PORTADOWN man Paul Thornton made maritime history last week when he was part of a team which set a new record for scientific deep-sea drilling, reaching almost five miles below the surface of the ocean.
The data the team uncovered will be used to study earthquakes such as the one in Japan last year - which triggered a deadly tsunami- and could potentially save thousands of lives.
Paul works for a Japanese government-owned company, Mantle Quest Japan, and is rig superintendent on the ship, the Chikyu, overseeing the daily drilling operations.
He said there was a lot of excitement onboard when the fault line which caused last year’s earthquake was reached. “The challenge is the water depth in this area which is around seven kilometres before we even get to the sea bed,” he said.
“Last week, we struck the fault line while drilling. We are now running back to the bottom again to install a monitoring system in the fault itself where it will be hooked up to the Japan national earthquake monitoring system.”
The previous record set for the deepest drilling was in the Mariana trench in 1978, when the depth reached was 23,130 ft, as opposed to last week’s depth of 25,400 feet.
Paul, who lives in Drumnacanvy Lodge but is originally from Kent, narrowly missed last year’s tsunami as he was on home leave at the time.
He said, “Our ship was docked awaiting loading supplies for an expedition when it was hit by the tsunami. The ship holds open days where the general public come and look over it, and on the day of the tsunami we had 60 children on board.
“The ship was picked up by the wave and spun around like a cork and thrown back into the port, causing a puncture on the hull of the ship and shearing off one the thrusters. The ship is just a little smaller in size than the QE2 so you can imagine the force of the wave.”
Paul’s colleagues and the visiting schoolchildren were stuck on board, but one quick-thinking seaman used Skype to contact Paul and he liaised with the families of some of the men. Luckily, no-one was injured and the schoolchildren were airlifted off after three days.
Added Paul, “The radiation cloud was also heading their way, so it was a complete nightmare as you can imagine. I travelled out there five days after the event. It was a very surreal experience on the plane as there were only four people flying that day - three of them checking radiation levels and me, wondering what I was doing going out there.
“The devastation was clear to see, but Tokyo itself was carrying on life as normal. It was only around the Sendai area where you could really see the damage that was caused.”
After the disaster, a few of his colleagues decided not to return to Japan, although, as Paul points out, “ironically the safest place to be when there is a tsunami is in the sea”.
Paul has worked his way up in his profession, starting off on the oil rigs as a 22-year-old, and gaining deep water drilling experience in west Africa.
The father-of-two boys, he is in his fourth year on the Chikyu, which has been tasked with drilling below the seabed into the earth’s mantle. For the first three years he and his team were installing an early warning detection system in and around the sea of Japan, with the aim being to give the Japanese the extra vital seconds needed in the case of earthquakes.
Having spent the past year investigating the fault line which caused the 2011 earthquake, the team will soon be starting to drill into the mantle itself, which will take around three years to complete and which will, says Paul, “help us understand our world in great detail”.
Paul, who works a schedule of 28 days on board and 28 days at home, thoroughly enjoys his job. He said, “The Japanese people are really fantastic to work with, and sushi is my favourite food so I am certainly working in the right country for that.
“There is no other ship doing what we do on this scale anywhere else in the world. I get immense job satisfaction knowing we are helping to potentially save lives.”
The only downside to the job is being away from wife Heather and sons Max (3) and Ben (15 months), but Paul makes the most of the month-long breaks at home to spend quality time with his family.