Cleaning up a sea of data

Header image: 1936 image of Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska. Image credit: NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; C&GS Season’s Report Karo 1936-88.

Borreggine, M., Myhre, S. E., Mislan, K. A. S., Deutsch, C., and Davis, C. V.: A database of paleoceanographic sediment cores from the North Pacific, 1951–2016, Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 9, 739-749,, 2017.

Scientists, historians, or both?

Paleoceanographers are like historians that study the ocean. But what sources can they use to learn about the past? Does the ocean keep records and documents for paleoceanographers to “read”? Lucky for us, it does! Sediment, which includes mud, sand, rocks, and anything else that settles to the sea floor, acts as an ancient log book of changes in the ocean and environment. You can read more about how scientists use sediment cores from lakes, which is similar to how the ocean cores are used, in a previous envirobites post, or check out this video from the International Ocean Discovery Program:

Scientists have been collecting sediment from the bottom of the ocean for almost seventy years. Although the many research expeditions that have collected sediment cores had a similar motivation – to study the past ocean – their cataloging techniques were rarely the same. That’s where Marisa Borreggine’s new research comes in.

A new database for North Pacific paleoceanography

Borreggine and her coauthors created a new database of sediment cores from the northern Pacific Ocean that can be used for paleoceanographic research. Instead of lab work, Borreggine did a lot of library work for her database. She had to translate small, hand-written notes from Japanese to English to find the names of cores and read through log books from the 1960’s just to find the depth at which one core was retrieved. In the process of her work, Borreggine found that “science isn’t just numbers and figures. Science is also the people that show up to do the work, and sometimes we are messy and don’t know the way our work will be used in the future, and we can’t prepare for that.” Her research attempts to clean up some of that “mess” in order to increase the utility of each record.

Borreggine’s database, which contains more than 2,000 cores, is accompanied by a paper that documents the history of research on sediment cores in this region, as well as analysis on areas of improvement for the paleoceanographic community. She and her coauthors found that these 2,000 sediment cores, in combination, allow for “basin-scale” analysis of past ocean conditions. In other words, scientists can make broad interpretations about the entire North Pacific using the new database, as opposed to only making interpretations about a small region near an individual coring site.

The history of sediment core research in the North Pacific. This figure is from Borreggine’s fact sheet.

This research is a great example of applying modern techniques (in this case, programming and database architecture) to improve upon previous research. If you are interested in learning more about marine sediments, check out the information here and here. The full sediment core database is publicly available here.


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Gabi Serrato Marks

Gabi is a PhD student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography. She got her B.A. in Earth and Oceanographic Science from Bowdoin College. She is based at MIT, where she works with David McGee on stalagmites from the Yucatan Peninsula. Her research focuses on paleoclimate and precipitation records. She in interested in science communication and public outreach, as well as issues of diversity and inclusion in STEM. Twitter: @gserratomarks.

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