Going underground

Science fiction may often focus on new planets, but we don’t even know much about our own. The Deep Carbon Observatory aims to change one not-so-small piece of our ignorance. The multidisciplinary group of scientists wants to better understand what happens to carbon deep inside the earth, including carbon caught up in living things. That’s right: there is life outside the thin zone that we think of as habitable.

The project is organized into four sections: Deep Carbon Reservoirs and Fluxes, Deep Life, Deep Energy, and Extreme Physics and Chemistry. Even their titles seem science-fictional.

I’m a biologist, so Deep Life is my favorite. The first guiding question for that section: “What’s down there?” How many science fiction tales have “What’s out/down/in/under there” as their guiding question?

Even the chemistry and physics are complicated. We can’t do experiments easily or at all because the temperature and pressure are hard to duplicate: Extreme Physics and Chemistry indeed, at pressures of hundreds of tons per square inch and 2500F.

Reservoirs and Fluxes has to do with movement of carbon into and out of the earth. Volcanoes, anyone? And plate tectonics, with chunks of crust sliding into the mantle and taking carbon with them. The deep carbon cycle operates on a huge scale, and we don’t know much about it.

Deep Energy is just as poorly understood. Our major energy sources are carbon compounds: oil and coal are fossil biological carbon. But it’s also possible that life isn’t needed to produce hydrocarbons, that these compounds are also formed in the deep crust or mantle.

Want to learn more? Living on Earth just interviewed DCO Executive Director Robert Hazen.

Dr. Hazen doesn’t talk about science fiction at all. But what do you think? Doesn’t this just spawn all sorts of science fictional ideas?

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