Letter from the Executive Director - December 2012

 

Dear DCO Colleagues,

Greetings from Washington! It’s hard to believe another year is almost complete. It’s a good time to reflect on where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

A year ago DCO was still in its early, formative stage—not tentative or uncertain, mind you, but hardly a robust international scientific presence. Today that scenario has changed. Two recent activities underscore the dynamic state and remarkable promise of the DCO as we enter the fourth year of this decadal adventure. 

First is the recent AGU meeting in San Francisco, where DCO was a pervasive presence, with our collaborators featured at sessions, workshops, and meetings—some concurrent—for a full week. The science was amazing. Discoveries of new high-pressure phases and models of carbon in the core highlighted the Extreme Physics and Chemistry Directorate. I was especially intrigued by increasing hints of an as yet virtually unexplored carbon-silicon chemistry at extreme conditions, including the prospect of new high-pressure carbonate-silicates and perhaps Si-C bonding in phases other than moissanite.

The Reservoirs and Fluxes Directorate was amply represented by inspiring sessions on the deep carbon cycle, as well as a forward-looking workshop on non-volcanic fluxes of carbon led by Jay Ague of Yale. An initiative is now being planned to document the effects of both prograde and retrograde metamorphism on the crustal carbon cycle. The active participation of leaders in the field of metamorphic petrology is a welcome addition to the DCO community. Our growing efforts in volcano monitoring were put in a human context at a special session focusing on our Italian colleagues, who have been jailed for their failure to provide adequate warning in advance of the lethal Abruzzo earthquake.

Deep energy has also been much in the news lately, with the pros and cons of fracking receiving a great deal of attention at AGU. Rather than enter those contentious debates directly, DCO’s Deep Energy Directorate is striving to understand the fundamental sources and movements of deep organic molecules, including possible abiotic sources. A recent focus on serpentinization zones, both at AGU and at the Serpentine Days Workshop on Porquerolles Island in France, emphasizes the trans-disciplinary nature of DCO science.

The Deep Life Directorate was especially well represented at AGU in sessions convened by DCO collaborators and sponsored by the Biogeosciences Section. I was especially fascinated by Ramunas Stepanauskas’s talk on the rapidly developing field of single-cell genomics, which suggested previously unrecognized diversity in deep archaea. And the talk by William Orsi, Jennifer Biddle, and Virginia Edgcomb on deep fungi—eukaryotes in the deep marine subsurface—underscored how much we have to learn about the deep biosphere.

The excitement of AGU came at a time when the DCO community has been putting the finishing touches on our first major collective publication, Carbon in Earth, which will appear as volume 75 of the influential Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry series. Our volume, the first to be released as an open access publication, features 20 chapters by more than 50 DCO colleagues in 9 countries, who span the scientific visions of all four directorates. This ~1000-page tome integrates a vast body of research in physics, chemistry, biology, and Earth and space sciences. Every chapter not only synthesizes what we know, but also outlines the unanswered questions that will guide our program for the next 6.5 years and beyond. We are confident that Carbon in Earth will prove to be a benchmark both for the DCO and for the broader scientific community fascinated by the carbon story.

We also end the year with two vibrant new DCO units—our Data Science team at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute led by Peter Fox, and our Communications and Engagement team at the University of Rhode Island led by Sara Hickox. Peter, Sara, and their colleagues will be working closely with the DCO Secretariat and Directorates to leverage our science, enhance access to our discoveries, and reach the widest possible audience. We look forward to working closely with them in the coming years.

As we look back on the year that was we can recognize significant progress, but much remains to be done. We have yet to establish meaningful DCO ties to many parts of the world, including vibrant research communities in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Korea, and other countries. We have yet to engage key players in the corporate world—entities with broadly overlapping technical interests and research capabilities. And we need to raise a lot more money. We are committed to addressing these needs in 2013.

And so we’ll take a week or so to pause, to reflect, to appreciate the incredibly hard work that has brought us here, to marvel at the scientific leaders who have joined this effort, to revel in the scientific discoveries that are pouring in, and to imagine where we might be a year from now and rededicate ourselves to getting there.

With best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season and a dynamic New Year,

 

Robert M. Hazen,

Executive Director and Principal Investigator, Deep Carbon Observatory
Senior Staff Scientist, Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution for Science

 

Photo:  George Mason University

 
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