ANDRILL: Antarctic Climate Change Research in Education


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Penguins on ice. (Godfrey)

By David Harwood and Rita Thomas

Scientists from the international ANDRILL (ANtarctic geological DRILLing) Program study Earth’s climate history through their time machine—a 40-ton drilling rig mounted on sleds. They read the story of past climate change from rock drill cores collected using the time machine. During 2006 and 2007, teams of researchers, drillers, educators, students and support staff from Germany, Italy, New Zealand and the United States met in Antarctica to drill holes into the seafloor near McMurdo Station in the Ross Sea. They sought information about how the Antarctic ice sheet behaved during two previous periods of sustained global warmth, the early Pliocene and early to mid-Miocene (three to five million and 17 to 14 million years ago, respectively). With core recovery at record levels (98 percent of the penetrated rock strata), ANDRILL’s two new drill cores are the longest (>1,200 meters, 3,600 feet) and most complete geological records from Antarctica.

How much rock core did ANDRILL collect? Imagine a football field with ANDRILL’s long cylinder of rock core laid out along the left sideline. You run the length of that football field and dive the last two yards over the goal line. Now, consider running the length of all 12 football fields of the Big 12 Conference lined up end to end, each with core along the sideline. The two yards that you dove across at each end zone represents the small portion of the rock record that was not recovered. Your “run” was along the core collected during the first drilling season only; do it again (less one football field) for the length of the second drill core.

Our time travel began when the drill bit began cutting into sediment and rock layers more than 800 meters below the sea surface. ANDRILL scientists who studied these cores sought to understand how the Antarctic ice sheet responded to, and helped drive, changes in the global climate system. Using this information, geologists and climate modelers are better able to predict what will control the timing and size of future ice sheet changes in a warmer, high CO2 world.


How ANDRILL scientists are able read the rock record and interpret Earth history from cores was described in two previous issues of Prairie Fire (January 2008 and February 2008). In this article we have two goals: (1) to briefly review key scientific outcomes from our continuing studies and (2) to describe ANDRILL’s efforts to bring polar science and scientific climate change perspectives into classrooms and households. Our engaging educational activities stimulate students’ natural curiosity, fuel their attraction to the Antarctic frontier and empower them with knowledge to confidently discuss issues regarding past and future climate changes. The scientific process and outcomes of the ANDRILL Program will be featured in a new “Nova” program, “Secrets Beneath the Ice,” to premiere on PBS Dec. 28 at 8:00 p.m. central time.

ANDRILL’s McMurdo Ice Shelf Project (drilled in 2006) recovered a 1,284-meter-long core that revealed more than 40 cycles of ice sheet growth and retreat during the warm Pliocene Epoch (three to five million years ago). This provided the first direct evidence that the size of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was changing in pace with Earth’s orbital cycles. Results from ANDRILL’s coupled ocean-ice sheet computer models were complementary and successfully reproduced the pattern of glacial and climate variability evident in the drill core. This ability to “back-cast” and reproduce glacial and climate history in computer models represents substantial progress in the modeler’s ability to “forecast” and predict how ice sheets may respond in the future.

In 2007 the Southern McMurdo Sound Project recovered 1,138 meters of core that recorded a history of climate and ice sheet changes from the time period 20 to 14.5 million years ago, including the Mid-Miocene Climatic Optimum, the warmest period of the Late Cenozoic Era. Fossils indicate deposition in an environment similar to coastal area of Patagonia and southwestern New Zealand today, with summer air temperatures of 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit). In contrast to the frozen and “clean” coasts of Antarctica today, mid-Miocene coasts were influenced by large, “dirty,” sediment-laden rivers. During warmer and wetter conditions of the early and mid-Miocene, Antarctic ice sheets demonstrated subtle and nondramatic cycles of growth and retreat. Understanding how Antarctic ice may drive global climate variability requires a fundamental knowledge of ice sheet behavior during earlier periods when global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were similar to levels that might be reached by the end of this century.

Taking It to the Schools

ANDRILL was a large project during the fourth International Polar Year (2007–09,, a period of international focus toward progress in polar science every 50 years; nations coordinated and expanded their research efforts and worked to enhance public awareness of polar issues. ANDRILL’s Education and Public Outreach team developed materials and implemented programs to communicate the process of ANDRILL science and climate change research to the public and introduce it in schools and informal educational settings.

These materials provide a means to visit Antarctica, virtually, and to meet scientists, teachers, students and engineers associated with the ANDRILL Program and find out what motivated them to live in one of the harshest places on the planet for several months. You can join their journey through video journals and blogs that reveal the process of science. The “inserts” in this article highlight ANDRILL’s main education and outreach programs and indicate how to access these materials online.

