Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

News Release

Tom Parisi, Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

September 25, 2002

NIU's Ross Powell to help lead
international Antarctic drilling project

DeKalb, Ill.--Northern Illinois University geologist Ross Powell will help lead a new multi-million-dollar, international drilling initiative in Antarctica, where scientists will study geologicalclimate records buried beneath the frozen sea in order to predict global warming trends in the future.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded more than $900,000 to NIU's Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to purchase a state-of-the-art drilling rig and customize it for use in Antarctica.

The project, dubbed ANDRILL, short for Antarctic Drilling, is projected to last for at least 10 years and to ultimately cost as much as $20 million. NIU, which is contributing $120,000 initially as part of a cost-share agreement, will collaborate with the University of Nebraska and scientists from four other countries: Germany, Italy, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Drilling could begin toward the end of 2004.

"The aim of the project is to recover records of environmental and climatic changes that have affected Antarctica in the past," said Powell, a resident of far west suburban Elburn. He is one of two principal American investigators on the ANDRILL project.

The scientists will drill deeper than ever before--more than half a mile into the Antarctic seabed--tapping into a geological record of time as far back as 40 million years, when dinosaurs still roamed the planet and few, if any, glaciers existed. Core samples taken from within the Antarctic seabed provide a layered record that scientists can read like a history book. The samples contain fossils and sediment left behind by the advance and retreat of the ice sheet, which is governed by climate shifts.

"In terms of the history of climate and the ice sheet, there are windows of time for which we don't have information," Powell said. "We believe these data sets are needed to give us a better handle on how the Earth's climate system works and what is likely to happen in the future. Through much of the recent history of the Earth, the Antarctic ice sheet has been the only ice sheet around. It is an important control on such things as sea level and oceanic circulation."

Powell said the project also will give scientists a more detailed picture of the past. "Instead of narrowing down climate or ice sheet changes to a period of a million years, we hope to be able to pinpoint the timeframe of significant changes to within several thousand years or shorter," he said.

The detailed record of the Antarctic ice sheet could give scientists a glimpse of future conditions on Earth. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected a rise in global temperature, mostly because of greenhouse warming, of between 1.4 degrees and 5.8 degrees by the end of this century.

"We hope to retrieve data that will help us understand how changes may occur in Antarctica during future global warming and also give us insight into what the world may be like as global warming continues," he said. "If the IPCC projections of warming trends are correct, the world's climate within the next few centuries will be at a point equivalent to conditions on Earth tens of millions of years ago, before Antarctica became cold enough to support the big ice sheets that are there today, and which have survived for over 35 million years."

Continued global warming would have major consequences on agriculture and energy usage. Additionally, the medical community is concerned about the spread of disease associated with tropical areas, Powell said.

"As the Earth warms and the ice sheet melts, sea levels rise as well," he added. "It's rising on the order of millimeters a year--that's well documented. If the trend continues at that rate or faster, eventually coastal cities from Venice (Italy) to New Orleans are going to have to do something to mitigate the rise."

The collaboration between NIU and the University of Nebraska reestablishes a link from the 1970s, when the head office of the Dry Valley Drilling Project (DVDP), the first drilling project to be conducted in Antarctica, was located in the NIU geology department.

The DVDP also was a large collaborative international effort. Powell worked on the project while he was a graduate student in his native New Zealand. Since that time he has continued his research in Antarctica, participating in at least 10 field seasons. He and NIU Professor Reed Scherer were part of a team of scientists who published their research on ice sheet dynamics last year in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature.

Powell said Scherer and possibly other NIU researchers would likely be involved in the ANDRILL project. Additionally, Powell typically involves students in his research. About a dozen students over the years have traveled with him on Antarctic expeditions.