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Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs, (815) 753-3635
Tom Simons, UNL Communications, (402) 472-8514
August 9, 2005
Editor: Download information for related graphics and photos can be found at the end of the news release.
DeKalb, Ill. — The National Science Foundation has awarded a $12.9 million Antarctic research grant to a consortium of five U.S. universities headed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. The grant supports an ambitious international effort to probe deeper than ever before into geological strata buried beneath the frozen sea to help scientists better understand contemporary global warming trends.
Dubbed ANDRILL, short for ANtarctic geological DRILLing, the project will be a focal point during International Polar Year (2007-09), a worldwide campaign of polar education and analyses.
Other members of the U.S. consortium making up the American half of the ANDRILL program are Florida State University in Tallahassee, Ohio State University in Columbus and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. The international half of the venture will include scientists from New Zealand, Italy and Germany.
The NSF grant, to be dispersed over five years, will be administered by the ANDRILL Science Management Office, headquartered at UNL. In all, ANDRILL is backed by more than $30 million in funding, including $9.7 million in previous and ongoing national agreements to support operations and nearly $8 million from the other countries to support scientific research.
In October and November of 2006 and 2007, ANDRILL scientists will use a powerful new drilling system partially owned by UNL and NIU to recover rock cores from the seabed in the McMurdo Sound area of the Ross Sea, using floating ice as a drilling platform. By studying the cores, scientists in Antarctica and around the world will be able to develop a detailed history of the Antarctic climate and the expansion and contraction of the area's ice sheets over the past 20 million years.
“Drilling for a sedimentary history of climate change adjacent to the Earth's largest ice sheet will reveal a lot about how the Antarctic region responded in the past, and may respond in the future, to climate perturbations like global warming,” said UNL micropaleontologist David Harwood, director of the ANDRILL Science Management Office. “A team of 100 international scientists will work to establish how fast, how frequent, and how large were the past changes in the Antarctic ice sheet. The past will reveal much about the future and Antarctica's role in the global climate machine, which affects all of us.”
“The Antarctic is like a global thermostat,” added NIU geologist Ross Powell, who serves as a co-chief scientist for ANDRILL and fellow U.S. co-leader with Harwood. “The region is showing it can be extremely sensitive to climate change with the massive ice sheet interacting with the world's atmosphere and oceans to help maintain the world's current temperature distribution. When global temperatures warm past critical thresholds, the ice sheet melts, accelerating the warming effect. When global temperatures cool, the ice sheet expands, accelerating the cooling effect.
“Drilling deeper than ever before into the Antarctic seabed, the core samples that we retrieve will provide a layered sedimentary record that scientists can read like a history book to infer past glacial and climatic changes, because the samples contain fossils and sediment left behind during repeated advances and retreats of the ice sheet,” Powell said. “While our focus is the past 20 million years, eventually we hope this program may be able to tap into a geological record of time as far back as 50 to 60 million years—when few, if any, glaciers existed and the planet had just experienced the age of dinosaurs.”
ANDRILL's Science Management Office opened at UNL in 2002, soon after the completion of its predecessor, the Cape Roberts Project (1995-2000), in the western Ross Sea region. Also in 2002, Harwood and Powell secured a $1 million Major Research Initiative grant from NSF to help build the drilling system. Nearing completion in Christchurch, New Zealand, the system will be tested this fall in New Zealand.
With the NSF grant in hand, scientists involved in ANDRILL are reviewing proposals made by scientists from across the United States. They will award sub-grants to some 40 scientists (20 in each of the two drilling seasons), half of whom will work in Antarctica on the ice and at McMurdo Station. The other half will work in their laboratories at their home institutions.
The program will proceed in three stages. Seismic surveys to determine the best drilling sites will be completed in October and November. In 2006, a team led by Powell and Tim Naish of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences in New Zealand, will drill from the McMurdo Ice Shelf south of Ross Island. In the second drilling season, a team led by Harwood and Fabio Florindo of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology will drill from a site west of Ross Island.
