January 2014: A Letter from Executive Director Robert Hazen

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January 10, 2014

Dear DCO Colleagues,

Happy New Year from the Deep Carbon Observatory! It’s a good time to think back on where we’ve come from and to look forward to an exciting year ahead.

It’s hard to believe that DCO is rapidly approaching the halfway mark in its 10-year adventure. Yes, it’s true, we’ve reached our robust “middle age” and are enjoying remarkable discoveries on a weekly basis. Together we’ve created a research community of nearly 1000 scientists in 40 countries. Last year we held more than a dozen meetings and workshops on five continents, fostered the development of new instruments, sponsored field studies, and promoted new research projects on deep life, deep energy, reservoirs and fluxes, and the physics and chemistry of carbon at extreme conditions. Our Data Science Team at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has established new DCO computational facilities, and our Engagement Team at the University of Rhode Island has launched our new website (deepcarbon.net) with our new logo! It’s been a whirlwind year and, if anything, the pace of activities and discoveries is accelerating.

The year 2013 had so many highlights, it’s difficult to name just a few. The DCO International Science Meeting held in March at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC was certainly one landmark—especially because it featured the launch of Carbon in Earth, the 75th volume of the influential Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry series. Carbon in Earth contains twenty papers by more than fifty researchers from nine countries. That open access publication, which has garnered 700,000 chapter downloads, serves as a benchmark for DCO. Our ultimate success will be measured, in part, by the discoveries described in an anticipated companion volume, written and published at the end of our decade of exploration.

Scientific discovery lies at core of our mission, and there have been some amazing advances during the past 12 months. At the risk of leaving out many important contributions, I’d like to mention just a few (check out our website, deepcarbon.net, for more details about these and other findings).

  • Matt Shrenk (Michigan State University, USA) and colleagues have found deep microbial communities in localities as dispersed as South Africa, California, Finland, Ontario, and the Caribbean with remarkably similar populations.
  • Antje Boetius and Frank Wenzhöfer (Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiogy and the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Germany) suggest a substantial fraction of the methane fueling ecosystems at cold seeps on continental slopes is sourced from deep carbon buried kilometers under the sea floor, with 20-80% of the methane consumed before it reaches the hydrosphere.
  • Muriel Andreani (Lyon, France) and colleagues discovered aluminum oxide in serpentinite zones greatly enhances the production of H2—a finding with implications for deep life as well as for possible hydrogen-generating technologies.
  • Marco Merlini (University of Milan, Italy) and colleagues have discovered new dense phases of the magnesium-calcium carbonate, dolomite—the latest in a series of discoveries of high-pressure phases in which carbon is coordinated to a tetrahedron of four (as opposed to the low-pressure triangle of three) oxygen atoms.
  • Dimitri Sverjensky (Johns Hopkins University, USA) developed a new Deep Earth Water (DEW) thermochemical model that, for the first time, enables calculations of upper mantle fluid-rock interactions. This contribution could revolutionize our understanding of processes that lead to the formation of carbon phases from hydrocarbons to diamonds.
  • Nora Noffke (Old Dominion University, USA) and colleagues reported the discovery of Earth’s oldest fossils—microbial ecosystems preserved in 3.5 billion year old sediments of the Dresser Formation, Western Australia.
  • Elizabeth Cottrell (Smithsonian Institution, USA) and Katie Kelley (University of Rhode Island, USA) described the central role of carbon in controlling mantle chemistry. A photomicrograph from their paper was featured on the cover of Science.
  • And, in one of the most reported science stories of the year, Barbara Sherwood Lollar (University of Toronto, Canada) and Chris Ballentine (Oxford University, England) discovered deep reservoirs of Earth’s “oldest water”—pockets of salty water found 2.4 kilometers beneath the surface at the Timmins Mine, Ontario. Analyses of the water’s unusual noble gas compositions revealed its 2.6 billion-year age.

And so, as we approach the halfway mark, I am deeply grateful to the leadership team of DCO’s Secretariat, the Executive Committee, the four Scientific Steering Committees, the Data Science and Engagement Teams, and all members of the DCO community for their vision, dedication, and achievements. And as remarkable as the past year has been, I know we’re on the verge of even greater accomplishments.

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




Robert M. Hazen,

Executive Director, Deep Carbon Observatory

Senior Staff Scientist, Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution for Science



Read more about Robert Hazen.