Sunday, November 25, 2007

Visiting the ANDRILL project

After Antarctic Field Training (AFT) was completed I moved onto familiarizing myself with Scott Base and some of the projects being undertaken in the vicinity. One such project is known as ANDRILL (ANtarctic geological DRILLing).

ANDRILL is a multinational project to improve understanding of Antarctica's role in Cenozoic (65 million years ago to present) global change, through stratigraphic drilling of marginal sedimentary basins. The chief objective is to drill back in time to recover a history of paleoenvironmental changes that will guide our understanding of how fast, how large, and how frequent were glacial and interglacial changes in the Antarctica region. Future scenarios of global warming require guidance and constraint from past history that will reveal potential timing frequency and site of future changes. New Zealand, USA, Germany and Italy, are involved in the planning of ANDRILL. Visit the ANDRILL website at

The ANDRILL drilling platform is situated on the sea-ice about 50km away from Scott Base. To get there I joint a team of Antarctica New Zealand Board members onboard a Piston Bully tracked vehicle, similar to the ones they use on ski resorts to grade the trails.

We departed Scott Base early in the morning and began the slow journey out across the sea-ice. The Piston Bully, while extremely versatile and reliable in the polar conditions, does not exactly race along. With a top speed of about 25km per hour and with no suspension to speak of, the journey could be described at best as a bumpy slow amble across the sea ice.

To make up for the lack of comfort inside the vehicle, the views outside were spectacular. As we ventured across the sea-ice and away from Scott Base the Mt Erebus massif came into view with its smoking crater and crevasse-ridden slopes. Towards the continent lay the Royal Society Mountains, Mt Discovery and the Dry Valleys. After snapping my way through half of my digital camera’s memory card I noticed a tall white tent off in the distance. On closer inspection this I noticed a number of smaller colored tents scatted around comprising what looked like a Bedouin nomad camp in the middle of a white sand desert.

An hour later the Piston Bully rolled into the ANDRILL camp. The tall white tent, seen from a distance, turned out to be the drilling platform and the smaller colored tents, the camp for the project team comprising of ~30 people. We were greeted and invited into the camp and given pikelets with cream and jam. ‘Who said life is hard down in Antarctica?’

We then toured the camp setup and the drilling platform. Amazingly, the drilling platform resides on only 8m of sea-ice (it was designed to sit on only 2m) and is stabilized by massive airbags under the ice to stop it collapsing into the water below. The drill travels through the 8m sea ice and then through ~300 of seawater before reaching the ocean floor. This is where the drilling begins, but it’s not as simple as that, the team has to deal with the constantly moving sea-ice and daily tide fluctuations of up to 1.5m up or down. All of this adds up to a continuously moving platform on ice, which is also susceptible to melting and cracking.

Upon our arrival the ANDRILL team were celebrating reaching their target depth of 1100m into the seabed and had begun extracting a good quality core. The technology being utilized in the project was a combination of conventional oil/gas equipment, tools used in geological core extraction and hell of a lot of innovative and creative adaptation for the specialized and challenging conditions on the Antarctic sea-ice.

After a mind-boggling tour we returned to our Piston Bully and started the slow ride back to Scott Base. On our way back a small black dot came skittering across the ice in front of the vehicle. Much to our surprise, an Adelie penguin stood, not 20m away, in the middle of our track. We stopped the engine and climbed out of the cab. In abiding by the Antarctic Code of Conduct we walked to within 10m to observe the creature. For some strange reason the penguin promptly decided to ran directly towards me and came to a stop within an arms reach away from me. He stood there and pranced around, much to my delight, while I snapped some photos. After observing him for sometime we were called back to the vehicle to get on our way. But as I walked away my little penguin friend decided he wanted to follow me and as I climbed into the cab of the Piston Bully, he also came right up to cab entrance. As the engine flared up my little penguin friend dived away from the vehicle on his belly. But as we drove away I looked back and saw him sliding along on his belly after us until he just a dot on the horizon.

A visit to the ANDRILL Project

1 comment:

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