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Drilling into an offshore earthquake zone!

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  • Drilling into an offshore earthquake zone!

    Quake zone diary: Out to sea

    A pioneering project off the coast of Japan aims to go further into an earthquake zone than ever before.

    BBC environment correspondent Richard Black is the first journalist to visit the research ship Chikyu while it is drilling for rock cores from the quake-generating Nankai Trough to explore what causes tremors.


    The Pacific Ocean is at its shining, most inviting best as we take off from the heliport of Miname-Ise on the eastern coast of Japan, a few hours train-ride south from Tokyo.

    The rotors whip the languid morning air with what seems like unnecessary violence, but the morning appears to survive.

    A 40-minute sun-lit journey later, we touch down gently on the helideck of the Chikyu - the most advanced research drilling ship in the world, owned by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (Jamstec) and testimony to the importance that earthquakes are accorded in this seismically vulnerable country.

    The Chikyu is nothing if not a safety-conscious operation, and 15 minutes later, producer Jonny Hallam and I are being briefed on the various hazards of working in an environment that combines seafaring vessel, drilling rig, scientific laboratory and home.

    Some of the dos and don'ts are pretty straightforward - don't smoke in bed, do find out where the lifeboats are - but as safety chief Dave Taylor enumerates the fingers he has seen lost on various drilling rigs down the years, the special perils of working here become a little starker to the senses.

    Robot wedding

    Later, Dave takes us on a tour of the Chikyu, which is an unusual-looking ship even on the outside.

    The deck is dominated by the drilling derrick which soars above the midships, and from which the drilling pipe extends down to the sea floor more than a mile below.

    From the derrick hang cables and bits of machinery whose functions are still something of a mystery, and which move according to unfathomable laws.

    Other giant pieces of yellow steel tend the centrepiece like bridesmaids at a robot wedding, offering a bit of pipe here, unthreading a joint there, providing water when required, and stashing away finished lengths with a precision that would bring envy to the mien of a desk-proud secretary.

    This is the focus of Chikyu's operations: drilling into the sea floor in geologically interesting areas, removing cores for analysis, and, in a later phase, lowering instruments deeper into the Earth's crust than has ever been done before.


    Project will extract rock cores from the Nankai Trough, an area that has regularly generated major earthquakes and tsunamis

    Scientists will be able to analyse the seismogenic, or earthquake-producing, region, where one of the Earth's tectonic plates slides under another, in unprecedented detail

    They hope to learn what triggers earthquakes here and in other areas that are geologically similar, including the Sumatran fault that caused the devastating 2004 tsunami - potentially leading to ways of predicting them

    The purpose is as evident in the research labs, where tabletops are covered with seismic scans of the ocean floor and textbooks line the walls, as it is on the drilling floor.

    But away from the specialised bits of the ship, ordinary life pertains.

    Dave may be concerned about our safety, but he and Steve Krukuwski, the Offshore Installation Manager who is in overall charge of the ship during periods of drilling, are equally concerned about whether we can sort out a video feed of the European Champion's League final this Wednesday.

    We might be able to, but I would hate to see either of them suffering as Barcelona head for an inevitable win.

    I suspect I will pay for that all week.
    "The next major advancement in the health of American people will be determined by what the individual is willing to do for himself"-- John Knowles, Former President of the Rockefeller Foundation