Scientists selected the McMurdo Sound region for the project because the area provides access to a full range of geologic activity—sedimentary deposits left by glaciers; igneous deposits created by extensive volcanic activity in the area, including the 12,450-foot Mount Erebus volcano on Ross Island; and tectonic shifts that elevated the nearby Transantarctic Mountains.
ANDRILL's drilling system, developed and operated by Antarctica New Zealand (the project operator for ANDRILL, and the major international partner), will enable the program to drill in much deeper water than earlier projects allowed. The drill is designed to punch through about 275 meters of ice, drop through 900 meters of water to the sea floor, and pull a continuous 1,000-meter-long sediment core at each drilling site.
The core samples will first be examined by scientists at McMurdo Station and then stored at Florida State University's Antarctic Research Facility in Tallahassee, where they will be available for the thorough, ongoing studies that will give scientists a much clearer picture of Antarctica's recent climate history.
In addition to its extensive science and operations aspects, ANDRILL also has a strong education and outreach component as six educators will work in Antarctica during each drilling season, learning how to incorporate the basic science of ANDRILL into their curricula and to share it with other teachers. Those 12 positions will also be determined in a competitive application procedure through the ANDRILL Science Management Office. The outreach will also extend to the general public through a planned television documentary produced in Antarctica and the United States by NET Nebraska, the Nebraska public television network.
But the core element of ANDRILL is scientific research and the knowledge it will produce.
“We don't have a good reference for the last 20 million years of time in Antarctica, and that's a time period that is critical to our understanding of how our Earth model works, but also to understanding what might happen in the future,” Harwood said. “Drilling in deeper water than we have in the past will provide a much more complete record.
“ANDRILL is trying to recover the climate history of Antarctica, and that's important because Antarctica is really the engine of our modern climate. If we can understand what has happened there in the past—know what the range of environmental change has been, what the magnitude and frequency of changes in the ice sheets have been—we can learn something about climate change, and that will help us understand the future.”
With an area of 5.4 million square miles (half again as large as the United States ), Antarctica is surrounded by a frozen ocean and is almost totally covered by ice that is more than 15,000 feet thick in places.
Nevertheless, the ice sheet is not ancient, geologically speaking. Antarctica's recent polar climate has existed for only 3 million years, and through most of its history, the continent has been ice-free, even when it was at the South Pole. Thus, the ice cap is not a permanent feature. But it accounts for some 90 percent of the world's freshwater, and if it were to melt, it would raise the level of the world's oceans by nearly 200 feet.
No one expects a catastrophe of that magnitude to happen in anything resembling the foreseeable future. Some climate models project a greenhouse warming of the Earth's atmosphere of roughly 10 degrees Fahrenheit in this century, however, and no one knows how the Antarctic ice sheet might respond. ANDRILL should provide some important answers.
“Abrupt climate changes, which in scientific terms would occur over decades or less, could provide significant problems for humanity, impacting such things as agriculture, air quality, energy usage, the spread of disease and the viability of coastal communities,” Powell added. “We are hoping we may recover sediments representing periods of time when such rapid changes have occurred in the past, and that's another reason why this research is so important. By looking at the Antarctic past, we're glimpsing the Earth's future.”
Downloadable photos and graphics:
Color GIF of ANDRILL logo.
Color JPEG of ANDRILL drill rig in New Zealand (photo credit: Antarctica New Zealand).
Color JPEG of schematic drawing of ANDRILL drilling system, compared to those used in previous Antarctic drilling programs. The ANDRILL program must address unique logistical and drilling requirements to achieve its scientific goals. New drilling tools have been developed (drill rig, coring tools and riser system) from proven drilling technology was was employed during the Cape Roberts Project (credit: ANDRILL International Science Proposal, 2003).
Color JPEG of map of Antarctica and McMurdo Sound showing the general location of McMurdo Sound in the western Ross Sea adjacent to the northwestern corner of the Ross Ice Shelf and the Transantarctic Mountains. The inset (B) shows the regional tectonic setting. (credit: ANDRILL International Science Proposal, 2003).
Color JPEG of the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf at the Ross Sea (image courtesy Josh Landis and the National Science Foundation).