Outlining Future Science Goals For Deep Carbon Research

The recently completed global survey of DCO members shows vividly that the international deep carbon science community is keen to continue furthering our understanding of the deep Earth carbon cycle.

The recently completed global survey of DCO members (see the brief report here) shows vividly that the international deep carbon science community is keen to continue furthering our understanding of the deep Earth carbon cycle. Task Force 2020 (TF2020) is charged with identifying and proposing initiatives, scientific programs, and structures for supporting the community in the next decade. As part of its assessment and planning process, TF2020 recently convened two international workshops. The first, held at the University of Florence, Italy, from 19-20 April 2017, dealt with the continuity of DCO databases, instrumentation, research consortia, and resources. The second focused on the large-scale dynamics of our planet and its impact on environmental and biological evolution. The Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry, Moscow, Russia, hosted this second workshop, which took place over three days from 24-26 May 2017.



TF2020 carefully chose workshop participants to achieve a mix of early career and senior scientists representing many different countries and scientific disciplines. Sessions included a series of talks by invited speakers, who were assigned specific topics of interest to the entire community, followed by group discussions and brainstorming forums.

The outcomes of both workshops will form part of a DCO white paper describing future science goals. TF2020 chair Claude Jaupart will present a list of specific action items from the workshops to the DCO Executive Committee for discussion and potential adoption. The following is a brief synopsis of each workshop.


1. Workshop on the continuity of DCO databases, instrumentation, research consortia, and resources beyond 2020, Firenze, Italy, 19-20 April 2017

The purpose of this workshop was to plan for the continuity of DCO legacies. Specific tasks included assessing the current state of these legacies, clarifying the crucial scientific drivers that justify these legacies, identifying mechanisms and funding sources for continuation, and finally starting the process of sourcing and writing proposals to support continuation efforts beyond 2020.

A team of 34 scientists from seven different countries contributed to these discussions and brainstorming forums. Final plenary sessions were devoted to sharing outcomes and identifying crossover sources of support.

The workshop participants explored the following themes:

  • databases and sample repositories,
  • instrumentation and software,
  • scientific consortia and networks, and
  • funding and management of scientific organizations.

Workshop participants reached several conclusions regarding data and continuation of some DCO programs. Achieving  DCO’s goal of having its data discoverable, managed, and curated after 2019 will require additional work. Currently, much of DCO’s data are uncataloged, not visible, and often lack metadata that would make them useful to scientists from a wide range of disciplines. Filling this gap is an enormous challenge for current DCO participants to tackle, with the support and encouragement of DCO’s leadership.

Participants concluded that several current DCO research initiatives have enough coherence to continue on their own (although they could also be a part of a new large-scale cooperative program). Two examples are the Diamond and Mantle Geodynamics of Carbon network and the Census of Deep Life (within the broader The Visualization and Analysis of Microbial Population Structures (VAMPS) program at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, USA). Many aspects of Deep Life research are also included in the pending phase three program of the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI). C-DEBI focuses on the marine subsurface and would benefit from a companion program on the continental subsurface.


2. Workshop on global geodynamical models: linking the large-scale dynamics of our planet to environmental and biological evolution, Moscow, Russia, 24-26 May 2017

Thirty-one scientists from nine countries assembled in Moscow for the second TF2020 workshop. The workshop was split into two parts; the first centered on recent Russian scientific achievements, while the second addressed programmatic issues. A full-day of scientific talks and posters by Russian scientists from a wide range of institutes, companies, and provinces launched the workshop. The next two days focused on current understanding of Earth’s global dynamics, stumbling blocks that impede scientific progress, and the challenges of linking the large-scale workings of our planet to environmental and biological evolution.

The specific purposes of the workshop were:

  • to evaluate the needs for upscaling efforts in the different DCO communities. “Upscaling” here means linking small-scale processes and variables to the workings of larger scale systems,
  • to identify unexplored or poorly explored connections (for example relationships between major biological changes and geological activity),
  • to evaluate requirements for global models of Earth’s carbon cycle: what data should be fed into the models, in what form, and at which scales in space and time,
  • to promote the use of carbon-related constraints in global geodynamic models (carbon as a marker/tracer of geodynamic processes),  
  • to explore ways and structures for promoting large-scale modeling efforts in relation to carbon.   

Workshop participants singled out a few important points, including:

  • Timelines illustrating the relationships between different variables and phenomena are a very efficient way to stimulate models (experiments in biology, physical concepts etc…).
  • “Synchronous” changes of the composition of mantle related rocks and environmental conditions at different times suggest a relationship between life and geodynamics.
  • Carbon isotopic data present well-identified challenges. The relative stability of carbonate δ13C values over almost the entirety of Earth’s history is a puzzling and unexplained feature of our otherwise constantly changing planet.
  • Present day subduction is the most fundamental part of the carbon cycle, implying that the start of subduction on Earth is a key issue.

Further discussion dealt with databases, returning attention to the legacy issues addressed during the first workshop. The group agreed that tutorials and proper documentation (metadata) are essential for guaranteeing reliable results and a maximum return on investment. For examples, many researchers do not systematically collect metadata for natural bacterial populations (temperature, composition of co-existing fluids and minerals), hampering the progress of studies addressing the co-evolution of life and geological conditions. This is but one example of the potential for scientific advances being hindered by the lack of metadata.


Further Reading

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