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Andrill project sets Antarctic drilling record - 20/12/2006

A New Zealand-led team of international scientists has reached a milestone in Antarctica by drilling to a record depth of 1050m into the seabed below the Ross Ice Shelf.

The $43 million Antarctic drilling (Andrill) project is now the most successful Antarctic drilling programme in terms of depth and rock core recovered. Andrill is on schedule to reach its target depth of 1200m by 25 December 2006.

Andrill project manager Jim Cowie said the operations team of 25 drillers, engineers, and support staff was delighted with the results so far.

The project aims to learn more about the effects global warming was likely to have on the Antarctic ice sheets in the next 100 years by finding out more about the ancient behaviour of the continent's ice sheets.

The drill site is on the Ross Ice Shelf, 12km southeast of Scott Base. Before the drill could reach the sea floor, it had to travel through 100m of ice and 900m of seawater.

Once the drill reached the seafloor, it was progressing about 40m a day, with the core material recovered and studied on a daily basis.

Andrill is the flagship project of Antarctica New Zealand, which is managing the on-ice operations on behalf of the partner nations - Germany, Italy, New Zealand, and the United States.

Antarctica New Zealand's chief executive Lou Sanson said Andrill was his organisation's flagship project.

" It's great to see such spectacular success after five years of preparation and planning."

Much of the technical success of the project could be attributed to Victoria University Antarctic drilling specialist Alex Pyne, who had overseen the design and building of the drilling system.

Pyne acknowledged that much of the success of Andrill was due to lessons learned from previous Antarctic drilling projects, as well as a dedicated team with a wide range of expertise and experience.

Pyne was the technical specialist at the Cape Roberts Project in Antarctica, which in the 1990s drilled to a depth of 939m below the sea bed.

"The key to scientific drilling is delivering high-quality core to scientists, and we have consistently had better than 98 percent core recovery," Pyne said.

" This is a very satisfying milestone for the drilling team, who take a lot of pride in their work. But our eyes are still firmly focused on the target depth of 1200m."

Andrill co-chief scientist Tim Naish, of GNS Science, said the drill cores had already shown some interesting history of the Ross Ice Shelf.

"They reveal that the ice sheet has advanced and retreated more than 50 times during the past five million years. Some of the disappearances of the ice shelf were probably during past eras when the planet was a few degrees warmer than it is today - much like it will be in the next 50 to 100 years."

Dr Naish said the research was critical to our understanding of the role of Antarctica in the global ocean and climate system as the continent drives ocean circulation around the globe, which in-turn delivers heat and changing sea levels around the planet.

More information about Andrill can be found at www.andrill.org