Project Iceberg

Project Iceberg was ANDRILL’s prime web portal for education during drilling. From this site you can follow our international team of researchers in Antarctica and explore blogs, videos, photos and postcards from the field. Fourteen short videos (from 2006) and six longer videos (from 2007) exploring ANDRILL’s scientific activities and paleoclimate objectives were produced in Antarctica during drilling and posted for schools to monitor progress. These videos and accompanying descriptive booklets can be viewed and downloaded at

Antarctica’s Climate Secrets—Flexhibit

This program produced a package of related resources, including flexible exhibits to bring ANDRILL science content into classrooms and informal settings, where students become teachers through projects that teach about climate change. Students build and present Flexhibit materials and host a “guided science fair” of polar geology and climate change within the five broad themes: Antarctica Today, Antarctica’s Ice on the Move, Reading Antarctica’s Rock Cores, Tiny Clues to Antarctica’s past and Decoding Antarctica’s Climate History. Central to this program are engaging banners (three are presented herein), accompanying activities and podcasts (all generated in collaboration with the University of Nebraska State Museum). Banners are now available in English, Italian, German, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Russian (in preparation), and the “Antarctica’s Climate Secrets” hands-on activities book is available in English, Spanish and Italian. All of these materials can be downloaded from the Flexhibit link at The modules in the activities book include the following:

Antarctica Today: This module provides a sense of place, and highlights what it would be like to live and work on the southern continent. The subthemes in this module include Polar Opposites (contrasting features in the Arctic and Antarctic), Postcards from Antarctica, Antarctica in Maps and Animal insulation.

Antarctica’s Ice on the Move: This module helps students understand how different types of ice in Antarctica interact and respond to different environmental influences.

Reading Antarctica’s Rock Cores: Students build a model drilling rig, from which they drop a string connected to a magnet into the drilling pipe to pick up a “rock core”— a dowel with a picture of a real rock core. Pictures on the three successive cores represent glacial and marine environments that the kids discuss to interpret a geological and climate history, similar to what scientists do.

Tiny Clues to Antarctica’s Past: In this project, students learn how to read clues from fossil remains of microscopic organisms through several hands-on activities in two modules: Dead Diatoms Do Tell Tales and Evidence of Ice-free Seas. They learn that different diatoms indicate past environmental changes and that fossil diatoms help scientists date the rock cores.

Decoding Antarctica’s Climate History: This module involves several activities around the theme of climate change in the past and future. Through three inquiry-orientated activities—What If the Ice Shelves Melted?, Charting Temperature Changes and How Does Melting Ice Affect Sea Level?—students understand that a history of past changes interpreted from drill core records leads to a better understanding of future ice sheet behavior.

ARISE—ANDRILL Research Immersion for Science Educators

Fifteen educators travelled to Antarctica as part of the ARISE Program, which provided them with an inside view of ANDRILL, engaged them in authentic Antarctic geoscience and utilized their expertise in education to develop and implement innovative approaches to geoscience education and public outreach. While in Antarctica, they engaged in all aspects of the scientific process, took field trips to learn local geology and connected to the “outside world” via blogs, e-mail, websites, teleconferences and postcards. A record of their experiences and activities is available from the ARISE link at

“Nova”—“Secrets Beneath the Ice”

Premiering Dec. 28 at 8 p.m. central on PBS, a production of NET Television for “Nova,” “Secrets Beneath the Ice,” will feature the motivation, science and technology behind the ANDRILL Program. As “Nova” describes it, “‘Secrets Beneath the Ice’ explores whether Antarctica’s climate past can offer clues to what may happen [in the future]. “Nova” follows a state-of-the-art expedition that is drilling three-quarters of a mile into the Antarctic seafloor. The drill is recovering rock cores that reveal intimate details of climate and fauna from a time in the distant past when the Earth was just a few degrees warmer than it is today. As researchers grapple with the harshest conditions on the planet, they discover astonishing new clues about Ant­arctica’s past—clues that carry ominous implications for coastal cities around the globe.”

