Drilling into Antarctica’s past to see our future

Geoscientist from Kiel involved in international drilling project in Antarctica

Can meeting CO2 emission targets and thus limiting global warming prevent Antarctic ice from melting catastrophically? An international research team is preparing to drill into the sediment of the seabed deep beneath Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf to find out.

The research project called Sensitivity of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to 2 Degrees Celsius (SWAIS 2C) supported by USD$ 4.6 million in funds for field operations from New Zealand, the United States, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea, with several other nations planning to join. The International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP) awarded the project a USD$1.2 million grant, the first for an Antarctic drilling program. Researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven and Kiel University are leading the project, with Richard Levy (GNS Science and Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington) and Molly Patterson (Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York, USA) leading SWAIS 2C.

The research project will investigate the sensitivity of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to global warming of 2°C (SWAIS 2C) by retrieving geological archives in a bid to find out how the ice behaved during times in the past when temperatures were as warm as those expected in the coming decades. These geological records could reveal if there is a tipping point in our climate system when large amounts of land-based ice melts, causing oceans to rise many metres—if it has happened before, it could happen again. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet holds enough ice to raise sea level by about four metres.

The AWI will support this unique drilling project with a total of €150.000 and will also be closely involved in scientific analyses and interpretation. Scientists from five different AWI research sections will help unravel West Antarctica’s past secrets in order to better predict its yet uncertain future. “Being involved in the SWAIS 2C project is a unique opportunity for us to better constrain the sensitivity of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to potential threats we expect in the near future. It is therefore of utmost relevance for combining and complementing ongoing and planned AWI research objectives”, says Dr Johann P. Klages, a marine geologist at AWI and coordinator of its contribution.

Denise K. Kulhanek, Professor of Marine Micropalaeontology at Kiel University, is leading a proposal to support German scientific contributions to the SWAIS 2C project in collaboration with researchers from AWI. Her work will focus on the chemistry of sediments and microfossils. The goal is to understand what the environment of the drilling site looked like in the past. "Essentially, we want to find out if the drilling sites were ice-free at any point in the last few million years. This would indicate a significant reduction in the size of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet at that time," says Denise Kulhanek, who recently took up her professorship at the Institute of Geosciences at Kiel University. "Knowing the environmental conditions, such as ocean water temperature, that led to significant ice sheet melting during past warm intervals will help climate and ice sheet modellers improve predictions of future melting," Kulhanek says.

The University of Bremen as well as the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) and the Leibniz Institute for Applied Geophysics (LIAG) in Hanover will also be involved scientifically and logistically.

1200 kilometres across the Ross Ice Shelf, 1 kilometre down through ice, water, and sediment

Several field campaigns are planned in Antarctica over the next three years. Currently, SWAIS 2C preparation teams are en route from Scott Base for a 1200 km crossing of the Ross Ice Shelf to the Siple Coast. There the land ice meets the ocean and begins to float. Once the drill camp is established, a science team will join them and work on site until February.

Never before has drilling been done into the Antarctic seabed at a site so far from research stations, yet so close to the centre of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Engineers at the Victoria University of Wellington's Antarctic Research Centre have spent four years developing the world's first technology capable of using hot water to drill through ice some 800 metres thick before taking sediment samples from up to 200 metres below the seabed.

Why Antarctica matters

Sediments could help us understand how much Antarctic ice melted when the world’s climate was warmer. This knowledge will help scientists predict what might happen in the future if global temperatures continue on their current trajectory towards 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels. This is important to know because Antarctic ice melt raises sea levels around the globe. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is considered vulnerable to climate change because much of the ice, which rests on bedrock thousands of metres below the sea level, is exposed to the warming Southern Ocean. The international interest of the SWAIS 2C project highlights the recognition by multiple nations and science funding agencies, that understanding the fate of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to projected climate warming remains one of the largest uncertainties in predicting the global foot print of future sea level rise, while also demonstrating the potential of scientific advancement through international cooperative efforts.

Glacier in Antarctica
© Thomas Ronge

Glacier in Antarctica

Denise K. Kulhanek
© William Crawford, (JRSO)

Denise K. Kulhanek heads the Marine Micropaleontology group at the Institute of Geosciences at Kiel University.

About Kiel Marine Science

Kiel Marine Science (KMS), the Center for interdisciplinary marine science at Kiel University, is devoted to excellent and responsible ocean research at the interface between humans and the ocean. The researchers combine their expertise from various natural and social science disciplines to investigate the risks and opportunities that the sea provides for humans. The success of Kiel Marine Science is based on close interdisciplinary cooperation in research and teaching between researchers from seven faculties at Kiel University. Together with actors from outside the scientific community, they work globally and transdisciplinarily on solutions for sustainable use and protection of the ocean.

Scientific contact:

Prof Dr Denise Kulhanek
Institute of Geosciences
Kiel University
+49 (0)431/880-2924



Press contact:

Friederike Balzereit
Science Communication Kiel Marine Science (KMS), CAU