On Sunday, 3 March 2013, more than 100 scientists in the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) network converged on the US National Academy of Sciences on Washington, DC’s National Mall. Having so many DCO scientists together provided a unique opportunity to plan for the future, as well as applaud important discoveries already made. And, with an early morning start, it was clear that not one second of this opportunity would be wasted.
Day one comprised a series of focused discussions to finalize the DCO’s collective mission in addition to the specific goals of each thematic “community.” Formed in 2009 with “seed money” from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation—to the tune of $50 million over 10 years—the DCO has, from day one, been committed to understanding the most enigmatic portion of the global carbon cycle below Earth’s surface. The “deep” carbon cycle includes what happens deep within Earth’s mantle and core as well as the extreme life forms that exist in the seafloor and continental crust. Probing these subsurface mysteries is no small feat, and requires collaboration among numerous scientists across all disciplines.
The four DCO Communities; Extreme Chemistry and Physics, Reservoirs and Fluxes, Deep Energy, and Deep Life; represent different aspects of the overall goal of the DCO and each focused on their own special interests Sunday morning. However, these four communities are not discrete entities, but rather serve as focal points from which DCO researchers can branch off, meeting up with colleagues along the way, to form one large and diverse DCO Science Network.
The afternoon was dedicated to the discussion of other aspects of the DCO, those shared community interests that either support or grow from the research. These cross-community efforts include field studies, instrumentation, data science, and engagement. Of particular note was the field studies session, which produced an ambitious outline of both short- and long-term activities in key geographical areas worldwide. The proposed studies will provide clues to Earth’s subsurface workings and benefit many members of the DCO Science Network and the broader scientific community.
On Day 2, the mood shifted to one of celebration and the meeting attendance swelled to over 160 scientists in the auditorium National Academy of Sciences. A spectacular program of speakers was set to take the stage, as was a special edition of Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry entitled “Carbon in Earth” and a newly re-designed DCO website. Executive Director Robert Hazen opened what he called “a scientific feast” with an inspirational call to action:
“Carbon…The element of life; the element of energy, environment, climate and resources, new materials. There is nothing more fundamental than understanding carbon, and yet we remain remarkably ignorant about carbon in our planet.”
Barbara Sherwood Lollar then guided the audience on a trip deep underground into the mines of Canada, where she and her team are working to define the source of carbon in Precambrian rock. Questions of methanogenesis and serpentinization mirrored long-standing questions of the origin of life, with groundbreaking work highlighting how scientists can differentiate between biotic (from life) and abiotic sources of carbon.
From there we were taken into outer space, the tops of volcanoes, and the bottom of the ocean. We explored basic physics, chemistry, and the complexity of life at great depths. And, in a wonderful movie shown by Kai-Uwe Hinrichs, we were transported out of the auditorium and onto the deep-drilling Japanese research ship Chikyu. By lunch-time, the DCO had made it clear that it meant business. Big, interdisciplinary, paradigm-shifting business.
And the buzz about Deep Carbon wasn’t confined to the National Academy auditorium. The result of an international news release, 450 news sites in 42 different countries around the world were talking about the DCO, including Scientific American, the Huffington Post, and the Sydney Morning Herald, and by the end of the day the DCO story ranked in the top 20 in science story popularity in the UK, the US, and Canada.
After four DCO Community leaders summarized the goals of the DCO through 2019, the end of the Sloan Foundation funding period, a prestigious panel of US scientific leaders was invited onto the stage to discuss the future of such a large scientific effort. Wendy Harrison of the US National Science Foundation emphasized the importance of leadership and outreach, pointing out the importance of a strategic plan for research, but not ignoring the importance of education for inspiration as well as policy decisions. P. Patrick Leahy of the American Geosciences Institute talked about his work for the International Year of Planet Earth, and the unique challenges faced by an international scientific organization. Marcia McNutt, who recently stepped down as Director of the US Geological Survey, focused on the development of new technologies, as well as how DCO scientists might reach out within various scientific societies to push their research forward. Finally, Frank Press, former President of the National Academy of Sciences and science advisor to President Jimmy Carter, shared several anecdotes from his time at the forefront of scientific policy. Importantly, he made it clear that connections exist between the goals of scientists and of governments, and such mutualistic relationships are crucial to the success of large-scale projects like the DCO.
The second panel of the afternoon brought together several of the authors of “Carbon in Earth,” a special open-access edition of Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry devoted to reviewing the state of deep carbon science. Robert Hazen moderated the session, and opened it in comedic fashion by simulating a dramatic reading of the tome:
“Chapter 1: Why Deep Carbon? All chemical elements are special, but some are more special than others… I could go on!”
In this public session, panelists Adrian Jones, Rajdeep Dasgupta, Isabelle Daniel, Steven D’Hondt, Rachael Hazael, and John Baross, commented on various aspects of the book. Some discussed chapters they’d co-authored, others shared a broader take on a section. The resulting discussion focused largely on what is unknown in deep carbon research. How much carbon is there in Earth, and how does it move around between different reservoirs? Are there deep abiotic sources of hydrocarbons? What is the nature of deep life, and how is it distributed throughout terrestrial and marine subsurface environments? Does deep life tell us anything about the basic chemistry underlying the origin of life on Earth? And, perhaps the broadest reaching question, how has the deep biosphere interacted with its environment over the course of geological history?
As day two came to an end, attendees continued to peruse over 50 posters lining the Academy Great Hall during the evening reception, ideas no doubt flowing after an inspirational day of celebrating the past and future of deep carbon science.
The meeting concluded on Tuesday morning after the four Communities re-convened to finalize their missions and research goals for the coming years.
One of the most prominent themes of this meeting was legacy. What will the DCO leave for the future? Innovative instrumentation and methods? Massive global databases? Discoveries that illuminate not only inner Earth but also outer space? No doubt all of these things. But perhaps the DCO is its own legacy: A diverse and collaborative community of scientists united for the first time, driven by a common goal.
More photos from the meeting are available here.