UI professor researches geology behind ocean formation


Early morning on the South China sea
Sunrise on the South China Sea, where UI professor David Peate is spending his summer researching continental rifts. (flickr/Ivan Herman)
Jenna Ladd | May 19, 2017

The spring semester has come to a close and most UI professors have retreated to their campus labs to catch up on research. Dr. David Peate, on the other hand, is spending his summer days floating on the South China Sea.

This is no pleasure cruise, however. The professor of Earth and Environmental sciences is working 12-hour days to advance scientific understanding of how continents separate and oceans are formed. Peate embarked on the 9-week expedition funded by the International Ocean Discovery Program with 125 other scientists and crew members from around the world, he explained in an interview with Iowa Now.

In the interview, Peate explained that when continents drift apart, the uppermost layer of the Earth’s crust is stretched so much that parts of a deeper layer called the mantle can ooze up into the crust. Sometimes the mantle is so hot that it rises up as lava and forms continental boundaries like those seen in eastern Greenland and northern Europe, he explained. Other times, the mantle rises at cooler temperatures and no lava is formed. The expedition’s primary mission is to understand the difference between these two types of continental rifts.

The continental rift in the South China sea is “different than other well-studied rifted margins. For one, it is not covered by thick piles of lava flows, unlike most other examples of continental rifting, which spawned lava flows,” he said.

The researchers’ ship is equipped with a three mile long steel tube that drills into the ocean floor to collect cores. “That is equivalent to the distance between the Old Capitol and Iowa City West High School,” Peate explained to Iowa Now. Once pulled up, cores are separated into five-foot lengths and prepared for geologists to study. Peate is mostly interested in volcanic rock. Some of the cores will return to Iowa with him. He said, “I will collaborate with other international scientists from the expedition to make detailed chemical investigations of all the volcanic rocks that we find.” Peate continued, “Combining results from the different drilled sites will allow us to build a picture of how the volcanic activity changed through time as the rifting event happened.”

Peate’s other areas of research include the formation and transport of magma in Iceland and the driving forces behind large magma eruptions. His compete interview with Iowa Now can be found here.

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