Page last updated at 14:56 GMT, Thursday, 28 May 2009 15:56 UK

Quake zone diary

Nankai Trough map

A pioneering project off the coast of Japan aims to go further into an earthquake zone than ever before.

BBC environment correspondent Richard Black is the first journalist to visit the research ship Chikyu while it is drilling for rock cores from the quake-generating Nankai Trough to explore what causes tremors.

Lady's day sign
There are a few small victories for the three women on the ship

The Chikyu might be here to research earthquakes, but other hazards of nature have been conspiring to keep her from her task.

All day long we have been experiencing something highly unusual for this most stable of craft; it's felt like being on a ship.

The winds and seas are buffeting us continuously now, with waves getting up to a 10m swell at times; and the view from the bridge is a roiling, twisting moraine of spume-flecked rollers.

With drilling out of the question and all the equipment battened down or buttoned up, many of the crew have been limited to the odd bit of maintenance. And a few have turned green.

Passing the open jacuzzi door - yes, there is a jacuzzi on board, although I believe some of the British blokes have a way of creating their own - I saw a sign proclaiming "Lady's day", which got me thinking about what it's like to be one of just three women currently on board among a crew of 150-odd men.

So I asked Yoko Isoda, who's attached to the technical team in the science laboratory. She said it was fine - it didn't seem strange at all.

Then she told me that her line of work is science publishing, and it made sense. While the gender balance among scientists in some western countries is changing, in Japan it's overwhelmingly a male profession - so if you want to work in science publishing, I guess you have to get used to it.

Sayaka Kawamura, one of the lab technicians here, also said she didn't find anything strange in the highly-skewed gender balance. There may be few women here, she said - but that can encourage a closer bond between those who are here.

The third woman on board is the longest serving, and probably the longest suffering - the nurse, Eriko Aoki.

Shinto shrine onboard
All the comforts of home: a Shinto shrine on the ship's bridge

She's been busy keeping us all from catching swine flu - I have been sterilising my hands every couple of hours, honest - and she's clearly been successful, as none of us has yet succumbed.

Nurse Aoki said she likes the job on ship because basically people here are healthy, which I guess makes sense - having had to go through a medical check of virtually astronaut standard to get on board, there aren't going to be too many chronic cases floating around (although some of my Manchester United friends appear to be developing a bit of depression - can't think why).

Later in the year, the Chikyu will acquire a female science chief, Lisa McNeill of the UK's Southampton University, which I guess evens things out a bit.

What has perked people up - at least, those not throwing up - is the fresh supply of chocolate biscuits that apparently materialised on the supply boat's last visit.

The Chikyu mission is so big that it needs two other craft to keep it fit and running - one bringing fresh stocks of this and that every few days and another on security detail, circling the drilling ship to drive away curious visitors.

The last visit brought some impressively large new bits of steel that were craned across on straining cables. But I bet the biscuits did more to breathe new life into any tired legs.

Paul Thornton
Paul Thornton has worked his way up to the comfort of a drilling chair...

I've reported on lots of cutting-edge science projects before, but I don't ever remember feeling such tension as has seized the crew of the Chikyu as a key moment approaches.

All day, the air has been crackling with tension. Palms have been sweaty, pulses have been raised, and an extra furrow has materialised on the brows of many.

Engineers, safety officers, deck crew: all are feeling the strain. If the next 12 hours don't deliver what they're looking for, many of them will feel despair as deep as the ocean beneath our solid decks.

Personally, I'm not hopeful for them. Barcelona are simply bound to win the European Champions League final; they have too much class for Manchester United, and that's that.

To be fair, the footie obsession mainly concerns the British end of the crew - or some of the Brits, anyway, as there are others, even from Scotland, who profess no interest whatsoever in "fitba" - but that's a surprisingly large contingent.

At least, it was surprising until I realised the scale of the connection between work here and in the North Sea oil and gas fields.

The ship basically has three expert teams working in parallel; scientists, drillers, and seafarers. Unusually for a sea-going vessel, the last category is the least visible - largely because the ship's main mode is stationary.

Project will extract rock cores from the Nankai Trough, an area that has regularly generated major earthquakes and tsunamis
Scientists will be able to analyse the seismogenic, or earthquake-producing, region, where one of the Earth's tectonic plates slides under another, in unprecedented detail
They hope to learn what triggers earthquakes here and in other areas that are geologically similar, including the Sumatran fault that caused the devastating 2004 tsunami - potentially leading to ways of predicting them

The drillers have done serious time on the oil platforms, some working their way up from roustabout to roughneck through derrickman and all the other ranks until eventually they get to sit in the comfy, hi-tech chair and drive expensive drilling equipment all day by moving joysticks.

I've been intrigued by the origins of some of these job descriptions, and where they come from.

Most, if not all, are apparently of US derivation - hardly surprising, given that states such as Texas bequeathed the oil industry to the world.

But so much has the industry changed since the Rockefeller era that derrickmen no longer work primarily in the derrick, tool pushers no longer wield actual tools, and human roughnecks have been joined by machines of the same name that have taken over some of the ancestral duties.

For scientists, it's an intriguing cultural mix and - I guess - an object lesson in the power of jargon.

