About the DCO

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Carbon plays an unparalleled role in our lives: as the element of life, as the basis of most of society’s energy, as the backbone of most new materials, and as the central focus in efforts to understand Earth’s variable and uncertain climate. Yet in spite of carbon’s importance, scientists remain largely ignorant of the physical, chemical, and biological behavior of many of Earth’s carbon-bearing systems. The Deep Carbon Observatory is a global research program to transform our understanding of carbon in Earth. At its heart, DCO is a community of scientists, from biologists to physicists, geoscientists to chemists, and many others whose work crosses these disciplinary lines, forging a new, integrative field of deep carbon science. To complement this groundbreaking research, the DCO’s infrastructure includes public engagement and education, online and offline community support, innovative data management, and novel instrumentation.

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

In 2007, Robert Hazen, a Senior Staff Scientist at the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory (Washington, DC, USA) gave a talk at the Century Club in New York. He spoke about the origins of life on Earth, and how geophysical reactions may have played a critical role in getting the biological ball rolling. Jesse Ausubel, a faculty member at Rockefeller University and Project Officer at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, was in the audience. Inspired, he sought out Hazen’s book, Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins. Three months later, he sent Hazen an email.

After two years of careful planning, collaboration, and brainstorming, Hazen and colleagues officially launched DCO in August 2009, with its Secretariat based at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC, USA. Hazen and Ausubel, along with input from over 100 scientists invited to participate in the Deep Carbon Cycle Workshop in 2008, expanded their original idea. No longer were they focused solely on the origin of life on Earth. Instead, it had become clear that to further human understanding of Earth and our place here, carbon, that critical element, had to take center stage.

The DCO is a 10-year initiative to intensify global attention and scientific effort in the burgeoning field of deep carbon science. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation pledged $50 million over the duration of the initiative to fund infrastructure development, scientific workshops, novel technology development, and preliminary research and fieldwork. This seed funding was awarded to catalyze collaborative scientific efforts around the world, increase public and private sector spending in deep carbon science, and leave a thriving community of international scientists as its legacy.

Deep carbon science: A new field of global exploration

DCO science is roughly divided into four Communities, each with unique roles to play over the course of the next few years. The Extreme Physics and Chemistry Community is concerned primarily with the most fundamental questions regarding how carbon interacts with other elements under the high temperature and pressure conditions of deep Earth. Scientists in the Reservoirs and Fluxes Community are asking how much carbon cycles into and out of Earth, for example during volcanic events, and analyzing diamonds and other carbon-containing minerals to document how much carbon is stored deep underground. The Deep Energy Community focuses on the many ways carbon compounds (such as hydrocarbons) are created, stored, and interact with Earth’s deep interior, and how organic molecules may have provided the raw materials for early life. And the Deep Life Community is on a quest to document the extreme limits and global extent of subsurface life in our planet. These Communities are not rigid divisions of the DCO, and cross-community research is commonplace, encouraged, and fostered within a flexible research framework.

Coordination, instrumentation, and a lasting legacy

The DCO Secretariat provides central coordination and oversight for Community instrumentation and cross-Community and Community-wide projects, and for DCO’s international management structure comprising an Executive Committee and Community-level Scientific Steering Committees that together form the International Science Advisory Committee. DCO’s Engagement and Data Science Teams, indispensable to highly leveraged fundraising and critical to creating a lasting legacy for DCO research, are coordinated across the spectrum of DCO interests. DCO's open access and data policies encourage open access publication and long-term stewardship of carbon data and information.

Scientific progress often requires concurrent technological advances, and the DCO is already stimulating progress both through financial commitments and through a unique network of researchers from all disciplines. A large computer cluster, recently installed at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, USA, can handle huge datasets generated by DCO scientists. Advances in volcanic gas measurement will enable DCO to implement a global network that accurately measures the amount of carbon being released by Earth at all times. Experimental equipment is currently in development to simulate the hot, high-pressure conditions of deep Earth, including state-of-the-art bioreactors and diamond anvil cells.

Ultimately, the DCO will synthesize 10 years of scientific research to generate unique and unprecedented views of Earth, looking at both scientific and human societal issues through a new, sharper lens.


Click here to contact the Deep Carbon Observatory for more information.