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Making Waves

After Commencement, many alumni often pursue interesting courses of study and careers.

For Michael Nole ’09, his path has led to drilling holes deep below the ocean’s surface off the coast of New Zealand.

While pursuing his Ph.D. in geosystems engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, Nole decided to hop aboard a research vessel sailing the southwestern Pacific Ocean to investigate potential causes of seismic activity in the region.

“It was a challenging but incredible experience,” he said.

The expedition was through the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), a marine research collaboration dedicated to advancing scientific understanding of the Earth through drilling, coring and monitoring the subseafloor. 

The research enabled by IODP samples and data improves scientific understanding of changing climate and ocean conditions, the origins of ancient life, risks posed by geohazards, and the structure and processes of Earth’s tectonic plates and uppermost mantle.

“I got involved with the program because the expedition’s goal was to try and characterize any linkages between submarine landslides off the coast of New Zealand and gas hydrate systems associated with these events,” said Nole. “I saw this as an opportunity to collaborate with researchers from around the globe across different disciplines of geology and engineering.”

As a geosystems engineer, Nole uses math and science to develop models of how different components of earth systems interact, which can be used to predict how the systems can change as a result of different processes, such as climate change.

His particular focus is on systems beneath the seafloor.

“Water can actually move around quite a bit beneath the seafloor, and the interaction between water and sub-ocean sediments can trigger or exacerbate submarine landslides and earthquakes” such as in Japan and Christchurch, New Zealand, he said.

Japan, which is situated in a volcanic zone on the Pacific Ring of Fire, experiences about 1,500 earthquakes every year with minor tremors occurring on a near daily basis. In 2011, an earthquake occurred in Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island, registering 6.3 on the Richter scale and causing widespread damage — it is considered the nation’s fifth-deadliest disaster.

Intrepid Inspirations 

Nole was drawn to this field after studying hydrogeology as part of his undergraduate studies in civil and environmental engineering at University of California, Berkley. He then achieved a master’s degree in petroleum and geosystems engineering before pursuing his doctorate.

“Developing numerical simulations to better understand fluid flow and geochemistry in ocean sediments appealed to me,” he said, “because it combines my penchant for coding with studying complex processes that happen all over the world.”

He is grateful for his AP Computer Science class at PDS, which “really gave me a leg up on the other students when learning different programming languages in college,” he said. Now, “I use computer programming and calculus every single day.”

He also credits PDS’s Global Studies Diploma program, which “prompted me to think globally and fostered a curiosity in me about the world, which I think has led me to what I do now.”

His interests led him aboard the research vessel JOIDES Resolution, one of the state-of-the-art scientific drilling ships used by IODP, featuring analytical equipment, software and databases that allow shipboard scientists to conduct research at seas as soon as cores are recovered.

The ship sailed from Australia to a spot east of New Zealand’s North Island from December 2017 to January 2018. The endeavor consisted of drilling five holes beneath the seafloor in an area of submarine landslide activity to sample the physical properties involved.

“We drilled in water depths that ranged between 700 and 3,000 meters, and the hole depths ranged from 250 to 1,400 meters,” said Nole. “In some holes, we brought up samples of sediments from beneath the seafloor, and in other holes we deployed remote sensors to detect different physical properties of these sediments without significantly disturbing them.”

“Used together,” he said, “these measurements can give us a picture of how sediments might respond to perturbations, like fluid flow and shaking due to earthquake activity.”

Nole was in charge of characterizing the physical properties of the sediments retrieved. Now back on dry land, he is running more sophisticated tests and in-depth analyses of the collected data and samples.

“There is a yearlong moratorium where only shipboard scientists can use the data that has been acquired from the expedition before it is made public, so this is where the most important research plans get started,” he said.

Next year he’ll travel back to New Zealand, where the scientists will update each other on their progress.

In the meantime, he plans to finish his doctorate in May and do some postdoctoral scholar work before applying for academic positions.

“I hope to work on better understanding the interactions between marine and arctic geologic systems and their environments through the use of numerical simulations and field data analysis,” he said.  

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