In addition to the complementary materials in the “Antarctica’s Climate Secrets”–Flexhibit program, NET Television developed other educational modules to accompany the “Nova” program that can be found at

Project Circle

An international group of educators and schools formed a collaborative online group to share ideas, cultures and learning activities while following ANDRILL’s on-ice activities in 2007. Students presented a Flexhibit for their local schools and communities, and their teachers shared ideas. Project Circle continues today in ANDRILL’s new initiative Climate Change Student Summits or C2S2. You can monitor the activities of U.S. and New Zealand scientists and engineers currently in Antarctica developing the next drilling program. Read their blogs and view photos from these and other Antarctic scientists at the link to Project Circle at

Climate Change Student Summits C2S2

This program emulates the global Climate Sum­mits, such as that held in Copenhagen, 2009, and provides a forum to educate, engage and empower youth in important discussions with students at other national and international locations. ANDRILL hosts workshops that introduce climate change and environmental literacy materials to teachers who then engage their students to develop related re­search projects. The projects are presented at a Climate Change Student Summit that is scheduled at four schools at different locations, where a joint video conference is convened. Students talk to each other, locally and globally, about climate change concerns, share observations of changes in their region and discuss approaches to mitigation. Students take responsibility at an early stage for the future of the planet. Learn more at the link for Climate Change Student Summit at

Understanding Climate Change Science

What is the debate about global warming? Who to listen to? Where to find reliable and accurate information? What to believe and not believe? Well, for starters, “belief” is not an element of the scientific process, which is grounded in factual information, observation and data collection, from which spring hypothesis-driven testing and ultimately a well-tested theory. The science of climate change stands apart from “beliefs,” it is supported by interpretations of observations and facts, and it is constrained by physical laws. Scientists challenge each other’s interpretations and argue about what the facts mean, an important part of the scientific process. A chief goal of the ANDRILL Progam’s integrated data and numerical modeling approach is to understand how Earth’s systems (atmosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and cryosphere [ice]) interact, so that rates of change and sensitivity of ice sheets to external and internal forces can be understood. Progress toward this goal involved repeated trials and revisions, and iterative testing and examining the model response. A second goal of ANDRILL is to enhance scientific and environmental literacy about climate and the polar regions, so that informed decisions can be implemented at the personal and policy level regarding climate change.

Eighty years ago the Great Plains saw the devastating impact of decades of cumulative disruption of heartland soils. A push for agricultural development, combined with misunderstanding about climate dynamics, promoted the slogan “rain will follow the plow.” Landscapes that developed over hundreds of thousands of years through prairie soil stabilization were abruptly scoured by violent winds, and fertile topsoil, this region’s national treasure, was lost. A decade of “dustbowl” conditions passed before stability returned to this region. A threshold in Earth’s natural cycles was crossed; the resultant tipping point led to considerable human hardship and economic loss. Perhaps at that time we did not have sufficient knowledge of our natural world to perceive and prevent that calamity. Today, however, we understand much more about natural processes, and can predict the consequences of changes that may have a lasting impact. You will hear 98 out of 100 climate scientists state that man’s continued production of carbon emissions poses a risk of disruptive climate change before the end of this century. Alarms are going off in some sectors, and many have awoken to realize that change is needed before we cross a future threshold or tipping point of climate change. We can’t afford to hit “snooze” and delay a response of efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the body of expert scientists that policy makers and the public should consult in seeking the scientific basis behind concerns of climate change (; The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment was presented in 2009 and development of the Fifth Assessment is now underway. ANDRILL’s new results regarding past variability in the size of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will prompt IPCC’s next assessment to include a greater component of glacier melt in projections of future rise of sea level, which to date have considered thermal expansion of the oceans as the primary cause.

Education and outreach programs like those developed by ANDRILL will help insert more science into climate change discussions, and hopefully foster a generational transformation in understanding of Earth processes and shifts in attitudes and actions toward responsible stewardship of our planet. It is important for students to engage and “own” this new knowledge, to expand their curiosity and discover accurate information and perspectives about the natural world. An ability to filter science from opinion, to look critically at information and assess its validity, are hallmark elements of a scientifically literate society. ANDRILL’s materials are intended to provide a vehicle for students to engage and begin this journey.

We acknowledge and applaud the dedicated efforts of many individuals associated with ANDRILL’s educational efforts who helped develop these materials, and also those actively using them in classrooms and home schools. ANDRILL research and education outreach programs are supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation and counterpart national programs of Germany, Italy and New Zealand. Similar educational programs involving ANDRILL science developed in our partner nations: in Italy with, which has an English version; in Germany with; and in New Zealand with virtual field trips from We encourage you to explore the materials available on the websites described in this article, discover “cold facts” about climate change and engage in productive discussions toward positive outcomes. If interested in learning more about ANDRILL, please also watch NOVA’s “Secrets Beneath the Ice,” premiering Dec. 28 at 8:00 p.m. central on your local PBS station.


Please visit for more information or contact the ANDRILL Science Management Office at UNL to schedule a public presentation about ANDRILL science or to obtain educational resources.


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