're just trying to get the surface material and look at living stuff, you will wanna send down certain instruments off the back of the ship. One is called a multicore, and it's designed to be able to hit the sea floor without really disturbing a whole lot so that it can sink these tubes into the sediment. And then it creates a suction and pulls the tube out. But if you're trying to get really far back in the past, then you're gonna wanna get something that penetrates deeper into the sediment and gets you as long of a core, we call it, as possible. And then there are even cores that are taken, that are drilled. So just like an oil and gas drill, where it will drill down into the, the rock itself. There are ships that are equipped with essentially a drilling platform, much like you see in the Gulf of Mexico, that can drill into the sediments and then into rock even, and bring them back onto the ship for researchers.
ROBINSON: Living in landlocked Oklahoma, you might think Dr. Burkett’s research is limited. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. It has taken her around the world, and to the ocean floor.
BURKETT: There is no replacement for going down firsthand and visiting that alien space. Pictures certainly don't do it justice, [a] video camera is limited to the quality of what you're looking at and what's in the water column, but being down there and watching things, you can see things in a way that you never can on a camera system or just looking out the window. I remember on this last dive, I was just watching because they were doing something else with the sub. They were trying to balance it and adjust it, and make sure that it was ready to go. And I was just staring out the window, watching these tiny little organisms in the water column, called copapods, swim. And so just watching like the pattern they were making and how they were going up and then diving down and then going up and, and it was crazy because people like don't see that. It's probably never been discussed or published because you don't get to spend time down there really witnessing how life exists and everything that we see is just so mind-blowing and amazing. And it's a snapshot of like the bigger picture of what's going down in the deep sea.