Landmark Oman Drilling Project can help reverse climate change

Muscat - 

The first phase of the path-breaking Oman Drilling Project (ODP) involving more than 40 scientists from around the world finished at the end of March and the first 800m of core unearthed from Oman arrived in Japan on April 3 and was loaded onto the deep sea drilling vessel Chikyu .

Around 13 tonnes of core samples from four different sites from Oman will be sent to the Chikyu , a state-of-the-art research vessel off the coast of Japan, where geologists will analyse them in round-the-clock shifts. They hope to answer the question of how the rocks managed to capture so much CO2  over the course of 90mn years - and to see if there’s a way to speed up the process. Phase II of drilling in Oman is scheduled for autumn/winter 2017-18.

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Deep in the jagged red mountains in the wilayats of Samail and Ibra, geologists have drilled in search of the holy grail of reversing climate change - an efficient and cheap way to remove carbon dioxide from the air and oceans.

They have cored samples from one of the world’s only exposed sections of the Earth’s mantle to uncover how a spontaneous natural process millions of years ago transformed CO2  into limestone and marble.

As the world mobilises to confront climate change, researchers are testing ways to remove or recycle carbon already in the seas and sky. This can be done through innovative methods like through the rock, known as peridotite, which reacts naturally at surprisingly high rates with CO2 .

Researchers are also exploring if the process could be speeded a million times with simple drilling and injection methods.

One such action is under way in the Al Hajar Mountains, where a unique rock formation pulls carbon out of thin air.

Peter Kelemen, a 61 year old geochemist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has been exploring Oman's hills for nearly three decades. “You can walk down these beautiful canyons and basically descend 20km into the Earth's interior,” he said.

The sultanate boasts the largest exposed sections of the Earth's mantle, thrust up by plate tectonics millions of years ago. The mantle contains peridotite, a rock that reacts with the carbon in air and water to form marble and limestone. “Every single magnesium atom in these rocks has made friends with the carbon dioxide to form solid limestone, magnesium carbonate, plus quartz,” he said. “Rain and springs pull carbon from the exposed mantle to form stalactites and stalagmites in mountain caves. Natural pools develop surface scum of white carbonate. Scratch off this thin white film, Kelemen said, and it'll grow back in a day. “For a geologist this is supersonic.”

He and a team of 40 scientists have formed ODP in order to better understand how that process works and whether it could be used to scrub the Earth's carbon-laden atmosphere. The US$3.5mn project has support from across the globe, including NASA.

Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas driving climate change, which threatens severe weather and food insecurity worldwide, according to the United Nation's climate body.

Kelemen thinks a drilling operation could cycle carbon-rich water into the newly formed seabed on oceanic ridges far below the surface. Just like in Oman's mountains, the submerged rock would chemically absorb carbon from the water. The water could then be cycled back to the surface to absorb more CO2  from the atmosphere, in a sort of conveyor belt.

Such a project would require years more of testing, but Kelemen hopes the energy industry, with its offshore drilling expertise and deep pockets, will take interest.

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