Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Odyssey of the Glomar Challenger Drillship and the Panama Isthmus

The following is being written for all those Book of Mormon Land of Promise theorists who have, over the years, denied the possibility that South America was once under water east of the present day Andes area, and that the Isthmus of Panama was once not connected to South America and that an ocean strait existed between Central and South America and both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were connected.

First, the Panama Isthmus:

It was on June 24, 1966, that the Prime Contract between the National Science Foundation and The Regents of the University of California was signed. This contract began Phase I of the Deep Sea Drilling Project, which was based out of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. Global Marine, Inc. performed the actual drilling and coring.

The Levingston Shipbuilding Company laid the keel of the D/V Glomar Challenger on October 18, 1967, in Orange, Texas. The ship was launched on March 23, 1968, from that city and sailed down the Sabine River to the Gulf of Mexico on its 15-year-long scientific expedition. After a period of testing, the Deep Sea Drilling Project accepted the ship on August 11, 1968, and over the next 30 months, Phase II consisted of drilling and coring in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans as well as the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Technical and scientific reports followed during a ten-month period when Phase II ended on August 11, 1972, and the ship began a successful scientific and engineering career.

Glolmar Challenger awaiting the drilling rig installation on its main deck alongside the docks at Orange, Texas

The Glomar Challenger was given its name as a tribute to the accomplishments of the 1868-era oceanographic survey vessel HMS Challenger, with Glomar a truncation of Global Marine—and its success was almost immediate. Criss-crossing the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between South America and Africa and drilling core samples at specific locations, the age of the samples was determined by paleontologic and isotopic dating studies, which provided conclusive evidence for the seafloor spreading hypothesis, and, consequently, for plate tectonics.

Glomar Challenger during completion of its main deck and building cranes still affixing final touches

Another ambitious program was probing into the sedimentary layer of the world’s oceans. Their objective was to seek answers concerning the geological history and past life of our planet. The first 12 missions were undertaken in various select locations within the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. By mid-1979, the emphasis shifted to the Caribbean Sea east of the Isthmus of Panama. There Challenger hove to and scientists aboard drilled four holes on the seafloor. After retrieving the sediment cored from these holes, the Challenger sailed through the canal to the Pacific side and drilled four more holes in the much softer sediment of the Gulf of Panama. This Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling—JOIDES, which includes Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Scripps, recovered samples containing a detailed record of perhaps the greatest change in the earth's internal boundary conditions in recent geologic history.

Project Map showing Leg 68 of the Challenger’s mission that drilled on both the east and west sides of Panama’s coastal waters

The leg 68 measurements of both sides of the Isthmus of Panama coastal waters discovered a long believed, but until then unproven idea. Using the technique of hydraulic piston coring, the disciplines of Paleoclimatology, Paleoceanography, Sedimentology, and Organic Geochemistry, among others, were able to determine a wealth of new scientific data and information. Paleoclimatologists specifically were able to model the climate system that extends very far back in time, and were able to see how events linked to one another over time. At the same time, Paleoceanographers deciphered the history of deep-ocean circulation and identified the forces that drive it.

Left: Driven by water pressure supplied by large pumps on the deck of the Glomar Challenger, the hydraulic piston corer thrusts rapidly into 15 feet of soft sediment, and the core is then retrieved intact; Right: Drilled cores on deck awaiting sampling, measurement and analysis

Using the hydraulic piston corer allowed scientists to retrieve pristine, high-quality cores of soft Pacific sediments, unlike conventional hollow rotary drilling equipment which mashes soft sediment into a murky paste. Study and comparison of samples from both sides of the Isthmus of Panama made possible a detailed sediment record which showed that the isthmus was submerged and rose up to join the South American continent (closing off the Isthmus) in recent geologic time, which diverted warm, tropical waters into the Gulf Stream. This compaction, the decrease in sediment volume through water loss, can tell something about the depositional history of sediment, and like the telescope revolutionized astronomy in the 17th century, the hydraulic piston corer will join a list of the inventions that have allowed science to take quantum jumps to new states of knowledge.

As a result of the Glomar Challenger’s drilling on both sides of the Isthmus of Panama, it is scientifically proven that the closing of the Isthmus of Panama and the isolation of two great oceans occurred in recent geologic time and that once separated, the Panama Isthmus rose up to join with South America above the surface, isolating the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

(La Brecque, “Coring Near the Mudline,” Mosaic, September/October 1981, pp 3-4(7), in conjunction with The National Science Foundation and the Division of Ocean Drilling Programs)

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