Come at a rig veteran with a mouthful of megasplay faults, forearc basins and accretionary prisms, and they're going to spit right back with a ram preventer, a riser string and a hydro-racker.

Master both sets, and you're a real winner - or should that be, with apologies to all Catalans, a Real winner?

Chikyu crew
... while Wayne Broughton (right) leads a roughneck team on the drilling floor


Rescue-bots: Richard Black takes a look at Professor Shigeo Hirose's latest robotic creations

This ship, and this research project, would not exist were it not for the strong relationship that Japanese society has with earthquakes.

Go into a hotel almost anywhere in the world, and there's a notice telling you what to do if there's a fire. Japanese hotels have them too - alongside one telling you what to do if there's an earthquake.

A popular factoid has it that the country experiences a thousand quakes per year. And it's a factoid that checks out, according to the NanTroSEIZE chief scientists, if you count only events that are "feelable".

If earthquakes are big in Japan, so are robots.

The nation spends more than any other per head of population on robotics research; in Tokyo, immediately before heading out to the Chikyu, I had the chance to see how Professor Shigeo Hirose is bringing the power of robotics to bear on earthquakes.

His laboratory at Tokyo Institute of Technology is an extraordinary place - rammed with robots from corner to corner, some functional, some awaiting repair, some out-moded by newer versions, others cannibalised and surely destined for a long decline toward an electronic grave.

Many an adult with a child's heart would believe the professor has the ideal job: think up a new robot, and make it - how cool is that?

We looked at three of his creations, including one designed to help rescue people in the aftermath of an earthquake or other disaster; we could have filmed 20 and I don't think you would have been bored looking at them.

Drill deck picture
The drill shaft stands straight as the ship hardly moves

Back on the Chikyu, meanwhile, conditions are apparently due for a change.

Out here on the Pacific, we might be sitting above a major earthquake-producing zone, but until now there has been no rocking and rolling on the Chikyu. It's an incredibly stable ship, so much so that you almost forget you are at sea at all, let alone working to understand natural phenomena that can make the land roll like the sea.

In the area where I sit now, a workspace for scientists and technicians, people leave laptop computers and cups and other fragile things on their desks in a way that would make for multiple expensive breakages on any ordinary ship.

Down on the drilling deck, you can check out the pitch and roll by following the angle between the deck and the drill shaft that goes through it.

You do not need a protractor to tell that 90 degrees is what it is, and 90 degrees is what it stays.

The latest weather forecast, however, says the balmy airs of Monday are being chased away by a darker mood; the end of the week may see us in higher seas than are good for drilling.

Such are the perils of doing real science away from the safety of a land-bound laboratory or a computer model.


The Pacific Ocean is at its shining, most inviting best as we take off from the heliport of Miname-Ise on the eastern coast of Japan, a few hours train-ride south from Tokyo.

The Chikyu
The Chikyu is the world's most advanced research drilling ship

The rotors whip the languid morning air with what seems like unnecessary violence, but the morning appears to survive.

A 40-minute sun-lit journey later, we touch down gently on the helideck of the Chikyu - the most advanced research drilling ship in the world, owned by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (Jamstec) and testimony to the importance that earthquakes are accorded in this seismically vulnerable country.

The Chikyu is nothing if not a safety-conscious operation, and 15 minutes later, producer Jonny Hallam and I are being briefed on the various hazards of working in an environment that combines seafaring vessel, drilling rig, scientific laboratory and home.

Some of the dos and don'ts are pretty straightforward - don't smoke in bed, do find out where the lifeboats are - but as safety chief Dave Taylor enumerates the fingers he has seen lost on various drilling rigs down the years, the special perils of working here become a little starker to the senses.

Robot wedding

Later, Dave takes us on a tour of the Chikyu, which is an unusual-looking ship even on the outside.

The deck is dominated by the drilling derrick which soars above the midships, and from which the drilling pipe extends down to the sea floor more than a mile below.

The bridge of the Chikyu
The ship's bridge is a vast expanse of instruments... and a plant

From the derrick hang cables and bits of machinery whose functions are still something of a mystery, and which move according to unfathomable laws.

Other giant pieces of yellow steel tend the centrepiece like bridesmaids at a robot wedding, offering a bit of pipe here, unthreading a joint there, providing water when required, and stashing away finished lengths with a precision that would bring envy to the mien of a desk-proud secretary.

This is the focus of Chikyu's operations: drilling into the sea floor in geologically interesting areas, removing cores for analysis, and, in a later phase, lowering instruments deeper into the Earth's crust than has ever been done before.

The purpose is as evident in the research labs, where tabletops are covered with seismic scans of the ocean floor and textbooks line the walls, as it is on the drilling floor.

But away from the specialised bits of the ship, ordinary life pertains.

Dave may be concerned about our safety, but he and Steve Krukowski, the Offshore Installation Manager who is in overall charge of the ship during periods of drilling, are equally concerned about whether we can sort out a video feed of the European Champion's League final this Wednesday.

We might be able to, but I would hate to see either of them suffering as Barcelona head for an inevitable win.

I suspect I will pay for that all week.

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