As Earth’s climate warms, the rising sea level from melting polar ice is a major concern. But ice sheet behavior is not well understood, making it hard to predict the impacts of climate change.

An international research team is drilling deep into the sediment beneath the Antarctic ice sheet seeking clues to past and future climate change. The Antarctic Geological Drilling Program, known as ANDRILL, bores back in time by retrieving sediment and rock cores that provide a geological archive of past climate. This historical evidence is helping scientists better understand the effects of global warming on glaciers and sea levels.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is home to the ANDRILL Scientific Management Office, which plays a pivotal role in the project. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the Scientific Management Office at UNL coordinates all scientific, educational and outreach activities, and manages team deployments to Antarctica. A multinational collaboration, ANDRILL involves more than 200 scientists, students and educators from Brazil, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

ANDRILL has drilled into the sea floor to record-breaking depths below Antarctica’s ice shelves, bringing up sediment core samples dating back 20 million years. These samples contain vital information about ice sheet expansions and contractions over time in relation to ancient climates that scientists analyze to better predict likely outcomes of today’s climate change.

For example, evidence from the first drilling project in 2006 below the McMurdo Ice Shelf indicated that even a slight rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, one of the gases driving global warming, risks substantial ice sheet melting and rising sea levels.

A second drilling project in southern McMurdo Sound revealed a surprisingly warm period nearly 16 million years ago. Evidence of algae and woody plant pollen in core samples suggesting that temperatures reached 50 degrees Fahrenheit provides clues about how Antarctica reacts to warmer conditions.

ANDRILL’s proposed Coulman High project poses a significant engineering challenge: to recover sediment cores from a stationary sea floor below a fast-moving ice shelf.  Its success will expand opportunities for future drilling sites, and core samples dating back 34 million years will provide valuable insights into a climatic period similar to what is projected for the coming century. Drilling is planned for 2015-2017 and preparatory research, surveys and testing have been under way since 2010.

In addition to the National Science Foundation, the New Zealand Foundation for Research, the Italian Antarctic Research Program, the German Science Foundation and the Alfred Wegener Institute support ANDRILL scientific studies.