New ice core drilling project in Greenland – Niels Bohr Institute - University of Copenhagen

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13 May 2008

New ice core drilling project in Greenland

Greenland’s three-kilometre-thick ice cap houses a unique archive of historical climatic data, and a new ice core drilling project called NEEM is being launched this year to give scientists new insight into the climate changes of our time.

“The first party of five men which will establish the camp is just about to board the plane in Kangerlussuaq that will take them to the ice cap,” says Professor Dorthe Dahl-Jensen from the Centre for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen. She is leading the project, and will be based at the camp from the end of June until August.

One of the five men in the advance party is her husband, the ice core scientist Jørgen Peder Steffensen, while the others come from Iceland, the USA, France and Sweden – a typical group for this international project which has participants from thirteen countries in all.

Busy season
When the first five arrive at their destination, they will encounter a completely deserted ice wilderness. Several vehicles and some equipment from last year’s preliminary expedition are stored in strong tents, but otherwise the site is empty, ice-cold, and bleak. The advance party then has to establish a fully operational camp for up to 40 people. There will be a communal room with a kitchen, dining area, office facilities, laundry room, toilets, workshops, garages and, in particular, the cavernous trenches beneath the surface of the ice where the drilling hall and laboratories will be built.

“It’s really hard work being out in the field, and it will be an extremely busy season,” says Dorthe Dahl-Jensen. The first thing that needs to be done is to create a runway for the American (USA’s National Science Foundation) Hercules aircraft which will land on skis. Using a track vehicle, a level three-kilometre-long runway needs to be prepared, with thousands of marker flags along its length.

There will be a total of 23 flights during the summer, each flight transporting 10 tonnes of goods. More and more people will be coming out to the camp, and the aim this year is to drill the first 3-400 metres of the ice cores which will be removed from the ice cap.

Global warming of the past
The Danish research group has participated in deep bore drillings through the Greenland ice cap on three previous projects, DYE-3 (1979-1981), GRIP (1989-1992) and NorthGRIP (1996-2004). Every single annual layer in the ice tells us about the climate in the year in which the snow fell, and by analysing the ice core, scientists are able to obtain incredibly detailed information about the Earth’s climate 120,000 years ago – back through the entire last glacial period to the previous interglacial or Eemian period.

However, the new bore site, NEEM, has layers that date back even further, which is the sole reason for making another boring.

“The answers we are looking for with our new deep bore drilling are not about the climate during the Ice Age but the climate in the previous interglacial period, the Eemian period, more than 120,000 years ago,” explains Dorthe Dahl-Jensen. “Back then, the global climate was 2°C warmer than our present climate, and on Greenland it was 5°C warmer than now, so this period is extremely interesting for us to study given that we currently face global warming and the prospect of the climate becoming 2-4°C warmer in the course of the next century.”

It takes several years to drill right through the ice from top to bottom, and the NEEM project is expected to end in 2011.

Read the diary from Greenland >>
Centre for Ice and Climate >>