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Climatologists brave bergs for core data

June 7, 2004 By Jim Giles This article courtesy of Nature News.

Icebreakers to protect drillers in Arctic Ocean.

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A converted icebreaking ship of the former Soviet Union is to head an ocean convoy that will take 200 climate scientists and support staff on a unique mission this summer.

The Sovetskiy Soyuz will sail north from Tromso, Norway, on 8 August, clearing a path through the Arctic ice for a team of researchers who want to extract a core from the ocean floor. No one has been able to dodge icebergs and drill into the Arctic floor before, but if the team succeed they will generate data to predict future climate change.

Once in position, around 250 kilometres from the North Pole, the Soyuz will protect the convoy's drilling ship: the Vidar Viking. Researchers on the Vikingwill try to extract samples from as deep as 1,500 metres below the sea floor, despite the fact that the ship cannot move more than 50 metres sideways without damaging its drilling equipment.

The crew is aware of the dangers of ice in the Arctic. "The ship can’t take hits from icebergs and remain in position," says operations manager Alister Skinner of the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.

To help protect Soyuz, helicopters will circle the area and track ice floes. If visibility is poor, beacons will be placed on nearby ice sheets and tracked by satellites. Captains on board the Soyuz and another smaller icebreaker, the Oden, will use signals from the helicopters and satellites to intercept and break up incoming ice.

The team, which will target the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,500-kilometre chain of mountains that rises 3 kilometres above the sea floor, will have to work fast. "We have just 35 days to get out there, drill and get back," says Skinner. Dally any longer, he says, and the convoy risks being caught in the Arctic winter.

If they succeed, the researchers will gain a missing piece of the global climate record. As sediment falls through the ocean and collects on the sea floor, it takes with it a record of the temperature and atmospheric conditions at the time it fell. By analysing the sediment, climate experts can reconstruct those conditions, but they need a core drilled from the Arctic to add to those from other oceans.

Such data will be valuable, as conditions in the Arctic influence climate patterns around the world. Arctic ice helps to cools the Earth, for example, by reflecting sunlight back into space. "It's very difficult to model climate change without records of sea ice," says Jan Backman of Stockholm University in Sweden, the mission's joint chief scientist

The US$10-million project, which is funded by 15 European countries, is the first of a slew of new ocean-drilling projects organized by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, an international effort launched last October.

The programme's flagship is the Chikyu, a US$500-million Japanese vessel designed to set new drilling records by reaching 7 kilometres below the sea floor. The ship's first mission is scheduled for October 2006.

References

  1. Dalton, R. & Cyranoski, D. et al. Nature, 426, 492 - 494 (2003)

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