We’re exploring a whole new universe right here on Earth. A world in white and black. A place with no defined civilization. No trees. No grass. No warmth. But, despite all that, a world that is full of life,” says Dr. David Handwerger, senior geophysicist for TerraTek, a Schlumberger company.
In late 2007, Handwerger took six weeks of personal-development leave to work as one of two logging scientists for ANDRILL – i.e. ANtarctic geological DRILLing – which is an international research project on the world’s most mysterious continent.
Handwerger likes to say that, at TerraTek, he studies very low-porosity rocks for their reservoir potential while, at ANDRILL, he studies very high-porosity “rocks” as proxies for geologic and climatic changes.
“ANDRILL is the latest incarnation of a large, multidecade scientific effort to core and log in and around the Antarctic to understand the evolution of the continent’s cryosphere,” Handwerger says. “Each effort builds on the last.”
Ice sheets and global warmingOne of the motivations for the project, beyond understanding the climatic, tectonic and paleoceanographic factors that led to the development of the Antarctic ice sheets, is to predict how the ice sheets will respond to anticipated climate changes, such as global warming.
“Antarctica is an enormous storehouse of frozen water,” says Handwerger. “If those ice sheets melted, sea levels would rise dramatically: about 70 meters, compared with about seven meters if Greenland melted. Also, the presence and extent of the ice sheets are major drivers of ocean and atmospheric circulation, which in turn drive climate.”
ANDRILL’s recent exploration phase funded two drilling seasons in the frozen south: In late 2006, scientists collected about 1,250 meters of core underneath the ice shelf to look at a high-resolution sediment record for the past five million years. In late 2007, when Handwerger participated, the project cored and logged 1,134 meters of the seafloor sediments underneath the multiyear ice sheet (six meters of ice on top of 400 meters of water).
This produced a high-resolution record covering mostly the middle Miocene (about 13 million to 20 million years ago), a time when many distal records (based on cores collected farther away from the continent) suggest that the Antarctic ice sheets reached their present size and achieved stability. “We suggest otherwise,” Handwerger says.
Temperate climate in Antarctica’s pastThe data indicate a temperate climate in Antarctica’s past, with forests and animals, including dinosaurs. “We think the massive ice sheet that is Antarctica today got its start 15 million to 20 million years ago, and we’re trying to answer questions about how stable it’s been since then.”
Handwerger developed an interest in all things Antarctic when he was a graduate student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “When I was working on my PhD, I used core-log integration to look at changes in ocean circulation and the effects on Antarctic ice-sheet development during the Neogene period, starting about 23 million years ago.
“I sailed on a couple of drilling expeditions in the Southern Ocean through the Ocean Drilling Program, or ODP, which, by the way, Schlumberger operates. I had even been to Antarctica once before—on the ODP drillship JOIDES Resolution for two months while I was working on my PhD. But I was never on, or within sight of, land. This time, I got to go to McMurdo Station, which is the largest U.S. base in Antarctica, and the drilling rig was on the ice about 20 miles offshore.”
Handwerger applied for a position with ANDRILL in 2004. Once he was accepted, he had to wait about three years for the Antarctic field season to arrive. “McMurdo Station is in darkness four months of the year, so only a skeleton crew remains during that time. When the summer field season arrives, the population of McMurdo Station increases by a factor of six to support all the science that takes place.”
In addition to ANDRILL scientists and staff, McMurdo Station plays host to hundreds of other scientists and support staff, there to conduct seismic studies or study penguins, birds or sea ice. The station is similar to a military installation, but for four months of the year, it’s completely isolated from the rest of the world. It is resupplied by cargo ships and planes, but nobody can sail or fly in for a large part of the year because the sea is frozen.
“It certainly makes you think about what it must have been like for the early explorers, who had nothing but the ship they sailed in on and a hut they built themselves,” says Handwerger. “I’ve stood in the hut that Robert Falcon Scott built in 1901 and watched a cargo plane landing a half mile away at McMurdo Station. Scott and his colleagues didn’t have the communication technology we have, didn’t have the infrastructure, and didn’t have much of anything. Yet they paved the way for what’s there now.”
After his time on the ice, Handwerger says he would go back for any reason at any time. He hopes to be selected to return for the next drilling program, currently scheduled for 2011, pending the receipt of new funding.
“I took advantage of Schlumberger’s development-leave policy to do this in 2007, and I hope, in three or four years, that the company will be generous enough to let me do it again. That’s what personal-development leave is for: The work I did for ANDRILL is related to the modeling we do at Schlumberger and helped me develop my skills. And, frankly, if you have the chance to go to Antarctica, you just don’t say no!”